From HaGaon Rav Zevadia HaCohen Shlit”a, The Head of the Batei Din in Tel Aviv
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
This Shabbat we shall read that whilst Yaakov Avinu was returning to Eretz Yisrael to see his parents Yitzchak and Rivka, he sent angels to his brother Eisav. The angels returned and said, “We came to your brother Eisav, and he is also heading toward you. He has 400 men with him” (Bereishit 32:7). Immediately, “Yaakov was very frightened and distressed. He divided the people accompanying him into two camps, along with the sheep, cattle and camels” (Bereishit 32:8-9).
It is explained in the Midrash Rabba (76:2): “Yaakov was afraid,” what was he afraid of? He was fearful from Eisav’s merit, who had been in Eretz Yisrael during all these years. He also merited to fulfil the mitzvah of honouring his father and mother. Yaakov was missing these merits during the time that he had spent with Lavan in Charan.
Indeed, the Midrash recognizes Eisav’s merits. The Midrash Tanchuma (Parashat Kedoshim 15) says, “Come and see the mitzvot of honouring one’s mother and father, how precious it is to Hashem, to the extent that Hashem doesn’t eliminate the reward of one who fulfils this mitzva, whether they are righteous or wicked. How is this known? From Eisav the wicked one who honoured his father, and Hashem gave him all this honour. Now consider, if this wicked one, for honouring his father, Hashem paid his due, then one who honours his father and fulfils other mitzvot too, even more so!”
It is further stated in the Midrash Rabbah (65:16), Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, all may life I served father, yet I didn’t serve him even one hundredth of what Eisav served his father. When I served my father I wore regular clothes. Yet Eisav had designated garments. Instead I wore unique garments when I went travelling. Eisav would wear regal garments when he served his father, saying it is only respectful to wear regal garments when serving father. As the passuk states, “And Rivka took Eisav’s best garments, which she had in her keeping” (Bereishit 27:15), Chazal explained this to mean, the unique garments that he wore to serve his father.
However, the Talmud (Megillah 16b) explains, that Yaakov wasn’t punished for the period that he didn’t honour his parents for the years that he was studying Torah. And so it is stated there: Rabba said, Torah-study is greater than honouring parents, because all those years that Yaakov was in the Yeshiva of Ever, he wasn’t punished. Rashi writes there, he studied Torah for 14 years in the Yeshiva of Ever and wasn’t punished for not fulfilling the mitzva of honouring parents.
In light of this Talmud, Rav Achai Gaon (680-752, from the city of Pumpedita), in his work Sheiltot of Rav Achai (Parashat Toldot, sheilta 19), permitted a young man to study Torah away from home, even though as a result of this he will be prevented from keeping the mitzva of honouring parents during the time that he is studying Torah.
More than this, Rav Yechiel Michal Epstein (1829-1908), rules in his work Aruch HaShulchan (YD 240:36), that even though a person who travels away from home for business must request permission from his parents, nevertheless, if he travels to study Torah, he may depart even without his parents’ permission.
Rav Yitzchak Weiss (1902-1989, former head of the Eida, Haredit Yerushalayim [and prior to that Av Bet Din, Manchester, UK]) in his responsa Minchat Yitzchak (9:103), ruled that the mitzva of honouring parents doesn’t push away the merit [right] of the son to study Torah where he desires, and the parents may not interfere in this.
[However, not all agree], in contrast, Rav Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz zt”l (1731-1805) the author of the work known as “HaMakneh” (Kiddushin 31a) is of the opinion that [there are two distinct components], there is honouring parents (honour your father and mother, Shemot 20:12) and being in awe of parents (every person shall fear his mother and father, Vayikra 19:3). The difference between them is that concerning honouring parents, it is an obligation regardless of the parents requesting so, the son is required to initiate this. Whereas regarding being in awe of parents, the intention is not to disobey the parents after they have expressed their wishes.
Accordingly, Rav Horowitz carefully analyses the Talmud’s wording. The Talmud says, Torah-study is greater than “honouring parents”, but the inference is not greater than “being in awe of parents”. Therefore, when the place of studying Torah is being discussed, for example, studying away from home or which yeshiva to attend, but not concerning the question whether to learn Torah per se [since they are in agreement with Torah-study], if his view is contrary to his parents’ views, then according to all opinions he must listen to his parents, since his opinion doesn’t negate the mitzva of being in awe of parents. And so the reason why Yaakov wasn’t punished is because he went with his parents’ consent and so in no way transgressed their wishes but was simply unable to honour them during this time.