Jewish Core Value
Do not oppress the stranger, orphan, and widow. Or phrased more positively, to extend help to the vulnerable of society.
In Traditional Jewish Life
According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, more than just material support of widows and orphans is required. He cites the medieval sage Maimonides: “A man ought to be especially heedful of his behavior toward widows and orphans, for their souls are exceedingly depressed and their spirits low. Even if they are wealthy, even if they are the widows and orphans of a king, we are specifically enjoined concerning them.”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the Hebrew word for widow, almanah, derives from illem, meaning “dumb, speechless.” Yatom, the word for orphan, comes from a word implying mutilation. Hirsch interprets this to mean that a widow no longer has anyone to speak up for her (especially true in former times when the status of women was not what it is today in the West), while an orphan’s hand has been figuratively cut off since there is no father to lead with a helping hand. He concludes that the vulnerable of society need to be given both a voice and strength to live.
Basis in Hebrew Scriptures
Many verses tell how we should relate to the powerless, with strangers (sojourners), widows and orphans (sometimes translated “fatherless”) as key examples. Note how it is stated both negatively (what not to do) and positively (what should be done and why):
“You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry; …” (Ex. 22:22-23 [Hebrew, 21-22]).
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19).
“Cursed is the one who perverts the justice due the stranger, the fatherless, and widow” (Deut 27:19; see also Deut. 24:17).
“Learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is. 1:17; see also Jer. 22:3).
“Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy” (Psa. 82:3).
Consider this verse as a counterpart to the above; “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me” (Psa. 27:10).
New Testament Teaching
Following are some New Testament mentions of widows that show how God regards them:
- Their frequent plight of poverty in no way diminishes their ability to love and please God:
Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood” (Mark 12:41-44).
- Jesus’ care for a widow provides the context for one of His most dramatic miracles:
Now it happened, the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd. And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother. Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us”; and, “God has visited His people” (Luke 7:11-16).
- Jesus warned against those who are unjust to widows:
“Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation” (Luke 20:46-47).
- The church was instructed to care for widows, as well as orphans:
“Honor widows who are really widows”* (1Tim. 5:3; see also 1 Tim. 5:16).
*The context (verses 4-5) differentiates between widows who are truly alone and those who have children and grandchildren who ought to care for them.
“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
The New Testament also makes promises to believers using the imagery of widows, orphans and strangers.
Jesus promised His followers that He was not abandoning them as orphans but would send the Holy Spirit:
“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:16-18).
Also to prevent us being as helpless as orphans, widows or strangers, we have Jesus as our Advocate (1 John 2:1) and the Holy Spirit as our Helper in prayer (Romans 8:26).
Examples of This Core Value in Contemporary Jewish Culture
The “heyday” of Jewish societies for orphans was in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. As explained by the American Jewish Historical Society, “When the first Jewish orphanages were created in the 1860s, government agencies rarely provided social services, so Jewish philanthropies had to meet the needs of their most vulnerable members or risk losing them to the streets or to Christian missionaries.” These institutions provided not only for orphans, but for any children whose parents were unable to care for them— underscoring that this core value is really about all the vulnerable. Some institutions included care for widows, such as the Jewish Widows and Orphans Home of New Orleans.
To get an idea of the extensive network of such homes and societies, see the list at bitly.com/kbvillage.
For an outstanding collection of historical photographs from the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York (which existed 1860-1941), see:bitly.com/nyc-orphans..
For a contemporary Orthodox Jewish response to a question about widows, see:bitly.com/widows-question..
Ways to Connect with Jewish Friends
Should you have a Jewish friend who has recently lost parents or spouse, it is good to send a Jewish sympathy card (they can be found in many card shops). Let your friend know that you are praying for him or her. Remember that it is often better to listen than to speak to those grieving. However, at an appropriate time, it is certainly right to speak of God’s love even in the midst of difficult circumstances. Depending on your relationship with the bereaved, you may be able to talk about Jesus’ care for widows (see above) which may lead to a further conversation about the gospel.
To those with a cynical view of “religion” or the church, you can agree that people have not always done what they should do, and point out the many biblical admonitions and examples of care for the vulnerable of society. If your friend “doesn’t like organized religion,” you can also point to James 1:27 (above) on what “pure religion” should be about, in contrast to simply going through the motions of faith.
Finally, be aware that many Jewish people are acutely sensitive to the sufferings of those who might be viewed as disenfranchised or unempowered, and that is often a driving force in their approach to social issues. Christians may disagree on the meaning of or solution to some of these issues, but can still express biblical compassion as a common denominator.