By Rabbi Yosef Goldberg
In the beginning of “The Laws of Honoring Father and Mother” (Yoreh Deah 240:1) Rabbi Akiva Eiger, zt’l, comments in his gloss on the Shulchan Aruch: “As to why we do not make a berachah on this mitzvah, see the Teshuvos HaRashba, Siman 18, and Binyamin Zeev, Siman 169.” The Rashba has several teshuvos in which he proffers various reasons as to why certain mitzvos are performed without a berachah.
Binyamin Zeev, a 16th-century Turkish poseik, wrote the following at the end of responsum 169: “Concerning your question as to why we do not make a blessing on the positive commandments of honoring parents, showing respect to the elderly, and on several other commandments, the answer is as follows. We only make a blessing on commandments by which we are sanctified from the other nations, as those nations do not perform those commandments at all. But on commandments which the other nations occasionally observe, we do not make a blessing, for through those commandments we are not sanctified over the other nations since they sometimes perform these commandments just as we do, such as honoring parents and respecting the elderly, etc.”
Rabbeinu Bechaya in his commentary on the parashah of tzitzis in parashas Shlach (and similarly in his work Kad Kemach on the mitzvah of tzitzis) makes the following point: “All of the mitzvos can be divided into two groups: Received mitzvos and rational mitzvos. The Sages of truth, of blessed memory, enacted the format of blessings for the received mitzvos, but did not institute any blessings for rational mitzvos.”
The author of the Aruch HaShulchan in Y.D. Siman 240:2 writes lengthily on this topic and emphasizes the following: “Honoring parents is among the rational mitzvos which has been accepted by all nations and languages. Even those who deny the Torah are careful in this area because of their reason and human nature. However, we His people, the Children of Israel, are commanded to perform all of the rational mitzvos, not because of their rational nature, rather because of the command of the Holy One, blessed is He, in His holy Torah . . .”
However in 240:4, he writes, “There are those who ask as to why we do not make a blessing on this mitzvah, and similarly on many mitzvos such as charity and kind deeds, and the like, the question applies. It seems to me that since every nation and language performs these things, granted that they do these things for rational motives, however since the actual performance is the same, and the only difference is in the intent, for others do these things out of purely rational motivation and we do them because of the commandment of the Holy One, blessed is He, our sages did not institute a blessing on these types of commandments . . .”
The author of the Chayei Adam who was a contemporary of the Vilna Gaon, saw fit to include into the Chayei Adam, which is primarily a work built upon Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, an entire chapter on honoring parents (Siman 67). There he delineates two component reasons for this great mitzvah: The concept that one’s parents are to be viewed as partners with the Creator, Himself, regarding the life of the child, and the second in terms of the debt of gratitude (hakaras hatov) that an individual owes a parent. He states that beyond the general mitzvah of loving one’s fellow man as he loves himself, there is a more extensive mitzvah regarding one’s parents, whom he has to love more than himself, for his love for them is compared to his love for G‑d. He quotes the Zohar in parashas Ki Setizei: “For a person must attend to his parents’ needs, loving them more than he loves his own body, his own soul, his spirit . . . ; and the entire universe which encompasses him is as naught in comparison with his need to do the will of his father and mother.” He then adds that since all of the mitzvos that must be done for a child were incumbent upon the father and mother, consequently [the honoring of parents] is a debt that a child owes his parents for all the wonderful things that they have done for him. And one who does not honor his parents is referred to as an evil person, as Scripture states: “An evil person borrows and does not pay back.”
The two components of the honoring of parents, the comparison to the Creator and the universal debt of gratitude, are both found in the Talmud Bavli (Kiddushin 30b–31b) and in the Jerusalem Talmud’s analysis of the first mishnah in Tractate Peah. The second concept is expressed in both Talmuds by the mention of the level of universal honor for his father that was exhibited to an extraordinary degree by a non-Jew (probably a Roman, a descendant of Eisav) who lived in Ashkelon named Dama ben Nesina. There are some small differences in the story of Dama ben Nesina as related by the two Talmuds. In both Talmuds, Dama ben Nesina is offered a large sum of money for a stone for the Ephod, which he initially declines because his father was sleeping and to reach the box in which the jewel was contained would have involved waking his father up. In the Bavli’s version, Dama ben Nesina’s refusal to awaken his father costs him this opportunity for profit, but he is consequently rewarded the following year with the birth of a rare parah adumah—a Red Heifer. In the Yerushalmi’s version, the father eventually wakes up that day and Dama ben Nesina is able to sell the jewel. In the interim, the emissaries from the Beis HaMikdash had raised their offer considerably since they thought that Dama ben Nesina was holding out for more money. When his father awakens and he is able to present the jewel, they insist upon paying the much higher price which they had ultimately offered. Dama ben Nesina refuses to take the higher price saying: “Do you think that I would sell the value of giving honor to my father for coins? I will not benefit at all from the honor that I give to my father.” The Yerushalmi continues: “How did the Holy One, blessed is He, reward him? R’ Yosi the son of R’ Bon said, ‘That very night his cow gave birth to a parah adumah and all Israel contributed to purchase the parah adumah with its full weight in gold.’”
The parah adumah was an integral part of Jewish history as the Rambam states (laws of the parah adumah 3:4) based upon the Mishnah in Parah. Nine parah adumos were used (for making the purifying waters) from the time that this mitzvah was given until the Second Temple was destroyed. Moshe Rabbeinu made the first mixture. Ezra made the second. There were seven more from the time of Ezra until the destruction of the Second Temple. The tenth will be made by the Melech HaMashiach, may he be speedily revealed . . .” (For a more profound insight into this Rambam, see the second volume of Gan Shoshanim by HaRav Menachem Genack, shlita, Siman 32 [p. 81].)
The Red Heifer cleanses us from the ritual impurity derived from a dead body. Red is also the color of Eisav. Rabbi Moshe Alshich (16th century, Safed) states in his commentary on parashas Toldos: “We have known that the Angel over Eisav is Samael, who is the Satan, who is the Evil Inclination, who is the Angel of Death.” The ash of the Red Heifer mixed in water from a live spring is an antidote against the influence of death. Parents, with the partnership of G‑d, give us life; the mitzvah of honoring parents is rewarded with life, and the parah adumah helps to remove the taint of death. The act of honoring parents as practiced so perfectly by the descendant of Eisav, Dama ben Nesina, was rewarded with the birth of a parah adumah.
May we soon see the day when Mashiach will come, the Temple will be rebuilt for the last time, Tishah B’Av will become a joyous day, and death will be swallowed up forever, and tears will be wiped away from the faces of all mankind. v
This was written in honor of the yahrzeit of the author’s mother, Gitel bas R’ Yosef, a’h.