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Question: My mother-in-law, who was visiting her son (my brother-in-law), a medical doctor, had an accident. A glass jar broke and in trying to clean it up she suffered a shard of glass lodging in her finger. When she requested her son to remove the shard, he refused to do so. He explained that in doing so he would cause his mother to bleed, and being a deeply religious person, he knew that this is against halacha. He offered to take her to another physician, which he did. Mind you, it was not anything life-threatening, yet she was upset by his actions. I tried explaining his feelings in the matter to my mother-in-law, to whom I’m very close, but to no avail. She remains upset. Seeing this, was he perhaps wrong in his assessment and handling of this situation?

Name withheld on request
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Answer: I find it rather unusual that a mother should react so severely and be so critical of her son; obviously, different people react in different ways than you or I understand. In defense of your brother-in-law let us review his concern.

The Torah in Mishpatim (Exodus 21:15) states: “One who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” The Talmud, Perek Hanechenakin (Sanhedrin 84b, the mishna) based on this verse, begins its listing of those who incur a death penalty via chenek – strangulation – as it states: “These are those who suffer strangulation, one who strikes his father or his mother…”

The Rambam (Hilchot Mamrim chap 5:5) based upon this mishna states: “One who strikes either his father or his mother, his death penalty is accomplished via strangulation, as the verse states: “One who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” [And as the Gemara to the mishna above states, any death sentence without any other specification is accomplished via strangulation.]

Rambam continues: “And there must be witnesses [who saw what he was about to do] and a warning, just as in all other death decrees of the Beth Din. And this applies to man and woman alike and to those whose gender is either hidden or openly ambiguous, but that is only when they have matured to the age of punishment. He is not liable for chenek, strangulation, only if he wounded them; however, if he did not cause a wound then he is only liable for violation of a negative command.

He continues further: “One who strikes his father [or mother] upon the ear and causes him to become deaf, he is in violation and is punished with death, because it is impossible for one to cause deafness [in another] without incurring a wound. And indeed, it had to be that a drop of blood emerged in the inner ear causing the deafness.

Likewise, the Mechaber (Yoreh Deah 241:3) forbids one to wound his parents or to draw blood from them, even in the process of curing them from an ailment; however, the Rema (ad loc) explicitly notes that this rule is applicable only if there is another capable person immediately available to help them.

Moreover, the Rema notes (citing from Rambam, infra, Hilchot Mamrim chap 5:7), if one’s father or mother are in pain and there is no other to care for them at that moment save for their son who is immediately available to alleviate their pain, then it is even permissible for him to draw blood though by so doing he creates a wound.

Now comes along the Aruch HaShulchan (ad. loc. 241:sk6), who establishes an additional leniency. He rules that even if another medical doctor is immediately available, a son may still treat a parent if he is more medically proficient than the other physician available and the parent specifically wishes to be treated by his or her son. It is this opinion in the Aruch HaShulchan that should carry the day.

I once had a discussion with my late friend, mentor and Jewish Press halacha columnist, Rabbi Yaakov Simcha Cohen, relating to this kind of situation, and he was of the strong view (he viewed the Aruch HaShulchan as the Posek Acharon) that in a case where the son is faced with such a dilemma, he should treat his parent post haste and not wait for another individual no matter how better qualified to treat his parent if such is the parent’s wish. In retrospect, by applying his view to our case at hand, not only would your brother-in-law be following the proper halachic practice but it is also obvious that it would have prevented the negative feelings his mother likely developed both for her son and for a halacha that (right or wrong) did not make any sense to her.

Torah-observant health professionals and their families should be made aware of these Halachic rules.

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.