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If one's parents ask him to do something that is not beneficial to the parents in any way whatsoever (though not harmful to the parents, the child, or anyone else, either), is he nonetheless obligated to fulfill the request?

Assuming that the request is out of the blue and not part of any kind of ongoing abuse or emotional manipulation, does a child need to serve his parents' every whim?

(Basically, I think this question can be boiled down to where the line is drawn; is it drawn at harmful behavior, or is it drawn at useless behavior?)

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Note that I assume any request by the parents to do something for a third party or even society at large is beneficial to the parents and falls under the category of honoring one's parents. For example, "Please drive your cousin Salley to the airport on Tuesday," or (maybe) even, "Please recycle your empty bottles," fit the bill, I would assume, of honoring one's parents. The question is whether something along the lines of, "Please count backwards from 300 while patting your head and rubbing your belly," falls under this category. –  Seth J May 1 '13 at 18:15
    
Isn't it pretty <ahem> paternalistic to assume that you know better than your parents what will benefit them? Or are you assuming some technical meaning of "benefit"? (Your comment implies not.) Or are you talking specifically about a case in which the parent has explicitly indicated that fulfillment of the request will not benefit them? Otherwise, wouldn't the baseline assumption have to be that if someone asks for something, it's because they expect to benefit from the fulfillment? I, for one, would derive much beneficial mirth from seeing you doing the counting/patting/rubbing trick. –  Isaac Moses May 1 '13 at 18:20
    
@IsaacMoses, I don't know. I guess that might be a consideration weighed by any Teshuvoth on the matter. –  Seth J May 1 '13 at 18:23
    
If you're including the definition of "benefit" in what you're uncertain about, I recommend making that explicit in the question. Also, your first comment, above, ought to be folded into the question. –  Isaac Moses May 1 '13 at 18:25
    
Are we so clear that any benefit to the parent invokes this mitzva? –  Double AA May 1 '13 at 18:27

3 Answers 3

I heard a lecture by Rabbi Yisroel Reisman (of Brooklyn; one of his weekly-in-the-winter motzae Shabas lectures on N'viim) which cited various opinions (see also Shalom's answer) and concluded, as best as I can recall, that at least some major pos'kim (halachic decisors) rule practically as follows: The command to revere/respect one's parents (mora) includes not contradicting them in such a way as they will find out about it. Thus, if your mother tells you that it's cold outside and that you must wear a sweater, then you must wear a sweater as long as you are within sight. However, once you are out of sight, there is no requirement to wear the sweater. (Wearing overclothes was actually the example used in the lecture.) The other command, to honor one's parents (kibud), means to do things for them, like feed them. This is whether they will know you did it or not, but wearing a sweater, or any other action that doesn't benefit them, is not included.

But consult your own rabbi for practical advice.

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I think the following story about R' Yishmael ben Elisha may answer your question (This is a translation of story told in a couple places in the Talmud Yerushalmi):

Rabbi Ishmael's mother was a very pious woman, and she worshipped her son. But one day she astonished the Sages when she appeared before them to complain about her son. Said she, "Rebuke my son, Ishmael, for he does not show me honor." The faces of the Sages turned pale, and they asked her, "Is it possible that Rabbi Ishmael should not show honor to his mother? What has he done to you?" She replied, "Before he goes to the Beth Hamidrash, I want to wash his feet, and to drink the water with which I have washed them, but he will not permit it!" Then the Sages said to Rabbi Ishmael, "Since this is her wish, honor her by permitting it.

The words of the sages seems to be the key to answering your question: "הואיל והוא רצונה הוא כיבודה "

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I believe in this case it could be called beneficial. At least she thought so. –  user2709 May 2 '13 at 4:15
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@shulem: That's the point the Rabbis were making to R' Yishmael. Even if you think she shouldn't do it, the fact that she wants to means you should honor her and let her do it. –  Menachem May 2 '13 at 18:50

It's basically been debated by rabbis for the last 500 years. (Rabbi Mordechai Willig shlit'a writes about this in Beis Yitzchak in Hebrew a few years ago, and in a very recent YU-to-go journal (in English) related to dating and marriage.

The Gemara says if a parent says "I know you just found Joe Schwartz's wallet, but don't return it to them!", the child should ignore the parent because returning a lost object is a mitzva. But if it weren't, that would imply the child would be obligated to follow an arbitrary request. Ritva challenges this and says no, arbitrary requests are never required! The Gemara meant a case where the parent was saying "Joe is getting on a plane to Japan in an hour and never coming back and will be unreachable forever, but I really really want you to spend the next hour cooking me dinner." Cooking your father dinner is generally within the requirements of honoring him, but not in this case as it conflicts with the mitzva of returning lost objects.

Maharik (responsum 166, though numbered differently in some editions) rules similarly, that among the reasons why a parent can't veto their child's choice of spouse is that "don't marry her" is arbitrary, not "honor me" per se.

Rabbi Willig (yutorah mp3) says personally he's a "maximalist"; Rabbi Hershel Schachter (another yutorah mp3) has stated he finds all three of Maharik's arguments (the above plus two others) to be binding, which thus makes him a "minimalist."

The other huge issue is that even maximalists only go so far. The Gemara says you must feed your parent, but it comes out of your parents' funds, not yours. The parent can't keep demanding money. Thus Rabbi Willig explains the child must accommodate only "reasonable" requests. How to define reasonable, well ... good question.

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I'm familiar with most of this information; you've done a very good job of bringing in some classical examples of conflicting priorities. I'm asking about definitions, though. In an absolute vacuum, in which nobody is harmed by the child's action or inaction, and there are no conflicts of interest or priority, does the child have to cater to the parents' whim? –  Seth J May 1 '13 at 18:57
    
It appears that Rashi says yes but Ritva says no. As for today -- Rabbi Willig says yes, Rabbi Schachter says no. –  Shalom May 1 '13 at 19:11

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