How far does the 5th Commandment go?

Does the 5th commandment also apply to relatives who had a major role in my life?

I am very new to the Jewish teachings. Pastor Larry Huch talked about you and said you were good friends so I looked you up on the internet and have been listening to you since. In all my 13 years in church, I have never heard anyone teach what you teach. I appreciate the materials you make available to all.

Here is a matter that I need to lay to rest.

I was born and raised in the Ivory Coast, a country with too many ethnic divisions. My mom told me in the tradition of their ethnic heritage the aunt (the mother’s sister) is really my mother. That’s what they have been believing for years. So that’s how in 1998, my aunt and her husband who had 3 sons, paid my way to come and live with them in the U.S. b/c “she doesn’t have any daughter” my mom told me. I was 15 and left my parents, siblings and friends back in the Ivory Coast.

My relatives paid my way through high school and college. At a price. I was the one doing all the household chores out of duty. Cooking, cleaning up after them, doing dishes on Christian holidays while her husband and sons play video games and surf the internet. In all honesty, I spent 10 miserable years living with them and do not remember a happy day. I don’t like their personalities and being around them. There was always the “you owe us” attitude.

Fast forward today, I live alone and The Good Lord has given me a job. I still have my mother in the Ivory Coast that I take care of on a regular basis. My dad is 73 and retired. They are divorced and both of them do not have any financial savings. So their financial help falls on me b/c my 2 siblings are not helping at all. The younger, 30 years old, has cut contact with the family and the older, 36 years old only cares about her.

I feel a financial obligation only toward my relatives (even though, I did not live with them for free) b/c they paid my way through school, along with food, housing, clothes, medical bills etc… so I send them some money, when I can on an irregular basis but according to them, it is not enough. My aunt doesn’t want to work so she stays home all day and her husband makes a six figure salary, more than me. Their 3 sons are living their own lives. My mom tells me I need to do what they are supposed to do and I refuse to shoulder their responsibilities toward their own parents.

I don’t have enough finances to take care of 2 sets of parents and build a life of my own. I don’t feel a “5th commandment” mandate toward my aunt and my uncle. They consider themselves as my parents but I do not. My mind has never accepted them as my mother and father according to their ethnic tradition. The 5th commandment only applies to my mother in the Ivory Coast and my 73 year old retired father.

What does the Torah and ancient Jewish wisdom have to say about this kind of situation? 

Thank you for helping.


Dear Neal,

We tend to shy away from letters as long as yours, but we found your story so riveting that we made an exception. We are also tremendously fond of Pastors Larry and Tiz Huch, and appreciate that you found us through them.

One of the issues you raise is the challenges that come up when someone replaces one cultural or religious tradition with another one. This is a common theme that plays out when a child immigrates to a new country with its own way of life. The pattern and understanding that an aunt is like your mother, isn’t one that you accept. While this may be painful for your family to hear, the “rules” they are holding over your head don’t apply to you.

Another issue you raise has to do with the understanding of what ‘honoring parents’ entails. One of the reasons that Torah observant Jews have a rabbi who is familiar with their personal situation is because that very general statement needs to be translated into specifics. While certain principles apply in all cases, such as addressing parents in a respectful manner, other concepts such as defining required financial support will vary according to the individual circumstances.

The Torah does not accept the idea of entitlements but rather works on the principle of obligation. Not even your parents can demand that they are entitled to your money; the question is what your obligation is. This may seem to be a semantic difference, but it removes emotional blackmail from the picture. You must shoulder whatever obligations you have, but those obligations are not based on the desires of either your parents or relatives. In fact, the majority of what ancient Jewish wisdom sees as the financial laws of honoring parents makes use of the parents’ financial resources, not the child’s.

You sound like a lovely and strong person with a keen sense of responsibility. You might want to discuss your particular situation with your spiritual leader, but our bird’s-eye-view answer is that you are not obligated to provide the support that is being demanded from you.

We hope that you find a group of Christian-minded friends and  a spouse who can fill in the emotional gaps from your childhood.

Wishing you all the best,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

16 thoughts on “How far does the 5th Commandment go?”

  1. I have also believed that honoring parents is how we carry ourselves through life. Trying to honor what we learned and experienced as well as what we learned and experienced not to do as honoring. Always trying to lead and respectful and moral life…living the golden rule etc.
    Dear Lapin,
    If possible could you answer a question in regards to our youngest son just got married to a young lady of same Christian Faith. It seems that since he has married all holidays including his birthday are celebrated with her side of the family. They go on family vacations yearly as well as family reunions etc. our son moved 45 minutes from his childhood home and her parents and extended family live near to them as well. They also attend her church since being married etc.
    is it wrong to try and have them here for dinner or to be able to host or celebrate something here at his childhood home? It has been a great struggle getting to spend any time with him or them on our end. We almost always are invited to things there and have gone to some not all. It feels very one sided and hurts this mom deeply any time I try to have them come to our sons family home even when his older brother lives 2 hours always and comes to visit on non-holidays. We are on good terms with our son and his wife and I was especially close with our son taking him and his friends fishing etc…what Jewish insight can you share that might help or shed some light. Thank you and my husband of 34 years today enjoy your program for many years on TCT network. Blessings to you and yours.

    1. Julie, sorry to ask such an obvious question, but have you sat down with your son and in a non-emotional and non-threatening manner told him that you love him and his family and want to see more of them and is there anything you can do to make it more comfortable for them to visit you?

  2. Rabbi Daniel and Mrs Lapin
    This is Neal. Thank you very much for your reply. I read it and neglected to say thank you and felt obliged to do so.

  3. Thank you, Rabbi and Mrs. Lapin, for using Neal’s situation to clarify “Honor Thy Parents” questions. My parents are both deceased for 13 and 23 years now, but your answer mentally and emotionally releases me from the nagging suspicion that I supposedly never did enough for either of them (while they, IMHO, did not “earn” anything beyond the basic respect from me of parenthood).

    I do have a followup question if you have the time to answer it. Could you expound a bit more on how “…ancient Jewish wisdom sees as the financial laws of honoring parents makes use of the parents’ financial resources, not the child’s”?

    Thank you for yet another in depth, inspiring explanation of the Torah and Jewish teachings.

    1. Laura, very quickly, children must make sure that parents have food available. But if the parents have the financial means, the children can purchase the food using the parents’ money; they don’t have to pay for the food themselves.

  4. Shalom Teacher- i am still partial to the “bigger picture” of the 5th Commandment that you taught us, that we are to honor the traditional family. And in doing so, we reap a reward!

  5. I have a similar question. I was adopted when a I was 18 months old. I’m now 50. Several years ago I located my birth mother. What honor do I owe my birth mother ? I feel it may be the same.

    1. Dear Jerry – as we always say, our answers our to spur thinking, not for anyone to make a life-changing decision assuming what we said applies to them. Both of these questions are complicated, but we do want to add that ancient Jewish wisdom sees parents as those who provide physical life and those who provide spiritual life. Ideally, they are one and the same. In your case, your adopted parents provided your ‘spiritual’ life and that places a greater obligation on you towards them. Both you and Neal have some obligations to everyone involved but the question is one of priority. In the question we answered, it sounded to us more like an indentured servitude with benefits than an adoption. But again, if a member of our congregation, for example, had a similar question, it would have led to hours of discussion getting all the facts and then much time spent on answering for that individual case.

  6. This is exactly why I am a subscriber to your Thought Tools: Bibically-based and wonderfully insightful reasoning that helps one get past deeply held and often wrongly-placed concerns and incorrect ideas.

    Thank you!


  7. Michael Overstreet

    I was touch by the story and I believe such a circumstance would be consider emotion incest where the needs of the parent supersede the needs of the child. I pray that your goodwill shall be reward with peace.

  8. Alexander Freylicher

    As Rabbi Lapin pointed out, the commandment to honor one’s parents does not obligate supporting them or other relatives financially. Poor relatives should be given priority when one is giving charity, but this is not the case here. However, it is one of the worst character traits to be ingrate! Isn’t there at least moral obligation to pay back, since Neal’s relatives did pay for college, etc.? Maybe even contractual obligation, since they made it clear that they expect a pay back…

    As always, your answers and clarifications, Rabbi Lapin, are greatly appreciated.

  9. The people of the earth become wicked, and filled with evil in thoughts and heart all the time. Noah was was a righteous man and blameless, and found favor in the eyes of the Lord. The Lord made a covenant with Noah, allowing his sons to enter the ark . Noah did everything just as God commanded him.

    1. Rebecca, there is more to the story as told by ancient Jewish wisdom. But, of course, on a basic level you are correct.

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