Rabbi Eli Monsour writes:
Is It Permissible For A Son To Treat His Father In The Case Where Blood Might Be Drawn
The Torah forbids causing a bloody wound in one's parent, or doing anything that results in the drawing of blood from a parent. The Rishonim (Medieval Halachic authorities) debate the question of whether this prohibition extends to situations where a son draws blood from his father for medicinal purposes. For example, may a physician perform an operation on his parent or draw blood for a blood test? This question arises in other situations, as well, such as if a parent wishes to donate blood, or if a parent has a splinter and asks the child to remove it, which often results in bleeding.
The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, Spain-North Africa, 1135-1204) held that in such situations, a child may perform the given procedure if nobody else is available to do so. By contrast, the Rif (Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi, North Africa-Spain, 1013-1103) and the Rosh (Rabbi Asher Ben Yechiel, Germany-Spain, 1250-1327) held that under no circumstances may a child draw blood from a parent, even if nobody else is available. Despite the fact that the child seeks to draw blood for medicinal purposes, such as for a blood test or to remove a splinter, the Torah prohibition nevertheless forbids drawing blood from a parent.
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei'a, 241:3; listen to audio for precise citation) rules that a child may not draw blood from a parent for medicinal purposes. The Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, Poland, 1525-1572), in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, comments that where nobody else is available to perform the procedure it is permissible for a child to do so – in accordance with the Rambam's position. The Shulchan Aruch, however, makes no reference to such a distinction, indicating that he followed the stringent view of the Rif and the Rosh, forbidding drawing blood from one's parent even if nobody else is available to perform the required procedure.
Accordingly, Hacham Yishak Yosef (as cited in Yalkut Yosef – Laws of Honoring Parents, p. 539) ruled that it is forbidden for a child to draw blood from a parent for medicinal purposes, even if nobody else is available to perform the procedure. He added that this applies even if the parent granted the child permission to draw the blood.
Is it permissible for a child to shave his father's face? If, for example, the father is sick or elderly and cannot shave independently, may he ask his son to shave his face for him?
Hacham Yishak Yosef (ibid.) ruled that nowadays, when electric shavers are used, shaving is very unlikely to cause bleeding and it is therefore permissible for a child to shave his father's face. It is likewise permissible for a child to cut his father's hair. Hacham Yishak Yosef adds, however, that if the child uses a blade to trim the back of his father's neck, he must exercise particular caution to ensure not to cause any bleeding.
Similarly, it is permissible for a child to scratch his father's back, provided that he ensures not to cause bleeding.
If a person faints, Heaven forbid, is it permissible for his child to slap him on the face to wake him up?
Hacham Yishak Yosef (ibid. p. 553) ruled that since slapping does not entail any drawing of blood, a child may slap his father in such a case if nobody else is available to do so. If, however, there are other people available to wake the father, the son should ask them to slap the father rather than do so himself.
Summary: A child may not draw blood from his parent even for medicinal purposes – such as performing surgery, removing a splinter or taking blood for a blood donation or blood test – even if nobody else is available to perform the given procedure. A child may cut his father's hair, shave his face, or scratch his back, provided that he exercises caution to ensure that no bleeding occurs. If one's father fainted, he may slap his face to awaken him if nobody else is available to do so.
Here are the reasons why this ruling is foolish, misguided and dangerous:
- Medieval medicine is not like medicine today. Our medicine is based on science, peer-reviewed studies, and on empirical results. medieval medicine was largely based on hope and on anecdotal evidence.
- Bloodletting – a discredited medieval procedure – is not halakhicly equivalent to laser surgery or an emergency appendectomy.
- Allowing a parent to suffer or die when one could save their life by operating is not an act of piety – it is an act of murder.
- Halakha always defers to saving life unless one of the three so-called cardinal mitzvot are involved. Not causing a parent to bleed is not one of those three halakhot.
- The Rif and the Rosh, who both ruled against allowing a child to draw blood of a parent, did so when bloodletting was bloodletting and not modern surgery. They can be excused, so to speak, for being stringent at a time when medicine was an absolute crap shoot. If they lived today, I hope both would side with the Rambam and allow a son to perform emergency surgery and the like on a parent in need. Hacham Yitshak Yosef, who does live today, cannot be excused on those grounds – or any other, for that matter.
- Note that, of the three opinions quoted, only the Rambam had medical training and knew the science of his day. The Rosh and the Rif did not. (The Rosh can be said, jokingly, to be the first haredi because he largely opposed secular knowledge. The Rif himself was hostile to Spain's "modern Orthodoxy" and worked to instill "haredi" values there.)
- Doctors, medics and emergency personnel – do not follow Hacham Yitshak Yosef on this matter. He is wrong on several grounds and his dangerous ruling should be ignored.