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Stepchildren In Halacha


How does halacha define stepchildren? Are they considered full children, half children, and for what purpose? What kind of relationship does the stepparent have vis-à-vis his stepchild? If a will bequeaths assets to “my son Avraham” who is a stepchild, is the will invalid? Can one use his stepfather’s name to be called up to the Torah or sign a contract? Can a pseudonym be considered halachically acceptable? Of this and more, in the coming article.

Serach Bas Asher — Stepchildren in Halacha

This week’s parasha describes the final days of Yaakov’s life when he blessed his children. The Twelve Tribes’ blessings were also their personal mission. Interestingly, before blessing his children, Yaakov blesses Efraim and Menashe – his grandchildren, as if they were children. Indeed, Efraim and Menashe are counted as two of the Twelve Tribes.

Last week’s article discussed Serach, Asher’s adopted stepdaughter, who was counted among Yaakov’s seventy descendants who travelled with him down to Egypt. Serach is the classic example of a stepchild, leading to last week’s discussion about stepchildren in halacha. This week we will conclude the topic. (Adopted children were previously discussed in this space in the article on Parashas Vayigash, 5780.)

Who Was Serach?

Last week we noted the Ramban and many other Rishonim (Bamidbar 26:46) cite the Targum Onkelus who writes that Serach was Asher’s wife’s daughter from a previous marriage. He explains that the Torah names her Asher’s daughter because he was the one who raised her.

Rabbi Yochonon Luria, an early Ashkenazi Rav (Meshivas Nefesh, Bereshis 46:17) disagrees with this approach. He proves his opinion from the Gemara: while it mentions many sources to prove that an orphan goes by his step or adoptive parent’s name, Serach is not one of the names on the list. Therefore, this proves that the Amoraim in the Gemara saw Serach as Asher’s biological daughter, contrary to Onkelos’s approach.

However, the poskim who follow Onkelos’ approach refute this proof arguing that the Gemara was referring specifically to orphans with no biological ties to either of his adoptive parents. Therefore, Serach does not qualify for this list because she was Asher’s wife’s daughter. Stepchildren always take precedence over adopted children even if they were not raised by the stepparent (for example, an older child who has already grown up and left home). Since stepchildren have a halachic relationship to their stepparent, when derivlaws concerning raising other prople’s children the Gemara had to brings examples from adoption of total strangers, and could not cite Serach.

Spouse’s Relatives

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 28b) discusses the question of relationships – are a wife’s relatives halachically considered one’s own relatives? The Gemara asks: How could the pasuk write: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother you shall not come near his wife; she is your aunt” (Vayikra 18:14) when the wife of a father’s brother is not an aunt, but an uncle’s wife? The Gemara answers that this proves that a relative of either spouse is a relative of both. As a result, the Gemara determines that when a person is invalid as a witness or judge due to family ties, his spouse is invalid as well. If an aunt cannot be a witness for her nephew, neither can her husband. This halacha appears in the Shulchan Aruch (CM 33:3).

The Rama (responsa 95:6) writes that although the Riva reads a dispute in the Gemara if a husband’s relative is also his wife’s relatives, or if the wife’s relatives are also her husband’s, most poskim maintain — and halacha follows this majority opinion – that both spouses’ relatives are considered relatives, and the Gemara does not disagree on this topic.

Therefore, a wife’s daughter is halachically also considered her husband’s daughter, just as an uncle’s wife is halachically considered an aunt; a mother-in-law is halachically seen as a mother, and a father-in-law – a father.

Promissory Note for a Stepson

Is a promissory note written out for “my son Avraham”, or a will bequeathed to “my son Avraham” considered valid when the said son is really a stepson?

The Maharam of Rothenburg (Teshuvos Maimoni, Mishpotim 48) discusses this question, and validates this bill, allowing the writer to call his stepson “my son” for three reasons:

1) People tend to call people they love “my son”, as Shlomo Hamelech writes in Mishlei (4:20): “My son, hearken to my words”, and Neomi tells Ruth, her daughter in law: “My daughter, I must find a home for you” (Ruth 3:1).

2) One who raises someone else’s child is considered having given birth to him (Sanhedrin 19b).

3) One’s wife’s child is considered his own, even if he didn’t raise him. A husband and wife are one unit, therefore his wife’s son is considered his own child.

The Rama (CM 42:15) therefore accepts a note, bill, or will in which a stepchild is called a child. The Levush (CM 42:15) and Tumim follow suit.

The Knesses Hagedola (notes on Tur 42, 75), though, limits the validity of this note only to the situation when there is no other son besides the stepson. However, when there are biological sons, a note dedicating funds to “my son” cannot be considered valid or directed to a stepson. Rabbi Akiva Eiger (glosses on CM 42:15) cites this source.

The Tumim (Urim 42:47), disagrees with the Knesses Hagedola since the Maharam’s reasons remain in place whether or not one has biological children or not. He agrees with the Knesses Hagedolo only if there is a biological child with the exact same name as the adopted child.

The Chasam Sofer (res. EH 1, 76) rebuts the Tumim and explains that explains that only when there are no other sons can “my son” refer to a stepson. Otherwise, how could one ensure his will is carried out if he has other children who will step in and demand a share? When one only has a stepchild, this sort of will ensures one’s inheritance goes to him and not to his halachic heirs who are only his father or brothers.

The Chida (Chaim Sho’al 1:41) discusses a testator who bequeathed money or other valuables to “my son”, without mentioning his name when he only has a daughter besides his grandson, adopted son, or son of a spouse from a previous marriage whom he never raised. He rules that in all these situations the son can refer to these relatives, proving his opinion from the following sources:

Calling one’s only daughter “my son” is acceptable, as we find in the Beis Yosef (responsa, Hilchos Kesuba 1) and Mabit (volume I, chapter 102): all of one’s children, both male and female, are called “sons”. Therefore, one who doesn’t have a son might still call his daughter “my son”. A son in law can also be referred to as “son”, because husband and wife are one unit.

A grandson can also be referred to as “my son”: The Gemara (Yevamos 62b) rules that grandchildren are like children.

An adopted child can be called “my son” as we see from the Gemara (Megillah 13a; Sanhedrin 19b), an orphan one raises is considered his own child.

A stepson from one of the spouses’ previous marriages can be called “my son”, despite not having raised him. This we learn from the Torah calling Serach Asher’s daughter, despite being his wife’s daughter. As for raising her, the Ramban seems to indicate she is called Asher’s daughter only because she was his wife’s daughter, not because he raised her.


The Chasam Sofer (volume III chapter 76) was presented an interesting question: a man in certain town was known as Avraham ben Eliyahu. This was how he signed his name, and this was the name he used to be called up to the Torah. One day, Avraham announced his plans to marry his father Eliyahu’s, sister – a severe Torah prohibition.

The local rabbi, Rabbi Meir, called Eliyahu, Avraham’s father, and asked him how he could permit his son to transgress such a severe prohibition. The father answered that Avraham was not his biological son but rather his wife’s son from her previous marriage, but when he married her, her son decided to go under his stepfather’s name for convenience’s sake and to prevent uncomfortable questions. Rabbi Meir presented the question to the Chasam Sofer, with several questions born of this situation. Is one’s own testimony reliable to announce that his son is not his biological child to allow him to marry one of his relatives?

The rabbi claimed the father had done wrong in misleading people to think Avraham was his son when he called him “Avraham ben Eliyahu”, while it was not true.

While the Chasam Sofer answered that calling an adopted child by his adoptive father’s name is not prohibited, as the Torah does in several places such as Serach bas Asher, the proposed marriage between Avraham and Eliyahu’s sister remains prohibited for other reasons.

The Minchas Yitzchak (volume IV chapter 49) maintains that hiding one’s biological parents is wrong because it can lead to violations of Torah laws. The Torah wants people to know who their biological parents are, and is very careful not to conceal that information. He proves this assertion specifically from Serach’s case, where the psukim provide clear hints at who her real parent is. Only once her status as a stepchild is known and established does the Torah calls her Asher’s daughter. Therefore, only after making it known that a child is not a biological one can he be called “son”. One must never hide the fact that a child is adopted or a stepchild.

A Divorcee’s Child

A very weighty question is discussed in the Aruch Hashulchan: Rachel was the biological daughter of a father called Leib. She was raised by a man named Shmuel Leib, and wished to go only by her stepfather’s name. When she divorced, she announced that her name on the get should appear as “Rachel, daughter of Shmuel Leib”. Is this get valid? The Aruch Hashulchan validates it, based on the fact that Otniel, one of the Shoftim, is called “Ben Knaz” despite Knaz being only his stepfather. However, he adds that if the get still exists, the name “Shmuel” should be erased so only the name Leib, the biological father’s name, remains. Then, the get should be resent. (The discussion is obviously more extensive. Here only one of the topics is presented as relevant for our discussion.)

Marrying the Child of Divorced Spouse

There is a long list of relatives that the Torah prohibits marrying, some biological and others – relatives of one’s spouse. Most prohibitions remain in place after the spouse’s death or divorce, with two exceptions – a wife’s sister, whom one may marry after his wife’s death; and a brother’s wife after a husband dies childless. This union is permitted as a levirate marriage (which is no longer practiced today).

What happens if one marries a woman and divorces her, and then many years later wishes to marry her daughter from her subsequent marriage?

This question depends upon the previously mentioned discussion. If the divorced wife’s relatives are prohibited because a husband and wife are one unit, after divorcing her, she is no longer considered her husband’s own body. The daughter she bears later from another marriage has no relationship with her former divorcee, and the couple can marry.

The other option sees a relative of a forbidden relative as forbidden by extension. Therefore, since one cannot remarry his divorcee once she remarries, her daughter – which is her first-degree relative – is her former divorcee’s relative by the previously described extension, and the union is forbidden.

The Aruch Laner (Binyan Tzion I, 136) discusses this question, and writes that apparently Rashi maintains it is permitted, but the Tosefos’s opinion is unclear.

The Achiezer (volume I, chapter 11) was presented with a question which involves just this case: someone wanted to marry his divorced wife’s daughter, born after they divorced. He proves from various sources that this marriage is forbidden.


The above-mentioned discussions prove that children of spouses from previous or subsequent marriages are halachically considered children of their stepparent, even if not to full extent. When the stepchild is raised in his stepparent’s home, his status is more pronounced, along with an adopted child who is considered a child of his adoptive parents.



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