Widows in Jewish Tradition

The Torah tells us to protect widows--but not all Jewish authorities recommend marrying them.


Reprinted from
The Jewish Religion: A Companion
, published by Oxford University Press.

There are numerous injunctions in the Bible to care for widows and orphans and to avoid taking advantage of their situation of having no husband or father to protect them.

Protecting Rights

The underprivileged to whom the poor man’s tithe was to be given include ‘the orphan, and the widow (Deuteronomy 26:12).’ The warning not to oppress a widow or an orphan is stated with full rigor: ‘You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their cry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans (Exodus 22:21-3).’

The Midrash stresses the word ‘any’ in the verse to include ‘the widow of a king’ and in the Jewish tradition generally concern for the feelings of the widow and orphan applies even to wealthy widows and orphans, not only to the poor and disadvantaged.

jewish widowsFrom Talmudic times onwards the courts appointed a guardian for orphans, a trustworthy man who would administer faithfully and voluntarily the estate they had inherited from their father. The prophet Isaiah urges his people: ‘Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow (Isaiah 1:17).’

Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah declares: ‘If you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow (Jeremiah 7:5-6).’

Job, protesting his innocence, says: ‘For I saved the poor man who cried out, the orphan who had none to help him. I received the blessing of the lost, I gladdened the heart of the widow’ (Job 29:12-13).

In Jewish law as developed by the Rabbis, while orphans inherit their father’s estate, a widow does not inherit her husband’s estate. But the ketuhah consists of a settlement on the estate from which the widow is entitled to maintenance until she remarries.

Many Jewish communities had an orphanage in which the young charges were cared for, not always as kindly as they should have been judging by the frequent complaints found in Jewish literature. A teacher was allowed to chastise an orphan ‘for his own good’ but orphans should otherwise be treated with special tenderness and consideration. Unfortunately, some teachers appear to have interpreted ‘for his own good’ in a less than generous way.

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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