Caring for the Weak

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Parsha Halacha / Parshat Mishpatim/ Parshat Shekalim /

Shabbat Mevarchim Chodesh Adar

Compassionate Treatment of Orphans and Widows
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36 of the 54 mitzvot in the Torah portion of Mishpatim[1] are Mitzvot between man and his fellow-man. Three[2] of these involve the way we treat the most vulnerable among us. Those Mitzvot are
  • Not to oppress a convert with (offending) words
  • Not to cheat a convert
  • Not to oppress orphans or widows, whether through actions or words, as the verse says, “Do not oppress any orphan or widow.”[3]
This article will discuss the last of these three Mitzvot.
The Punishment
Concerning one who oppresses orphans (and widows), the Torah writes, “If you oppress him, beware, for if he cries out to Me, I will surely hear his cry. My wrath will be kindled, and I will slay you with the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans.”
Rashi explains that this extreme punishment is for one who oppressed orphans (or widows) who then prayed to G-d to save them from his oppression. If one oppresses them and they do not pray to G-d about it, the oppressor also receives a punishment, but the exact nature of that punishment is not known to us.
The Rashbam explains that this punishment is measure for measure (midah keneged midah). Since one mistreated orphans and widows, his own family will have to endure that same situation.
When the sages listed[4] the sins for which the punishment is “death by the Hands of Heaven (mitah biydei Shamayim),” it does not list this sin, despite the fact that the Torah explicitly states, “I will slay you with the sword.” The reason for this is that the punishment for this sin is even worse than the usual “death by the hands of Heaven” in which the person is killed outright. In the case of one who mistreats an orphan or widow, the oppressor’s death (may) take(s) place in a manner that never becomes public, thus never giving his family full closure on his death (G-d forbid). As a result of this, his wife will remain a perpetual widow (she’ll be an agunah and forbidden to remarry), and the children will be unable to claim their inheritance.[5]
Prayers Answered
The Ramban explains that G-d pays particular attention to the cries of the orphans and widows since they often do not have others to assist them.
Why Orphans and Widows?
Rashi explains (based on the Mechilta) that, although the verse singles out orphans and widows, it actually includes any vulnerable person. “The Scripture speaks of the usual situation, since they [widows and orphans] are weak and frequently oppressed.”
This is not the opinion of the Rambam who holds that this Mitzvah applies specifically to orphans and widows, as he writes,[6] “A person is obligated to show great care for orphans and widows because their spirits are very low and their feelings are depressed.”
The Sefer HaChinuch explains,[7] “Because these people are weak and do not have someone to put forward their claims to other people. Had the husband of the widow – the father of the orphans been alive, he would have done so. Our perfect Torah therefore warned us to acquire the trait of kindness and mercy in our soul and be proper in all of our actions (towards these individuals) as if there were someone speaking on their behalf. And we should have compassion on them and see (the issues from) their perspective even more than if the father (or mother) were alive.”
A Divorcee
The halacha states that one may not forcibly take collateral from a widow.[8] The reason for this is that, since she has left her father’s home and does not have a husband, she does not have a man to argue her claims in court. (While women may certainly go to court, she may be hesitant to do so.) Some of the commentaries[9] say that the same applies to a divorcee.Some include even a single woman who is no longer living with her parents.[10] Others disagree and say that the Mitzvah applies only to widows since they are, naturally, more broken-hearted.[11]
It has been suggested that the opinions which include a divorcee (and even a single woman) in the Mitzvah of not taking collateral, also include them in the Mitzvah of not oppressing widows.[12]
Children of Divorce
In a similar vein, Rabbi Avrohom Isaac Hodakov wrote[13] that children from a broken home (where only one of their parents plays an active role in their lives) are sometimes “virtual orphans” whose situation may be even worse (G-d forbid) than actual orphans. He therefore exhorted teachers and educators to give special treatment to such children in recognition of the difficulties they encounter daily.
Children of a Convert
When an entire family converts, they are not considered to be related to each other halachically. Similarly, the child of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father is not considered to be related to his father halachically. Also, if the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother converts to Judasim, he is not halachically related to either of his parents. In all of these cases, it is possible they are not considered orphans for the purpose of this Mitzvah since, after all, they do have a biological parent who can assist and advocate for them as needed.[14]
Orphans from One Parent
The Rambam writes[15] that “This (Mitzvah) applies to both those orphaned from their father and those orphaned from their mother.”[16]
Wealthy Orphans and Widows
The Rambam writes[17] that the mitzvah of not mistreating orphans and widows even applies to the children and widow of a king. Certainly, it applies to wealthy people, as the verse says, “Do not mistreat any widow or orphan” since the loss of a husband or parent causes an emotional crisis which brings stress and increases the sensitivity of the family members. Even a family whose financial status is secure may suffer strain and emotional upheaval.[18]
The Details
The Rambam writes, “How should one deal with them? One should only speak to them gently and only treat them with honor. One should not cause pain to their persons with [burdensome] work or aggravate their feelings with harsh words, and [one should] show more consideration for their financial interests than for one’s own. Anyone who vexes or angers them, hurts their feelings, oppresses them, or causes them financial loss transgresses this prohibition. Surely this applies if one beats them or curses them.”
For a Good Cause
The Rambam continues, “When does the above apply? When one causes them suffering for one’s own purposes. However, it is permitted for a teacher to cause them suffering while teaching them Torah or a craft or in order to train them in proper behavior. Despite this, he should not treat them in the same manner as he treats others, but rather make a distinction with regard to them and treat them with gentleness, great mercy, and honor, for the verse states, “For G-d will take up their cause.”[19]
Care with Money of Orphans
Regarding a guardian of an orphan’s estate, the Rambam writes,[20] “Although a guardian does not have to make an accounting (to the court)… he must keep a personal account, being extremely precise, so as not to incur the wrath of the Father of these orphans, He who rides upon the heavens, as the verse states, MMake a path for He who rides upon the heavens… the Father of orphans.”[21]
One who transgressed and oppressed orphans and widows must seek (and receive) their forgiveness. Even after doing so, one must also repent in front of G-d and resolve never to repeat the offence. Since the punishment for this sin is so severe, it is possible that even after doing Teshuvah, one does not receive full atonement until after Yom Kippur and after experiencing suffering.[22]
Until What Age?
The Rambam writes,[23] “Until when are they considered orphans in the context of this Mitzvah? Until they no longer need a mature individual to support, instruct, and care for them and are able to see to all their own needs themselves, like other adults.”
The Kaf HaChaim[24] writes that, after the age of 20, orphans no longer need special treatment. If they are mature and can handle their own affairs even before that age, they are not considered orphans for this purpose from then on.
The Reward
Rabeinu Bachaye writes, “As long as you are careful with them and have mercy on them, the attribute of judgment will be turned to mercy… And with this, you and your children will have a long life as your actions are considered righteous (tzedakah) in G-d’s eyes. The reward for such tzedakah is long life as it says, “Tzedakah saves from death”[25] and “On the road of tzedakah is life, and in its path there is no death.”[26]
May we merit to the time when G-d will “swallow death forever, and the L-rd G-d shall with the tears off every face.”[27]

[1] This is the number of mitzvot in this portion according to the Sefer HaChinuch. (See there that, according to his custom, this portion is actually two Torah portions, Mishpatim and Im Kesef Talveh.)
[2] This is following the Rambam’s view. The Ramban is of the opinion that not oppressing the orphan and widow counts for two mitzvot.
[3] Exodus, 22:21
[4] Sanhedrin, 83a
[5] Ramban. See also, Rashi
[6] Laws of De’ot, 6:10
[7] Mitzvah 65
[8] Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat, 97:14
[9] Me’irat Einayim, 22
[10] Taz, 10
[11] Shach,1 and Tumim 8
[12] Minchat Chinuch. It is difficult for me to understand why there would be a prohibition to specifically oppress a single woman.
[13] The Educator’s Handbook (published by Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, New York, 1998), page 54
[14] Minchat Chinuch
[15] De’ot ibid
[16] Rabbi Eilyahu Touger suggests that this is based on a reference (in Bava Metzi’ah 70a) to the children of Mar Ukva as orphans. This, despite the fact that their mother was alive at the time of that occurance. See here
I was unable to find a source which states that their mother was still alive at the time of that occurrence. On the contrary, the Talmud (Sanhedrin, 29a as explained in Rashi D.H. Kerovim) states that Mar Ukva’s wife died during his lifetime. This may have been a different Mar Ukva or a different wife of Mar Ukva’s. See Toldot Tana’aim Ve’Amora’im, vol. 3 by Rabbi Ahron Heiman, entry Mar Ukva.
[17] Hilchot De’ot, ibid
[18] Rabbi Eliyahu Touger in explanation of the Rambam
[19] Proverbs 22:22. See also Shulchan Aruch HaRav, 156:9
[20] Laws of Nachalot, 11:12
[21] Psalms 68:5-6
[22] Minchat Chinuch based on Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah, 1:4 regarding teshuvah for any sin punishable with death by the hands of Heaven.
[23] De’ot ibid
[24] 156:14 in the name of the Petach HaDevir
[25] Proverbs 10:2
[26] Ibid 12:28
[27] Isaiah 25:8
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Chodesh Tov!

Aryeh Citron

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