Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Fifth Commandment and Genealogy

The words of R' Yoel

We had a bar mitzvah in shul yesterday. We don't generally have anyone speak in the morning, but when there is a bar mitzvah, one of the members speaks about the weekly reading while presenting the boy a siddur.

The member - R' Yoel - who spoke (and I am bringing what he said, without my own comments except by way of explanation) brought an interesting take on the Fifth Commandment, the one about honoring your father and mother. His question was why is this a mitzvah, let alone one of the Big Ten.

We tend to think that the idea here is either that your parents gave you life or that they fed, clothed, educated and otherwise supported you into adulthood.

R' Yoel pointed out that there is no traditional source that applies this mitzvah to others who serve in loco parentis should the parents be unable to support the child. No one applies this to an orphanage or foster family or family member even though these can provide the principle support for a child whose parents are not available. So that cannot be the reason for the Fifth Commandment.

And as far as giving you life is concerned, the Talmud (Eruvin page 13b) discusses whether a person is better off to have been born or not to have been born. The "House of Shammai" argued the latter and the "House of Hillel" - whose positions were almost always accepted - argued the former. After two and a half years, the House of Shammai's position was accepted. Better to have never been born. Given that position, our parents have done us no favor by bringing us into the world. So, argues R' Yoel, that cannot be the reason behind the mitzvah and the Fifth Commandment.

So what does R' Yoel suggest is the reason for this mitzvah? He pointed to the multitude of prayers that begin "Our Gd and Gd of our fathers," emphasizing three or four times that this includes mothers as well. He referred to the opening of the Amidah prayer which we say three times a day - "Our Gd and the Gd of our fathers, Gd of Avraham, Gd of Yitzhak and Gd of Yaakov." He could have brought additional examples, but it was not necessary. We connect to Gd and His Torah through our previous generations and most directly our own parents.

There seems to be an implication that doing genealogy is a way to fulfill the Fifth Commandment.


Some personal thoughts on the day

1. I serve as second gabbai at our service, the person who does the blessing for the person called to the Torah.  I stand to the right of the Torah reader and the first gabbai, Dov, stands to the left. What Fred, the leader of our youth service, used to call "doing honor to the Torah." The portion we read this week was the portion at the time of Dov's bar mitzvah. And mine. Dov was called up to the Torah and gave a donation of seventy-two sheqels, as he had just turned seventy-two. I was called up after him. I usually do not specify an amount, but under the circumstances, I said I was giving seventy-four.

2. My sister's yahrzeit (35 years) is this week, so I was asked to lead the mussaf service. I am reminded that the last time I saw her alive was when she came to my shul three days before her death specifically to hear me read my bar mitzvah portion.

3. I offered several bar mitzvah reminiscences last year. No need to repeat them here.


  1. Quoting: The letter "ו" of the word "ואת" comes to include one’s obligation to honor one’s older brother. See further discussion at