Rav Ya’akov Yeshayah Blau states the following judicial principle concerning child custody disputes1:
ודאי שמוטל על הבית דין לברר באיזה מקום יהיה טוב יותר לקטנים, שלפעמים קשה להיות אצל האב או האם כשהם נשואות לאחרים, וידוע שלהיות אצל אב חורג או אם חורגת לפעמים גורם למריבות, ולכן מוטל על הבית דין לבדוק ולדאוג לחינוכם של הקטנים באיזה מקום ייטב להם
In the spirit of the great ideal of Torah U’mada, we observed that one who has imbibed the great classics of world literature along with his mother’s milk will be well aware of this potential problem 2:
There once lived a gentleman and his wife, who were the parents of a lovely little daughter.
When this child was only nine years of age, her mother fell sick. Finding her death coming on, she called her child to her and said to her, “My child, always be good; bear every thing that happens to you with patience, and whatever evil and troubles you may suffer, you will be happy in the end if you are so.” Then the poor lady died, and her daughter was full of great grief at the loss of a mother so good and kind.
The father too was unhappy, but he sought to get rid of his sorrow by marrying another wife, and he looked out for some prudent lady who might be a second mother to his child, and a companion to himself. His choice fell on a widow lady, of a proud and tyrannical temper, who had two daughters by a former marriage, both as haughty and bad-tempered as their mother. No sooner was the wedding over, than the step-mother began to show her bad temper. She could not bear her step-daughter’s good qualities, that only showed up her daughters’ unamiable ones still more obviously, and she accordingly compelled the poor girl to do all the drudgery of the household. It was she who washed the dishes, and scrubbed down the stairs, and polished the floors in my lady’s chamber and in those of the two pert misses, her daughters; and while the latter slept on good feather beds in elegant rooms, furnished with full-length looking-glasses, their sister lay in a wretched garret on an old straw mattress. Yet the poor thing bore this ill treatment very meekly, and did not dare complain to her father, who thought so much of his wife that he would only have scolded her.
When her work was done, she used to sit in the chimney-corner amongst the cinders, which had caused the nickname of Cinderella to be given her by the family; yet, for all her shabby clothes, Cinderella was a hundred times prettier than her sisters, let them be dressed ever so magnificently.
The poor little Cinder-wench! this harsh stepmother was a sore trial to her; and how often, as she sate sadly by herself, did she feel that there is no mother like our own, the dear parent whose flesh and blood we are, and who bears all our little cares and sorrows tenderly as in the apple of her eye!
For the benefit of those whose education has included only Torah, and anyone else not familiar with the story, I will assure the gentle reader that this particular story ends most happily, but unfortunately, in the real world we cannot afford to be so optimistic.
My friend Yisroel shows me that this concern about stepmothers appears already in a responsum of Rav Yitzhak De Molina, a sixteenth century Egyptian rabbi3:
ומצאתי בתשובת הגאונים ז”ל: “גרושה דאית לה בני זוטרי והיא מנסבא לאחרים, את בתו לאבוהון למשקלינהו או לא?”, והשיבו: “אי אמרין אבוהון דלא מקבלינן עלי דמתרבו בנן על שולחן אחרים הרשות בידן. ודוקא דאית לאבוהון אמה או אחתא וכו’, דאתתא היא דרבייא בני זוטרי וכו'”. עד כאן. הנה כתבו הגאונים ז”ל דאף לגבי אבוהון לא מצו למשקלינהו מידי אימיה, אם לא שיהיה לאב אשה שתהיה קרובה לבן כדי שתגדלהו כראוי, ולאפוקי אשת האב, משום דאתתא דמרבייא בניה.