Question: Must a child listen to a parent who commands the child to bring the parent a cigarette or other unhealthful/dangerous food items?
Short Answer: While a child is forbidden from causing harm to a parent, even if the parent requests it, the exact definition of harm is hard to quantify and thus the poskim disagree whether a child may give a parent a cigarette.
I. The Sefer Chasidim Story
The Sefer Chasidim (234) tells a story of a sick father whose doctor warned him that if he drinks water or eats certain foods he will die. The father nevertheless commanded his son to bring him water and these dangerous foods, and likewise warned his son that if the son did not bring them, then the father would not forgive the child in this world and in olam ha’ba. The Sefer Chasidim concludes that the son should not listen to the father.
The ruling of the Sefer Chasidim is cited in the Beis Lechem Yehudah (on Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei’ah 240:15).
II. Limitation of the Birkei Yosef
The Birkei Yosef (Yoreh Dei’ah 240:10) [cited in Ateres Shmuel, siman 2] limits the ruling of the Sefer Chasidim. A child should only not listen to the parent if the food or drink will kill the parent. However, if the food or drink is only harmful to the parent – i.e., it will make him sick or have long-term health ramifications – but it will not kill him, then the child must listen to the parent and bring him the food.
The Sefer Kol Gadol, by the Maharam ibn Chaviv (cited in Ateres Shmuel, ibid, and L’maan Yaarichun Yamecha, siman 17), disagrees with the Birkei Yosef and explains that a son is prohibited from providing his father with any harmful food or drink, even if not deadly. The Maharam ibn Chaviv cites a proof from the Shulchan Aruch who rules that a son cannot draw blood from a parent because of the remote possibility that such drawing will harm the parent. Surely, definite harm, such as giving a parent dangerous food, is likewise forbidden.
Nevertheless, the Tzitz Eliezer (5:5:11) answers the proof of the Maharam ibn Chaviv for the Birkei Yosef. Drawing blood is different because it is done in a manner that hurts the father, and bystanders won’t necessarily understand that it is truly beneficial. However, bystanders will not notice any harmful effects of giving a parent dangerous food or drink, which otherwise looks like a good act by the child.
III. Smoking Cigarettes
A common application discussed by the poskim is where a father asks his son to get him a cigarette. According to the Be’er Moshe (1:60:10), the son is prohibited from getting the father a cigarette because it is forbidden for the father to smoke, and thus the son certainly is not permitted to help the father sin.
Similarly, the sefer Avnei Derech (5:22) cites the Asei L’cha Rav who rules that a son is prohibited from buying his father cigarettes.
However, this ruling opens up a Pandora’s Box. As pointed out by the L’maan Yaarichun Yamecha, ibid, this ruling is hard to quantify. Is a son forbidden to give his father a glass of schnapps? What about a large portion of red meat? How do we determine what are permitted dangers versus forbidden dangers? Thus, the L’maan Yaarichun Yamecha cites Rav S. Z. Auerbach zt”l, who ruled that it is permitted for a son to get his father a cigarette.
The Mishnas Yosef (gilyon 10) cites Rav Elyashiv zt”l as distinguishing between two cases. Where a doctor specifically warned the father that smoking is particularly dangerous for him, then the son is forbidden to get the father a cigarette. However, if the father was never specifically warned that smoking is particularly harmful for him, then the son must get his father a cigarette.
[In truth, the issue of whether smoking is asur, a violation of an asei, or not technically forbidden (albeit a stupid idea!) is outside the scope of this article. See Igros Moshe (Yoreh Dei’ah 2:49) and Minchas Asher (vol. 1: 35 and 36)]
Next Week’s Topic: Is a son ever obligated to stop learning Torah to perform kibud av va’eim?