Honoring and Mourning Adoptive and Step Parents

  • by: Joel B. Wolowelsky

Reprinted from Le’ela, June 2001, no. 51

(Dr. Wolowelsky is Associate Editor of the MeOtzar HoRav Series: Selected Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and Dean of the Faculty at the Yeshivah of Flatbush.  He is a member of the Professional Advisory Committee of the Bar-Ilan University Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora.)

The new family structures that have arisen within the general community have made their way to the Jewish community.  While the traditional nuclear family made up of mother, father, and their biological children remains the halakhic paradigm, the fact is that “blended” and adoptive families are becoming more and more common.  The interpersonal relationships within these families are usually negotiated in a non-halakhic context, and the “non-traditional” nature of the family is lost to some extent or another in its day-to-day activities. However, the halakhic obligations imposed on biological children might not apply equally to adoptive or step-children and, in the case of a death, this has within it the possibility of adding to the emotional pressures on the bereaved.

The basic obligation to honor and fear one’s biological parents, the first of the “interpersonal” commandments of the Decalogue, is an expression of gratitude, hakarat hatov, for having been created.  People owe their physical existence to their biological parents, and the ethics of gratitude demand that this debt be acknowledged in a particular recognizable form.  And just as the rabbis[1] noted that three entities –God, mother, and father–were involved in the creation of any child, so too they insisted that when one’s honors his or her parents, the person is considered as having honored God Himself.

When man recognizes his creatureliness before his parents, he recognizes the ultimate creatureliness, and the ultimate creator, as well.  For by acknowledging his parents, man admits that he is not the source of his own being, that he owes existence itself to forces beyond his own personal reality.  This can remain a most abstract, intellectual perception, to be sure; it is difficult to jar the certain sensation of self-sufficiency.  But the religious consciousness demands an awareness of a greater source of reality beyond.  The issue of origins, then, is paradigmatic of the choice between radical self-centeredness and acknowledgment of the Other.[2]

Filial responsibility, then, relates to acknowledging one’s having been created by others.  It is the act of creation –in this case, birth– and nothing else that triggers this obligation.  It is for this reason that people owe such filial responsibility to their biological parents, both during their lives and after their deaths, irrespective of their personal psychological relationship to them–indeed, irrespective of whether they have ever met.

The same cannot be said about adoptive or step-parents.  Indeed, the very notion of step-parent can bespeak very different realities.  A step-parent might be the person who married their parent and raised them for the bulk of their lives; it might also be the person who married their aged parent while a fellow resident of an old-aged home.  One has an obligation to respect each of these people while they remain married to their natural parent, but this is part of the obligation to respect the latter and not expressive of any relationship to the step-parents themselves.

One is obligated to respect his father’s wife even if she is not his mother as long as his father is alive, as this is part of the obligation to respect his father.  And similarly, one is required to respect his mother’s husband as long as she is alive.  But this obligation ends with her death.[3]

The Shulhan Arukh here adds, “In any event, the proper thing is to respect them even after the death of the natural parent,” and this advice is easily and properly extended to adoptive parents when neither is the biological parent.  Indeed, what possible objection could anyone raise to people supporting their adoptive or step-parents, not sitting in their seat or addressing them by their first name, and so on? Undertaking these formal expressions of respect and fear cannot possibly violate any halakhic norm and are, as the Shulhan Arukh states, the proper thing to do.  Significantly, though, when the Sefer ha-Hinukh discusses this mitzvah, he extends the rationale beyond the issue of creation:
A man should realize that his mother and father are the cause of his being in the world, and therefore it is truly proper that he renders them all the honor and do them all the service he can.  For they brought him into the world, and they labored greatly on his behalf during his childhood.[4]

There is a dual quality to parenthood, then, one that is exhausted by the creative act of birth and the other triggered by something that happens in the way parents raise their children.  The halakha identifies this latter phenomenon in teaching Torah to one’s children, in educating them on what is meaningful in life and toward what ends they should direct their activities.  “Paternity in human society, then, includes the separate persons of both father and teacher, much as human maturity implies both physical and spiritual growth.  Therefore, Jewish tradition sees the flowering of paternity in the master from whom one acquires Torah.”[5]

When these two personalities are not embodied in the same person, when the biological parent is not the one who raised the child, the teacher takes precedence, as  “one’s parent brought him into this world, while it is one’s teacher who taught him wisdom who brings him to the future world.”[6]  Significantly, however, the parent takes precedence over the teacher if it was the former who hired the teacher, as it was this action that led the child to the future world.[7]

Here, then, is the halakhic paradigm for the adoptive or step-parent who raises a child: the teacher who gives the child the world to come.  “When the letter hei was added to Abram’s name,” writes Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,

he became Abraham, the father of many nations, the spiritual father of all he taught.  Natural procreative Abramic parenthood was denied to the childless couple, yet creative Abrahamic parenthood is a challenge that everyone is summoned to meet…

There is no need to withhold from the adopted child information concerning his or her natural parents.  The new form of parenthood does not conflict with biological relation.  It manifests itself in a new dimension that may be separated from the natural one.  In order to become Abraham, one does not necessarily have to live through the stage of Abram.  The irrevocable in human existence is not the natural but the spiritual child; the threefold community is based upon existential, not biological, unity.  The existence of I and thou can be inseparably bound with a third existence even though the latter is, biologically speaking, a stranger to them.[8]

The relationship the adoptive or step-parents have with the children they have actually raised has a functional expression among many halakhists:[9] The children may be identified when called to the Torah and in formal documents as the son or daughter of those who raised them, and the normal restrictions of yihud (which generally allows unsupervised and close contact with only biological parents, siblings, and children) is not applicable to adoptive families, whose members interact as a biological family would. This is far more than transporting halakhic forms (like not addressing one’s adoptive parents by their first names) to the adoptive family.  It is an expression of a new halakhic reality, so to speak.

Nonetheless, it is not obvious that all the halakhic paradigms of filial responsibility carry over into mourning practices. Of course, there can be no halakhic objection to either feeling intense grief at the death of any individual or expressing it openly, whether or not the individuals have a biological relationship.  Certainly, an adopted or stepchild can avoid public celebrations for a year –part of the requirements of kibbud av va-em demanded of biological children– and memorialize their parents at each yahrzeit.  Yet there is a general reluctance among halakhists to carry over traditional ritual forms into unassigned areas.   For example, setting candles for an evening dinner may add to the mood of the meal, but does not have the same mitzvah fulfillment--kiyyum ha-mitzvah in technical language–as does lighting Shabbat candles for the Friday night meal.  Appropriating (or misappropriating) these “copyrighted forms,” so to speak, is often considered an infringement on the rabbis’ intellectual property rights.

With regard to formal halakhic mourning when it is not obligatory, there are additional considerations.  Avelut generates certain halakhic consequences, as mourning requires putting aside various mitzvot.  For example, the onen is exempt from prayer and the avel may not study Torah.  Moreover, the public nature of mourning may generate misrepresentation of the facts.  For example, if a child mourns his adoptive father, it might be assumed that he did not die childless and his widow does not need halitsa before remarrying.  This latter concern is less relevant if the adoption is an open one and the parents do not hide the truth from their child, as Rabbi Soloveitchik advised.

Rabbi Soloveitchik insisted that there is a kiyyum of the mitzvah of avelut even when there is no halakhic obligation to mourn the specific individual.  He drew this conclusion from the ruling that “Where there is a case of a deceased who has left no mourners to be com­forted, ten worthy men should assemble at his placeall seven days of the mourning period and the rest of the people should gather about them [to comfort them]. And if the ten cannot stay on a regular basis, others from the community may replace them.”[10]  It was for this reason that the Rav regularly advised children to mourn the adopted parents who had raised them.  If there was no hiyyuv [obligation] ha-mitzvah, there was nonetheless a kiyyum ha-mitzvah.[11]

Additionally, some forms of mourning become obligatory because the adoptive parents were their children’s Torah teachers, either by virtue of actually teaching them Torah, or orienting them towards an ethical life (which includes Jewish and halakhic identity), or simply paying others to educate them.  For example, one is obligated to do keri’ah (ritual ripping of one’s clothes) for one’s master teacher; this includes the person who brought one to be converted thereby granting him or her a portion in the world to come.[12]  One reason mourners are exempt from positive mitzvot during the period of aninut (from death until the burial) is that they are preoccupied with the burial arrangements, something that applies to adoptive and step-children.  However, they do not have the special exemption from putting on tefillin on the first day of mourning even after aninut ends with burial.  Thus Rabbi Shelomo Zalman Auerbach rules that after the funeral, the adopted child who is mourning should put on tefillin privately.[13]

There is no objection to the adopted child saying Kaddish for his or her adopted parent, as one can say Kaddish for any person whose memory one wishes to honor.  The only problem that can arise is in those synagogues which maintain the old custom of allowing only one person to say Kaddish.  There one who is not obligated to say Kaddish cannot claim the right from one who is obligated.  This issue is not relevant in our synagogues, where all who wish to say Kaddish do so together.  Questions of which mourner should act as hazzan can usually be resolved with goodwill.
Two other considerations come into play.  During shiva the mourner is forbidden to learn Torah or to engage in marital conjugal relations, this being part of the halakhic private mourning that is required even on Shabbat when public mourning is prohibited.[14]  (The child’s obligation to learn Torah is suspended when others come to comfort the mourner, says Rabbi Shelomo Zalman Auerbach because the obligation to honor the dead and those who raised him takes precedence.[15])  One’s obligation to learn Torah is, of course, fulfilled by studying those areas that permitted by any mourner.

These small differences between mourning biological parents, on the one hand, and step- or adoptive parents, on the other, are private and known only to the mourner.  They reflect an inner awareness that their parent-child relationship was Abrahamic rather than Abramic, one based on responsibilities willingly assumed rather than imposed as a consequence of a biological act.  As an expression of hakkarat hatov, the child’s mourning is dutiful testimony that the deceased had indeed met the challenges of Abrahamic parenthood.

[1]                         TB Kiddushin 30b
[2]                         Gerald Blidstein, Honor Thy Father and Mother (New York, Ktav, 1975), p. 5.
[3]                            Maimonides (Rambam), Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Mamrim 6:15; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 240:21.
[4]                          Sefer ha-Hinukh, Mitsvah 33, italics added.
[5]                           Blidstein, p. 139.
[6]                           Mishna at TB Bava Metsia 33a; Tur and  Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 242.
[7]                           Rema to Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 242:34.
[8]                          Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Family Redeemed, edited by David Shatz  and Joel B. Wolowelsky (New York: Toras HoRav Foundation, 2000), pp. 60f.
[9]                          For a discussion of these issues, see, for example, Mordecai Hakohen, “Imutz Yeladim lefi haHalakha [Adopting Children According to Halakha],” in Y. L. Hakohen Maimon, ed., Torah Shebe-al Peh, vol. 3, 5721 [1951].
[10]                           Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah, 476:3. Cf. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avelut, 13:4.
[11]                          Elyakim Kenigsberg, Sheurei HaRav [Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik] al Inyanei Avelut ve-Tisha Be-Av [Lectures of  Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Matters Pertaining to Mourning and Tisha Be-Av](Jerusalem, Israel: Mesorah, 1999), p. 38. Cf. Zvi Schacter and Menachem Genack, eds.,  “Mipi Hashemua miMaran HaGrid Soloveitchik [Lectures Heard from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik],”  Mesorah, no. 5, Adar 5751 [1991], p. 41.
[12]                          Hayyim Binyamin Goldberg, Penei Barukh (Jerusalem, Israel, 5746 [1986], p. 102, n. 7, quoting Sha’ar Ephraim, Yoreh De’ah no. 71.
[13]                          Quoted in Abraham Sofer Abraham, Nishmat Avraham (Jerusalem, Israel: Rimonim, 1987), vol 5, p. 141.
[14]                          See Joel B. Wolowelsky, “A Note on Shabbat Mourning,” Judaism, 24:1, Winter, 1975.

[15]                          Nishmat Avraham, op cit.