Widows in Jewish Tradition

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

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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.

Remarriage

The High Priest alone was forbidden to marry a widow (Leviticus 21:14) from which and from other scriptural passages the Talmud (Kiddushin 13b) deduces that a widow is permitted to others than the High Priest.

On the other hand, another Talmudic passage (Pesahim 111a-b) quotes the advice given by Rabbi Akiba to Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai: 'Do not cook in a pot in which your neighbor has cooked,' explained, in one version in the Talmud, to mean that Rabbi Simeon was advised not to marry a widow because, as it is put euphemistically, 'not all fingers are alike,' that is, she may compare, to his detriment, the performance of her second husband with that of her first.

Although this certainly does not constitute advice for all Jews, a passage in the Zohar (ii. 102a-b) states that to marry a widow is dangerous because the spirit of her first husband can cause harm to her present husband. Here again the Zohar does not actually forbid a widow to remarry and, in any event, Jewish law does not normally take the Zohar into account where its teachings are in contradiction to clear rulings of the Talmud.

While a few pious men in the past did refuse to marry a widow, the normal attitude throughout the ages is permissive and there are many instances of pious scholars marrying widows. In some medieval sources, however, it is stated that the widow of a martyr should not remarry.

Where a man dies without issue, the laws of levirate marriage and halitzah come into operation.

The Talmud (Yevamot 64b) observes that it is dangerous to marry a woman who has been widowed from two former husbands, either because she may have some malignant disease in her womb which caused their deaths or because it may be her fate not to have a husband to support her. The second view is applicable to cases where the woman was widowed from her first two husbands without having lived with them or where the death was due to an accident.

The Shulhan Arukh (Even Ha-Ezer 9:1) rules that if her marriage to the third husband had already taken place there is no need for them to be divorced, and further qualifications are found among the codifiers.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

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.