Last shabbat we had a siyum (end) for masechet Kretot. The last Mishna of this tractate refers to one of the well-known mitzvah and one of the Ten Commandments – respecting one’s parents:
האב קודם לאם בכל מקום. יכול מפני שכיבוד האב קודם על כיבוד האם? ת"ל: "איש אמו ואביו תיראו" (ויקרא י"ט, ג'), מלמד ששניהם שקולין. אבל אמרו חכמים: האב קודם לאם בכל מקום, מפני שהוא ואמו חייבין בכבוד אביו.
The Mishna states that the father is mentioned before the mother almost everywhere in the Torah, and asks: should we learn from this fact that respecting your father comes before respecting your mother? Immediately the Mishna brings the single instance in the Torah where the mother is mentioned first (in Vayikra 19,3) and states: “this (exception to the rule) teaches us that they are equal”.
So far so good. But the Mishna then continues:
“But sages said: his father comes before his mother in every place (in the Torah), because both he and his mother have a duty to respect the father”.
In other words, we are taught that although the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em applies to both parents equally, the duty of a person to respect the father precedes his duty to respect the mother.
When I read this Mishna I asked myself: so, are they equal or are they not equal?
The Gemara in Kretot does not discuss this Mishna. We find the debate in masechet Kiddushin (31a), where Rabbi Eliezer is asked what should one do if one’s parents both ask for a glass of water at the same time; who should one serve first? Rabbi Eliezer replies: the father, because of the reason in our Mishna (both you and your mother have a duty to respect the father, therefore he comes first). So it would seem that the duty of a child is first and foremost to his/her father.
In our day and age, this Halacha will likely sound strange to most people. One is brought up to respect both parents equally and to teach one’s child to obey the father before the mother would be frowned upon in most social circles. Yet I believe that the Halacha does not conflict with our modern-day perception of kibbud av va’em. The circumstances described in Kiddushin are very rare circumstances; after all, a child can always bring two glasses of water and serve both parents at the same time... Therefore, becuase in most instances such rare circumstances do not occur, the very conflict does not exist.
It would seem as if this Halacha falls into the category of rules that are give only for extreme occasions. Only if all things being equal and there is no choice, then one should put kibbud av before kibbud em. A similar Halacha speaks about the duty of a person to his rabbi, which in certain circumstances supsedes his duty towards his father.