What is the extent and nature of the commandment to honor parents? Is it to honor requests of substance that bring them benefit, as enumerated by Gemara Kiddushin (31b, quoted below), or is it even to honor their requests that have no concrete benefit? In other words, if your father or mother ask you to pour them a glass of tea, this is honoring their request and brings them a concrete benefit. But what about if one’s parents say, “Don’t wear that shirt, I don’t like the color.” On the one hand you could argue that it is of no concrete consequence, and not a service to them, so it is not under the rubric of honoring their requests. On the other hand, you might argue that it still is a form of honoring them, and more importantly, a form of disrespect to disregard their requests.
The Gemara Kiddushin states:
תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן אֵיזֶהוּ מוֹרָא וְאֵיזֶהוּ כִּיבּוּד מוֹרָא לֹא עוֹמֵד בִּמְקוֹמוֹ וְלֹא יוֹשֵׁב בִּמְקוֹמוֹ וְלֹא סוֹתֵר אֶת דְּבָרָיו וְלֹא מַכְרִיעוֹ כִּיבּוּד מַאֲכִיל וּמַשְׁקֶה מַלְבִּישׁ וּמְכַסֶּה מַכְנִיס וּמוֹצִיא
The Sages taught: What is fear and what is honor? Fear of one’s father includes the following: One may not stand in his father’s fixed place, and may not sit in his place, and may not contradict his statements by expressing an opinion contrary to that of his father, and he may not choose sides when his father argues with someone else. What is considered honor? He gives his father food and drink, dresses and covers him, and brings him in and takes him out for all his household needs.
Our Gemara on amud Aleph discusses the various cases of Aseh docheh Lo Sa’aseh, that is when there is a positive commandment that conflicts with a prohibition. In our Gemara we deal with obligation of the rapist to marry his victim (as restitution, if she so wishes) in a case where she is prohibited, such as mamzeres. The Gemara draws a distinction between this situation and a classic situation of conflict between a commandment and a prohibition, as in this case, she simply can decline to marry him and then the obligation is removed.
Tosafos in our Gemara (“Iy Amera”) asks, if so, why does the Gemara in Yevamos (5b) require a verse to teach you that one is not obligated to obey a parent who commands to violate Shabbos. The case over there is where the parent asks for something, such as to cook a meal, and by doing so it would violate Shabbos. Now according to our Gemara’s principle, this is not a real conflict as the parent can simply withdraw the request. Thus, we should not require a verse to teach us this. Tosafos answers that there is a distinction between our Gemara’s case and the one in Yevamos. Here, the fulfillment of the positive command (to take her as a wife) only begins once he marries her. Therefore, her retraction of the request completely neutralizes the contradiction with this imperative and the prohibition against marrying her, since ultimately, the two directives never come into conflict. However, the moment the parent requested the cooked item, the commandment to fulfill their request becomes activated. True, the parent could retract, but the conflict has already begun and the directive to obey the parent may be just as powerful as the prohibition of Shabbos, if not for the verse teaching us the opposite.
At first glance, Tosafos seems to hold that the obligation to honor is not specifically limited to a concrete request, since he says that the obligation to obey and conflict with the Shabbos prohibition becomes activated at the moment that the parental request is made. However, this is not quite so. We might argue that the obligation BEGINS at the request, but it is only in order to fulfill a concrete request, i.e. cook a meal to feed the parent. However, a request without a concrete benefit at the end may not even trigger the obligation.
One of the cases discussed in the Gemara Yevamos (6a) is driving a beast on Shabbos. There is a prohibition to make your animals carry burdens for you on Shabbos. The Ramban there quotes Rabbenu Chananel who draws a distinction in that case. Even though over there one is not obligated to listen to a parental command to bring an item via a beast on the shabbos, it would not be a source to prove that all positive commandments do not override the negative prohibitions. In that case, the animal bringing the item was merely a hechsher mitzvah, a preparatory action, as the parent only gets the enjoyment and benefit once the item is brought, and he for example, consumes the food. The Ramban explains that the Gemara in Kiddushin enumerated various actions not merely as examples, but to state that the mitzvah is accomplished via concrete benefits.
In apparent contradiction to this, we have a responsum of the Rosh (15:5) who discusses a case where a father commands his son to cut off relations with a certain person and not to forgive him. The Rosh rules that the son is not obligated to obey his father’s directive as it is overruled by the Torah prohibition of hating a fellow Jew. However, we see from the Ramban if not for that prohibition, one would be obligated to obey the parent. But, why? The father gains no concrete benefit by the son maintaining enmity between this person and himself? This indicates that the Rosh holds that the obligation to honor is even regarding wishes that have no concrete benefit.
However, the Gra (end of Shulkhan Arukh YD:240) derives a third option from a careful reading of the Rashbah. That is, the Gemara only requires a verse to teach you that the mitzvah to honor a parent’s request does not override shabbos in regard to a concrete benefit. However, there still some obligation to fulfill a parental request that is not concrete. (Some explain the Gra as follows: There may not be a command to honor in regard to a non-concrete benefit, but still one has some obligation to obey under the general rubric of “fear” that was discussed in Kiddushin, that is at the very least, it should be considered contradicting his father’s words. It does not apply to a Torah command, as this by definition is not a lack of honor or fear; you are simply obeying a higher authority.
Thus, it would seem that the obligation to honor a parent’s wishes extends even to immaterial requests. There are circumstances where parental requests may be so overbearing as to cause significant emotional distress or sh’lom bayis problems and/or may be due to mental illness on the parent’s part. In such a case, a competent posek should be sought, as mitzvos aseh have limitations. Generally, one is not obligated to expend more than a fifth of one’s financial resources to fulfill a mitzvah. Such as, if one cannot purchase a Esrog without expending an enormous sum, he may be exempted from the mitzvah (see Tosafos Bava Kamma 9b). Thus, determining what degree of personal distress is the equivalent of a fifth of one’s financial resources, and even in a modern sense, how that standard is evaluated, requires the expertise of a posek. Actually, the reason for the number a fifth would seem to be so as not to bankrupt the person and disable him from future mitzvos and possibly functional living, as Tosafos derives it from the limit placed on charity, by which the Gemara states it is so he does not become impoverished. So, the point is, there is a limit, and it would seem to be based on whether the amount is taxing to the point of disability.
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation .)