The obligation of “Kibud Ab Va’em” clearly requires one to care for all his parent’s needs, such as, when necessary, feeding the parent, dressing the parent, and bringing the parent where the parent needs to go. The Gemara discusses the question of whether one is also required to pay for what the parent needs, and concludes that one does not have to pay out of pocket for the Misva of Kibbud Ab. This means, for example, if a father requires medication, and he cannot go to the store to buy it, the child is required to go get the medicine, but the father is required to pay for it.
If the father is unable to afford what he needs, such as medication, then the child is required to pay for it, as charity. Just as Bet Din in general has the authority to force people to give charity for the poor, in this case, the Bet Din will force the child to pay for his father’s needs. Of course, it would be inappropriate for the child to tell his father that he is giving him charity, and he should spend the money willingly. But his requirement to pay in such a case is due not to the obligation of Kibbud Ab, but rather to his charity obligation, which should be prioritized towards his parents.
If the son cannot afford to purchase the father’s needs, he is not required to beg for charity, or even to take a loan. Instead, the community bears the obligation to provide charity money to help the father, just as it bears the obligation to support all those in dire financial straits. Needless to say, the son should do what he can to ensure that the community cares for his father’s needs, but he is not required to actually solicit money or secure a loan.
Halachic sources address the case of a person who is very poor, and has only enough food for one meal, but his father also needs food. In such a case, the child does not have to give his food to his father, because his own needs take precedence over his father’s. Nevertheless, the Aruch Ha'shulhan (Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein of Nevarduk, 1829-1908) writes that if the child has enough that he can share with his father – for example, he has meat and bread – he should certainly share with his father, such as eating only the bread and giving the meat to his father. Clearly, this Halacha is not all that relevant, as we would certainly expect every person to do what he can to ensure that his parents have food and all their other basic necessities.
The Sages established that even more important than what a child does for his parent is the manner in which it is done. If the child cares for the parent begrudgingly, with a sour face, then he does not fulfill the Misva, and in fact, he commits a grave sin. The Gemara gives the example of a child who feeds his father a pheasant – which was considered a very high-quality, expensive food – but when his father asks him how much it cost, the child replies, “Just be quiet and eat.” Such a person, the Gemara teaches, goes to Gehinam, even though he fed his father expensive delicacies. The Gemara then describes another case, where a father was to be conscripted to the army, and the son saves him by offering to serve in his father’s place, but the father then has to take the son’s place grinding with the millstones. Even though the son causes his father to perform difficult labor, nevertheless, the son earns his share in the next world, because he helped his father warmly and respectfully. Small actions done warmly and with a smile are worth far, far more than much larger actions performed begrudgingly and with resentment.
Summary: A child is required to tend to his parents’ needs, but is not required to pay for them. For example, if a parent is unable to go out and buy food or medications, the child is obligated to do so, but at the parent’s expense. If the parent cannot afford his needs, the child must direct his charity money to pay for the parent’s needs. If the child cannot afford to help the parent, then he is not required to borrow money or beg, but he should see to it that the communal charity organizations are providing for the parent’s needs. When a child cares for his parent, it is imperative that he does so in a kind, warm, joyful manner, and it is considered sinful to help one’s parent in a begrudging, resentful manner.