What are the sources, if any, for the idea of a makom kavua (set place) for parents at a dinner table? Does this apply only when the parents are present? Does it apply to guests?
The Torah commands us to show respect (kavod) to our parents (Shemot 20:12) and treat them with awe (morah) (Vayikra 19:3). The gemara (Kiddushin 31b), in delineating morah, includes not standing in their place or sitting in their place. What is considered “their place”? Regarding standing, Rashi explains that it is referring to a communal place where some fathers congregate for people to seek their advice. He does not explain what the place of sitting is. The Ramah, cited by the Tur (Yoreh Deach 240) says that one should not sit in his parent’s seat (literally, place of lounging) at home. The Tur implies that Rashi felt that a seat at home lacks the importance for the prohibition to apply, but the Beit Yosef says that Rashi agrees with the Ramah. He says that sitting in a parent’s seat at home is obviously forbidden, and Rashi needed to explain where standing would be problematic, as such a formal place does not exist at home. In any case, the Shulchan Aruch (YD 240:2) forbids sitting in a parent’s spot at home as well. The Beit Yosef (ibid.) and Shach (YD 240:1) say that it is permitted to stand where one’s parents usually sit, as this is not taking his or her place in a manner that equates the child’s importance to his parent’s. A contemporary posek (Hilchot Bein Adam Lachaveiro 5:79) says that it is also forbidden to sit in a parent’s physical chair if it is unique (special upholstery, arm rest, etc.) even if it is in an unusual location. Most sources seem to indicate that the prohibition applies even if the parent is not present. However, there are some opinions that if the parent is not present and it is not a case where all have assumed their regular places except that the son has taken his father’s place, then it is okay (Rishon L’tzion, pg. 94). What several poskim discuss and a consensus permit is after the parent’s death (Chayim B’yad 125). The parent’s place is not holy, and to the contrary, inheritance is very much about taking over that which the parent left behind. (There are opinions that one should avoid sitting in a father’s place in shul during the year of aveilut.) A parent can waive his right to honor (Kiddushin 32a) and so, with his permission, one can sit in his place. Although there is a machloket whether he may even allow his disgrace (see discussion in Yaskil Avdi 7:21), it seems clear that sitting in one’s place is rarely a disgrace (ibid.). In many cases, permission may be assumed. For example, the Aruch Hashulchan (YD 240:9) uses such an assumption to explain the standard practice that boys sit in their father’s seat in shul when the latter is not there. In general, it seems from the poskim that a practical, logical approach is called for. Rav Elyashiv is quoted (Bein Adam Lachaveriro 5:77) as saying that the prohibition does not apply to a parent’s bed, which is not a place of honor. It is possible, in many families, that there is a true parent’s “seat of honor” only at a Shabbat table and that at other times or in a different room things are not as set or viewed as seriously (it depends on the family). Certainly there is no need to create such a seat, and if a parent moves around often, for whatever reason, we would not grant the seat he sits in most frequently the status of his seat. In a similar vein, the Aruch Hashulchan (ibid.) said that while the halacha applies to a mother, it was less common in his time for a mother to have a set seat. Regarding a guest, certainly the stakes are lower as we are not discussing the serious commandment of honoring a parent. However, it is worthwhile for a guest to ascertain whether there is a strongly defined set place for the head(s) of the family. If there is, it would be appropriate for him to respect it as well. Rabbis of Eretz Chemda