A few months ago, an elderly widow who did not merit giving birth, but instead, adopted children, called my wife. After her husband passed away, amongst his books she found one of my Jewish law books, “P’ninei Halacha” with a bookmark placed on the ‘halacha’ (law) concerning the respect adopted children should give their parents.
She read there: “Towards adoptive parents, the mitzvah of ‘honoring one’s parents’ does not apply, however, from the aspect of morality and the mitzvoth of kindness, adopted children are obliged to thank them immensely, for there is no greater ‘chesed’ (kindness) in the world than what adoptive parents provide their children. Therefore, as long as they live, adopted children should repay them with kindness, and treat them with great respect. And obviously, if the parents need assistance, the adopted children must help them as best they can; if they are sick – they must attend and aid them in all their needs, just as ordinary children are obliged to do for their biological parents. And after their adoptive parents pass away, it is a mitzvah for the adopted children to recite ‘Kaddish’ for them.”
After reading the ‘halakha’ (law), she was distressed; she had hoped that the duty of honoring adoptive parents would have stemmed from the obligatory ‘halakha’, and not just from the aspect of morality. She related that her relationship, and that of her husband’s, with their children, was not so good; they do not keep in close contact as is common with conventional parents. My telephone number was written on the bookmark. She wanted to know if her husband had spoken to me before he died.
My wife and I responded that we had not spoken, but as far as ‘halakha’ was concerned, there was no need to be regretful, because the moral obligation is no less important. Nevertheless, my heart was wrenched with sorrow. And although the ‘halakha’ cannot be changed, I was worried that I had not written sensitively enough. I was comforted somewhat that in the new edition, which has not yet been completed, I expanded further on this matter (even before she called), in a way that, perhaps, things will be more tolerable.
The Version in the New Edition
The Torah mitzvah of honoring one’s parents applies only to one’s biological parents, and not to adopted parents (Sotah 49a). However, from the aspect of moral obligation, since the adoptive parents treated him like a son, he too, must treat them as ordinary parents.
As our Sages said: “Anyone who raises a boy or girl orphan in his house – Scripture accounts it as if he had begotten him” (Megilah 13a).
In a certain sense, the moral obligation of an adopted child is even greater, since human nature is for parents to care for and raise their children. But when a couple takes an orphaned or abandoned child and raises him, their kindness is much greater, and therefore, the duty to be grateful for this is also greater.
And as our Sages also said (Ketubot 50a), anyone who raises a boy or girl orphan in their house and marries them off, it is considered as if he ‘does righteousness at all times’ (Psalms 106:3). It is further explained in the Midrash that God possess treasures to reward the righteous, and amongst them, a special treasure to reward those who raise orphans in their homes (Shmot Rabbah 45:6).
Therefire,, it is clear that an adopted child is morally obligated to behave towards his adoptive parents with fear and respect, just as a regular child behaves towards his parents, and even more. If they need assistance, the adopted child must help them as best as he possibly can. If they are sick, he must attend to them, and aid them in all their needs, just as children are obligated to do for their parents.
However, if the parents need medical care likely to involve the spilling of blood, they can ask their adopted child to do it (provided they know how to give such treatment properly), because the Torah decree to be careful not cause a parent to bleed, only applies to biological children.
And after they pass away, it is a mitzvah for adopted sons to say the Kaddish prayer for them.