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The Gift of Family and the Hebrew Concept of Bayit- Perashath Va-eth`hanan. 

07/28/2020 03:00:25 PM


Yosef Lopez

This was originally written for the festival of Shavu'oth, but I am sharing it now as it is relevant to the restatement of the Decalogue in the Perasha of Va-eth`hanan. 

Once there was a Hakham named Djoha. One day his son approached him and asked him if he could start using the family car to get around. Djoha said to his son, “I will make a deal with you. If you bring your grades up, study a little more Tora, and get your hair cut, we’ll talk about it.”  After about a month, the son came back to his father and again asked if they could discuss the use of the car. Djoha said, “Son, I am really proud of you. You have brought your grades up, and you have studied Tora diligently, but you have yet to cut your hair!”  The young man waited a moment and replied, “You know Abba, I’ve been thinking about that, and Noah, and Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabbeinu, and Samson the Judge all had long hair.” To which Djoha replied, “Yes, and they walked everywhere they went!”

Let us explore the following from the Decalogue: “Honour your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that Adonai your God is assigning to you.” 

Let’s hear it in Lashon HaQodesh (Hebrew), as well in the Targum, the Aramaic translation


כַּבֵּ֥ד אֶת־אָבִ֖יךָ וְאֶת־אִמֶּ֑ךָ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יַאֲרִכ֣וּן יָמֶ֔יךָ עַ֚ל הָאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ (ס)

יַקַר יָת אָבוּךְ וְיָת אִמָךְ בְּדִיל דְיוֹרְכוּן יוֹמָיךְ עַל אַרְעָא דַיְיָ אֱלָהָךְ יָהֵב לָךְ:


It seems that the meaning of this statement is self-explanatory, that our parents are worthy and deserving of our respect and adoration because they are our parents.  But there is so much more that we can come to understand from this statement. 

First, let’s put this statement into context. We often refer to this as the fourth (or fifth depending on which set you are reading) commandment of the 10 commandments. This phrase, however, is a total misnomer. It would be better to call them the עשרת הדברים, Aseret HaDebharim, or the Ten Concepts, better known as the Decalogue. In Judeo-Spanish, they were called Las Tavlas de la Ley, or simply Las Tavlas, which translates as the Tablets of the Law. As I have learned from my teacher, Ribi Haim Ovadia and as taught to us by the Hakhamim Zikhronam leBherakha, the Sages of blessed memory,  “The revelation on Mount Sinai is the formative moment of the Nation of Israel and their acceptance of the Divine covenant. As such, we expect it to present much more than what seems to be a random collection of laws. The Ten Concepts, as a covenantal document, should present us with theology and a way of life and guide us on a path of spiritual growth, providing a sense of direction, purpose, and fulfillment.”  

It is for this reason that we should read these with this framework: As human beings, we are entitled to wonderful gifts, which have to do with our relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves. But we are not only granted gifts (or rights) we are also charged with responsibilities. Our gifts and responsibilities are enumerated in the decalogue, and when we observe and implement these laws we will complete a paradigm shift. Instead of directing our efforts at competing with others who have more, we will focus on realising our potential and counting our blessings, and we will use them for the benefit of all humanity.


So let’s understand honouring your parents as cherishing the gift of Family.

The Biblical Hebrew word for Family is Bayit, as can be learned from the beginning of the book of Exodus, (Ex 1:1)

וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃

“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household (family)”. Mishpaha usually refers to extended family (see Gn 12:3 or Amos 3:2 or see Hakham Jose Faur’s Horizontal Society, the Household of Israel for a more in-depth analysis). 

The concept of the family goes beyond mere biological imperative or necessity. Each creature in the Garden of Eden was able to reproduce. What was lacking for Adam in the Garden was a parallel complementary to them, someone who shared the ability to nurture intellectual and psychological development. That is what the Tora means by an Ezer Kenegdo (a helpmate against him)- an individual who is an equal and horizontal partner, to develop each other mentally, emotionally,  and thereby develop the soul. “Thus a man will leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”  To cleave refers to the uniquely human ability to link with a totally separate entity, and to develop and grow together. The establishment of this marital relationship (a covenant or berith) plants the seeds for Jacob to later develop the institution of Bayit or Family, the basis of which is the mother and father. The Bayit’s purpose is to take humanity from disparate creatures and upgrade human life to allow us to achieve individuation, to realise our potential of being created beSselem Elohim, in the image of God.

 It is because the Israelites came to Egypt, ish wuBeytho, already organised into families,  that we were able to realise that we were eventually enslaved by an institution that had perverted the concept of Bayit with its own Beth Avadim (house of Slavery). Our individuation that was developed by the institution of the family threatened Egyptian society. It follows then that the Pharoah sought to enslave us and thereby control us. It is for this reason the family was to be limited by the pharaoh’s decrees, and thus “The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, saying, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth stool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.’”  Much to their credit, the midwives feared God and disobeyed Pharoah, and do note that their reward was that God “established houses for them.” 

Every attempt of Pharoah’s subversion of the family had failed, so he figured that if he could not control it, then he would destroy it: “Then Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” Pharoh’s goal was to interrupt the chain of the legacy that the Benei Yisrael carried with them proudly. Not only the values of ssedeq wumishpat, righteousness and justice, but the revolutionary idea that all people are equal by the din of being created in the image of God.  The concept of the Image of God was destructive to the Egyptian society that based its existence on slavery. The unlimited potential, growth and agency that humanity is granted would crumble the pyramid scheme that was Pharoah’s divinity. Killing our children allowed the Egyptians to snuff out and suppress the image of God. The Egyptians had not only suppressed the image of God in us with the degradation of slavery, but they also suffered the same fate and were bound and enslaved to Pharaoh as well. Slavery was the natural condition of life in Egypt and indeed the rabbis teach that Pharoah himself was enslaved. It is for this reason that he could not free the Israelites and that his heart was hardened as his actions were dictated by the Bet Avadim. Perhaps this is why Pharoah translates to Big House. He was a slave of his own making, unable to break free. He became the chief victim of his perversion of bayit, and the land suffered the consequences along with him. However, we were spared from the same fate, as we put our trust in God. However we needed to put our trust into action, we needed to demonstrate to ourselves that our Bayit was not destroyed and that it was in the bayit that we would find our salvation.  We can now understand God’s command to offer the Pesah sacrifice as a “single Household” and why the Targum translates bayit here as a Habura-that is to say that the Israelite family is an “association of individuals engaged in common pursuit and responsibilities” We merited to leave Egypt because of this Gift of family. 


 It is only fitting then that we accord the proper honor to this gift and cherish it, and recognise the pillars of this institution: the Parents. 

King Solomon says aptly in the book of proverbs

נְצֹ֣ר בְּ֭נִי מִצְוַ֣ת אָבִ֑יךָ וְאַל־תִּ֝טֹּ֗שׁ תּוֹרַ֥ת אִמֶּֽךָ׃

“My son, keep your father’s commandment; Do not forsake your mother’s teaching”. It is the mother and father that pass on our national memory, our laws and our customs. Included in this are our teachers, who can act as surrogate parents, and will shape the student when no one else will. This is Mishpaha, the extended family we all share. Today on Shavu’oth, we reenact our acceptance of the Berit or covenant. Let us renew our commitment to our families, our bayit. Inside our house, and outside our house. Let us renew our appreciation for the inheritance we have received.  The weight of our national identity rests on the shoulders of the mothers and fathers who offer their entire being to the children whom they love with their entire being. The weight of the Tablets of the Law on which our covenant was engraved was light to Moshe Rabbeinu because of the strength of our commitment to each other and the Law.  Now that is the collective national strength to hold such a weight. That is what we call in Hebrew kavod, which comes from the word “kaved”. It is gravitas, and worthy of our awe.. It is our strength that makes us who we are. It is what sustains who we are, and it is what will increase our days into the future.

. כַּבֵּ֥ד אֶת־אָבִ֖יךָ וְאֶת־אִמֶּ֑ךָ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יַאֲרִכ֣וּן יָמֶ֔יךָ עַ֚ל הָאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ (ס)

Honour your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the LORD your God is assigning to you.




These notes are copied from All translations of original texts are crowd-sourced.  

Ibn Ezra

The word "longevity" refers to the result...for your mitzva you will prolong your days. The words "on the ground" refer to something else. Because when Israel preserves this mitzvah it will not be exiled. And it is written, "Father and mother have made it easier for you". And here, with respect to a father, they will not do the opposite of cursing or mitigating. And he had to kill the blasphemer. That the listeners will hear the curse from his mouth. And he does not have to. For the curse can also be done in secret, so the Lord commanded that there be a cursed word for all the Scriptures which are in secret



Honour your father. Included within this is the obligation to honour Hashem, one’s true Father, and according to the Sages (Kesubos 103a), one’s older brother. It also includes honouring Torah scholars, who are like fathers to their disciples, heeding the prophets, showing respect to the elderly and obeying the Sanhedrin. The purpose of this mitzvah is to bolster faith in tradition by honouring its bearers. That is why it is listed on the first Tablet along with the commandments between man and God. So that your days may be lengthened. This is in recompense for his good deed towards his forebears. Alternatively, it is to enable his own children to honour him, measure for measure; therefore when this commandment is repeated in Devarim (5:16) the Torah adds, “in order that it will be good for you” (Abarbanel).


Rabbenu Bahya 

“honour your father and your mother.” Up until now G’d had instructed the people to honour the original father in heaven, i.e. Himself; now He wanted to sign this side of the Tablets with the command to honour progenitors in the lower world, here on earth. In effect, what God says here is “just as I commanded you to treat Me with honour and respect, so I command you this day to treat your father and mother who are My partners in creating you with respect and honour. Just as one of the most important aspects of honouring God is to acknowledge Him as such, so one of the most important aspects of honouring one’s parents is to acknowledge them as such.

Just as an important aspect of belief and faith in the Lord is the second commandment לא יהיה לך, that you must not exchange Him for another deity, so an integral part of the commandment to honour one’s father and mother is not to deny the fact that they are in fact your father and mother. Just as it is forbidden to swear a false or vain oath in the name of the Lord, so it is forbidden to use the reference to the life of one’s father or mother as a way of reinforcing one’s credibility when swearing a false or vain oath. Furthermore, it is forbidden to serve one’s father because one expects to inherit his wealth or even because one hopes to receive the honour and title one’s father enjoyed during his own lifetime.

There are numerous details pertaining to the observance of this commandment which our sages have taught us in this regard. To mention but a few: the son is obligated to provide for his father with food, drink, clothing, etc., both as a financial contribution as well as being a physical support for him in case of illness, frailty in his father’s old age, etc. (Kiddushin 31). In Proverbs 3,8 Solomon instructs us כבד את ה' מהונך, “demonstrate you’re honouring the Lord by using your wealth.” The way one honours the Lord with one’s wealth [seeing He has neither need of it nor use for it, Ed.] is to distribute some of one’s wealth to the poor. One must set aside the various tithes the Torah has instructed us to give to the priest, the Levite, or the poor. Seeing the Torah has set aside tithes and gifts for these people who are not your next of kin, one must certainly provide for one’ parents if the need arises.

As to the reward promised here that he who observes this commandment will enjoy a long life in the land of Israel, Rav Saadyah Gaon has explained that seeing that on occasion father and son share many years together on this earth, i.e. the father enjoys in an inordinately long life, and as a result, the son may feel that the obligation to look after his father in addition to his obligation to look after his own wife and children has become very burdensome, this is the reason why the Torah went out of its way in this instance to promise long life to the son who observes this commandment meticulously. This is not as much a promise of reward as it is a warning not to neglect fulfilment of this commandment as failing to observe it is equivalent to playing with one’s own life. If you are interested in long-life yourself, make sure that your father and mother’s lives are enjoyable.

This concludes the first five of the Ten Commandments. They all appear on the same tablet, and, as we have demonstrated, there is a conceptual linkage between all of them. To sum this up once more: the first commandment is to believe in the Lord, His existence, His exclusivity. In order that one should not think that it suffices to believe in the Lord and at the same time to believe that He has partners, the second commandment spells out that belief in any partner of God is intolerable. In order that someone should not say that seeing that God has no partner it does not matter if we bandy His name about needlessly, the Torah had to go on record that this is the very reverse of honouring Him, that one must on no account treat His name as if it were something common or ordinary. Having begun to tell us what is an act of dishonouring God, i.e. using His name in vain, the Torah then instructed us in an example of how to honour His name, i.e. observing His Sabbath. If we really want to show that we honour Him and His name we will be meticulous in our Sabbath observance. Having instructed us in how to honour Him by honouring the Sabbath, the Torah then proceeded to instruct us to honour those who have begotten us, i.e. our parents. This concludes my commentary on the first five of the Ten Commandments and how they are related to each other. 


Fri, September 17 2021 11 Tishrei 5782