Maimonides’ Laws of Honoring Parents and Loving God


Moshe Ben-Chaim



When studying Maimonides’ laws concerning honoring and fearing parents, many questions arise.
I will list the questions and then offer my explanations.


In Mamrim 6:1, Maimonides writes, “Honoring one’s father and mother is a ‘Great Positive Command’, as is fearing them.” In Yesodei HaTorah, 2:1, defining the law of fearing God, Maimonides simply writes, “This honored and feared God, it is a command to love and fear Him.” No mention of the term “positive” command, or of the term “great”. Why is the language of a “Great Positive Command” reserved exclusively for parents - absent in connection with the command of our fear of God?
In Hilchos Mamrim, we note that Maimonides classifies cursing, and honoring/fearing parents in separate chapters, as they are two distinct commands: Taking an independent stance on the derivation of cursing, Maimonides says cursing parents is learned from “Don’t curse the deaf”, and honoring, from the unanimously accepted “Honor thy father and thy mother”. The Scriptural obligation to honor refers specifically to “father” and “mother” by name. Not so the institution of cursing - the punishment alone specifies parents: “His father and mother did he curse, his blood is on him”, but the warning is generic, “Don’t curse the deaf”. (“Mother” and “father” are not specified, and are subsumed under “deaf”, referring to lower ranking Jews, i.e., not judges or princes.) This questions is strengthened by the following verse, (Lev. 22:27) “Judges you shall not curse and a prince among your people you shall not accurse.” If judges and princes are specified by name, what prevented the Torah from clearly warning against cursing one’s “father” and “mother”? (Also, What is so severe about cursing parents, that one is stoned for its violation?)

In Mamrim 5:4 and again in 5:8, it is highly interesting is that Maimonides includes the Talmudic phrase “Onesh shamanu, azhara minayin.” (“The punishment we learned, but from where is the warning?”) Maimonides could have simply written the final derivation, without including this Talmudic phraseology. But more startling is that this phrase is never used throughout his entire Mishneh Torah except in these two occurrences: Once regarding cursing parents, and the other...regarding smiting parents. I feel a priceless gem is waiting to be discovered here.

Laws concerning the cursing of one’s parents precede the laws of honoring them, the reverse of what one might intuit. Cursing is certainly a violation of honor, but the lack of honor does not qualify as cursing. So why does Maimonides codify laws of cursing before the category of honor - which can contain it? Maimonides gives purposeful sequence in his codifications. What is his reasoning?

Mamrim 6:2: Maimonides revisits cursing parents, stating that both the curser and the reviler are equally stoned. The reviler here is one who reviles God. This is proved in Hilchos Sanhedrin, 15:10, where all those stoned are 18 in number. There, Maimonides lists a Migadafe, one who reviles God. Revisiting the curser in the laws of honor seems out of place, as he already concluded the chapter on cursing. Why the reappearance? Furthermore, in that very same halacha, he includes the law that one’s fear and love of both parents must be equal. How are these two statements related, that Maimonides groups them in one halacha?

Mamrim 6:7: Maimonides describes the the extent of one’s required parental fear, “Even if one was wearing precious garments, sitting at the head in front of the congregation, and his father and mother came and tore his garments, hit him on the head, and spat in front of him; Do not shame them, but be silent, and fear and tremble from the King, King of all kings, that commanded you in this. Because if a flesh and blood king commanded on you a matter more painful than this, you would not be able to refuse the matter. Certainly (the command) of the One Who spoke and the world came into being as is His will.” Do we not have to perform all commands with such diligence and care? What is this emphasis, and the mention of “the One Who spoke and the world came into being”?

Maimonides records the Talmud’s words from Kiddushin 30b, “The Torah equated honoring (one’s) father and mother to honoring God.” Does the honor of parents “equated” to God’s honor refer to commonalities, or is some other meaning of “equated” required? The Talmud then says, “Three partners are involved in the creation of man; God, the father and the mother. When man honors his father and mother, God says, ‘I consider it as though I dwell between them, and he (the child) honors Me’.” For what purpose does the Talmud record this philosophy? Furthermore, if there is an equation, why do we find Maimonides subsuming the laws of cursing and honoring parents in his chapters on Hilchos Mamrim, Laws of Rebellion? If it is equated to the honor and fear of God, shouldn’t he have grouped these laws together with Yesodei HaTorah?

Following the Talmud’s license to introduce philosophy into this area, I wish to broaden our appreciation of these commands with one further question: We find the Ten Commandments are split into two sections: The first five deal with man’s relationship with God, the second deal with man’s relationship with his fellow man. The one problem is that “Honoring Parents” is included not in the second five, but in the first five dealing with our relationship with God. This appears out of place.

What aspect of Honoring Parents qualifies it for inclusion in the laws relating to God - not man, and what is the Talmud driving at with its philosophy in Kiddushin? The Talmud wishes man to trace back the cause of his very existence, and contemplate the greater objective of honoring parents. The Talmud feels such reflection is essential to fulfilling this command.


Man is not created today as was Adam, fully grown. Man enters the world as a dependent infant. He grows through various processes; losing and regaining his teeth, acne, becoming more full of hair, adolescence, and old age. Why? Is this just accidental? Of course not. This is part of God’s design. To cover each stage would be too lengthy. The one stage to which we should direct ourselves is childhood, and in particular, our dependency on parents.

A child learns from early on, the concept of “authority”. Parents are taller, stronger, more capable, they punish us, and they nurture us. They are the source of our good and evil. We turn to them for all our fears and desires. In short, God designed mankind in a manner where he must learn the concept of an ‘authority figure’. Had man not been born, but created as Adam, complete, tall, and independent, with all the knowledge needed to survive, he would have no need for parents, and he would forfeit the lesson of authority. But it is vital that this lesson be learned, as it is essential for the greatest objective: Love of God. It is only through our state as feeble and dependent infants, that the role of authority may be successfully permeated into our being. We require some semblance of authority to be expressed with relation to God. Without learning what authority is in our youth, we cannot approach our fear and love of God. Once we accept the Creator’s authority, we may then excel to a true appreciation of His majesty based on the knowledge we are fortunate enough to acquire during the rest of our lives.

The Rash writes that fear and honor of parents surpasses that of God, based on, “Honor God with your wealth”. Wealth determines our level of honoring God, while honoring parents is not limited by wealth. Regardless of monetary considerations, we must honor our parents. Perhaps based on our reasoning, we can understand the Rash. In order to arrive at honor of God, honoring parents is of vital importance. There is no exemption. Not even monetary considerations.

“The Torah equated honoring one’s father and mother to honoring God.” The equation is that fear and honor of God commences with our initial fear and honor of our parents. For this reason, in the Ten Commandments, the command to fear and honor parents is rightfully placed in the section dealing with our approach to God, not our fellow man. When the Talmud, cited by Maimonides, equated fear and honor of parents to that of God, the equation is not one of commonality. It is an equation of dependency. The fear of God depends on man’s inculcation of parental fear and honor.

The Talmud embedded philosophy into their halachic discourse on these laws to engender our deeper appreciation, and thus, performance. We learn that our very existence is due to God, and our parents. An appreciation of our very biological existence must be highlighted, and redirected to God, but this only commences with parental fear and honor. The Talmud discusses our creation - our existence - that which we treasure over all else. The Talmud’s philosophical discussion of three partners is truly halachic. Our goal in parental honor and fear aims at God’s honor and fear. It is not an ends in itself. The Talmud is underlining the significant element of the command to fear and honor parents: God is central to this command. The focus is the Creator. This now explains why Maimonides gives a lengthy description of the measure of our tolerance, even through great humiliation. Our goal is the recognition and love of the “One Who spoke and the world came into being”. It makes sense that in Mamrim, Maimonides records the phrase “The One Who spoke and the world came into being”, and he does so again in the primary command of love of God in Yesodei HaTorah. There too he records “The One Who spoke and the world came into being.” The connection is clear.

It now follows why honor and fear of parents is subsumed under Laws of Rebellion, and why cursing precedes honor and fear. Honor and fear of parents targets a goal far greater than human honor. Maimonides commences this section outlining the authority of the court system. This is the main heading under which honoring parents plays a role. The goal is a respect of Bes Din, the law, but ultimately, the love of God.

In hilchos Mamrim, why is cursing placed before honor? It is cursing - not honor - that forms the violation of authority. Secondary is honoring parents, as this merely supports the primary protection against rebellion. Why does Maimonides later revisit cursing in his laws pertaining to honor? Here, (Mamrim 6:2), cursing is not mentioned for its own sake. Cursing is mentioned only to equate the punishment of cursing, with one who is a Migadafe - one who reviles God. Maimonides places cursing here to display the severity of the lack of man’s honor for his father. Just as in the first halacha of the chapter on “Cursing”, Maimonides describes the obligation, and in the second halacha, the punishment, here too in the laws of “Honor and Fear” Maimonides follows this formulation: The first halacha describes the obligation, and in the second halacha Maimonides outlines - by association - the severity for lack of honor. He mentions cursing, even though he already concluded it in the previous chapter, to teach that honor/fear is a derivative of the broader category of cursing. The punishment of stoning for both a Migadafe and one who curses parents is identical, as the corruption is equal. This is placed in the laws of honor/fear to teach that the lack of honor/fear shares a corruption that is punishable with stoning. Once he equates the punishment of cursing to reviling, he further clarifies in that very halacha that this applies equally to both parents.

With this explanation, we can explain the generic warnings applied to both cursing and smiting parents - in contrast to judges and princes who are explicitly stated in the Scriptural prohibitions. Perhaps by the Torah specifying judges and princes, and not specifying father and mother, we are directed to the concept that rebellion against the system (judges and princes) maintains prominence over rebellion against parents. Cursing judges and princes appears in the Torah, but not cursing our father and mother. The parent is rightfully obscured by the proper focus on the authorities of the Torah system. Judges and princes are those most closely associated with the Torah’s principles and commandments. The Torah must never share the limelight - not even with our parents. This explains why Maimonides quotes the phraseology of “onesh shamanu, azhara minayun” in only two places in his entire Mishne Torah. Although the Talmud concluded the Torah’s source for cursing parents - “lo sikalale charashe” - nonetheless, Maimonides wishes to express that there is not explicit prohibition of “father” and “mother” by quoting the Talmudic “onesh shamanu, azhara minayun”. His reiteration of the entire Talmudic question and answer is central to our understanding that the primary prohibition of rebellion does not find its goal in parents, but in judges and princes - the central characters of our Torah system. (Talmud Sanhedrin 66a states regarding judges and princes, “gidulasam garma law-hem”, their elevated status causes their distinction.)

There is a balance to be struck regarding our relationship to our parents: We must fear and honor them, but not give them central importance. Thus, they are not specified in the Scriptural prohibition of cursing. Cursing is the primary institution protecting against rebellion, therefore, properly codified prior to laws of honor and fear.

How does one love God? As we stated, Maimonides does not refer to it as a “positive” or “great” command. Perhaps because a ‘command’ has a formulated ma-aseh, a precise, tailored act as its required performance. But this cannot apply to the love of God. Maimonides states, “And what is the path to His love and His fear?” Note that he says “path”. Meaning, a full process is required for the fulfillment of this command - not a discreet, technical act. Maimonides describes this “path” as two-staged; 1) Man must behold God’s wisdom, that “there is no measure nor end”, 2) Man must contrast himself to God, seeing what a lowly creation man is, standing before One of perfect knowledge.” Maimonides then quotes King David (Psalms 8:4-5), “When I see Your heavens, the works of Your fingers..., what is man that You should be mindful of him...?” Clearly, a formulation is seen, and derived from King David’s words: 1) Knowledge must be acquired, and 2) the self must be viewed as little. Perhaps King David’s two-part formulation echoes the two stages in man’s approach to loving God. There is the ultimate goal of appreciating God’s wisdom, “When I see Your heavens, the works of Your fingers”, and this, later in life, supplants the initial attachment to God based on a personal, authoritative view. The abandonment of this initial view is expressed by, “what is man that You should be mindful of him.” After seeing the marvels of the world and God’s endless wisdom, King David abandons his view of life where the self was a concern.

Love of God is impossible without much understanding, as he says at the end of that halacha, “I will explain these great categories from the acts of the Master of the world, in order that there be an opening to understand and love Hashem.” To “understand”, and only then, to “love Hashem”. The command is only fulfilled through a process of understanding, where one eventuates naturally at his love for God, and where the self loses prominence. This being so, Maimonides does not refer to the command as “great”, as he does with honoring parents. In connection with parents, since there are discreet acts targeting the greatest goal of the love of God, Maimonides uses the term “great”, as there is a singular act which is for its “great” purpose. But here, the actual love of God is the “result” of a lengthy process. No one action brings about the result, so there is no one act to label “great”. The ma-aseh cannot be great, when it is in fact, a culmination of a process that is man’s objective. There is no single “positive” act, and therefore, no label of “great”.

Maimonides teaches that one’s fear and honor of his rabbi must surpass that of his father, (and thus of his mother, as she too must honor the father). Maimonides quotes Chazal who state that fear of one’s rabbi must equate to the fear of God. Maimonides says further - each based on Scripture - that one who differs with his rabbi, argues on him, shouts at him, or places him under suspicion, is as one who did so with God. This does not apply to parents, as they only gave us physical life, whereas our rabbis gave us eternal life.