Honour your parents .. and the in-laws, too

How far you should you respect the mother or father of your spouse in Jewish tradition?


By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, April 28, 2011
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Kate Middleton joins the Duchess of Cornwell and Prince Charles as a member of the Royal Family today

Kate Middleton joins the Duchess of Cornwell and Prince Charles as a member of the Royal Family today

Buckingham Palace is ready and everything will be perfect for today's royal simchah. But with all the pressures on them, I doubt whether Prince William and Kate Middleton managed to find time to delve into the Jewish laws of respecting their future in-laws.

Judaism recognises that relations with one's in-laws can be complicated. A wonderful midrash reflects that if in messianic times the wolf can lie down with the lamb, surely a bride can learn to live with her mother-in-law!

While recognising the difficulties involved, Jewish law is unequivocal. A person must honour their
in-laws (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 240: 24). But how much and why?

We can trace the origins of this law to two biblical stories. The first takes place when the Jewish people are gathered around Mount Sinai. Word reaches Moses that Jethro, his father-in-law, is visiting the camp. Moses rushes out to greet him. The Torah tells us that one man bowed to the other and although it is unclear from the text who bowed to whom, rabbinic exegesis determined that Moses bowed to his father-in-law. When Moses displayed this much respect to a visitor, his family and the whole camp of Israel must have followed suit (according to Rashi). So the source for respecting in-laws comes from an enormous national display of honour for an idolatrous priest!

The second source for honouring in-laws takes us to Ein Gedi where King Saul has gathered 3,000 soldiers to hunt down his son-in-law, the future King David, whom he unfairly suspects of treason. David understands that his father-in-law seeks to kill him, yet when Saul enters a cave to relieve himself, David does not take advantage of the situation to assassinate him; instead, he surreptitiously follows him inside the cave and cuts off a corner of his robe. When Saul leaves the cave, David bows before him, and protests his loyalty saying, "Moreover, my father, see indeed the corner of your robe in my hand; for in that I cut off a corner of your robe and did not kill you, you should know and see that there is neither evil nor transgression in my hand" (I Samuel 24: 11). From David's description of Saul as "my father", the rabbis inferred that a person must treat their parents-in-law with great respect.

Opinions vary as to how much respect one must show. Some rabbis suggest that when David referred to his father-in-law as "my father", he was demonstrating the same respect as he would show to his own father. Others argue that David was not only speaking to King Saul, he was also speaking to Abner, the commander in chief of Saul's army. If this is the case, then David was showing his father-in-law the same level of respect that he would have shown to any other person of stature or advanced age.

The Shulchan Aruch dedicates a separate clause to the obligation to respect in-laws but not alongside the command to respect our parents, rather alongside the less stringent laws of respecting older siblings. This implies that in-laws do not warrant the same respect as our parents, but they are entitled to greater honour than we would give to any other elder.

We honour parents because they give us the breath of life, raise us and give us the love, care and education enabling us to mature into responsible adults. Where they fail in these obligations, the duty of respect may be diminished. But why should in-laws who do none of these things be entitled to special status?

Rabbi Chaim David Halevi, the former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, suggests that in-laws have no intrinsic claim to respect, but by honouring them, a person shows respect to their spouse, and this is the foundation of a good marriage and a happy home. He, therefore, ruled that one may not refer to their in-laws by their first names. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the Chief Rabbi of Beit El, affirms the need to respect one's in-laws, he is more lenient and sees nothing wrong with a less formal relationship.

An idolatrous priest and a vengeful king are unlikely paradigms of in-laws honoured, yet the results of this respect are astonishing. According to the Midrash, Jethro converted to Judaism and at least for a time, King Saul was pacified and reconciled to his son-in-law, allowing them to live peacefully together.

Some people are blessed with parents-in–law who naturally earn their respect. Others must show their in-laws respect simply to keep their partner happy. But the rabbis see nothing wrong in this pragmatic approach to peace; after all God's entire Torah was given to bring peace to the world. That is a powerful message for a future king and queen.

Gideon Sylvester is rabbi of Tribe Israel and directs the Beit Midrash for the study of Judaism and Human Rights at the Hillel House's Hebrew University

    Last updated: 11:22am, April 28 2011