You Shall Not Ill-Treat Any Widow or Orphan: A Moral Value Made Law
The Style of the Laws in the Covenant Code
Of the 67 verses about law in the Covenant Collection (Exod 21:2—23:19), 46 are expressed in the third person. For example:
שׁמות כא:כו וְכִי יַכֶּה אִישׁ אֶת עֵין עַבְדּוֹ אוֹ אֶת עֵין אֲמָתוֹ וְשִׁחֲתָהּ לַחָפְשִׁי יְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ תַּחַת עֵינוֹ.
Exod 21:26 When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye.
In 21 verses, the direct, second person address is used. These laws take a variety of forms. For example:
Second person singular verb – כִּי תִקְנֶה עֶבֶד עִבְרִי, “when you acquire a Hebrew slave…” (21:2). Some laws also incorporate a pronominal adjective, such as “your” – כִּי תִפְגַּע שׁוֹר אֹיִבְךָ, “when you encounter your enemy’s ox…” (23:4).
Second person plural verb (less common) – וְגֵר לֹא תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, “you [singular] shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you [plural] were strangers in the land of Egypt” (22:20). In this example, the singular and the plural appear in the same sentence.
Sometimes the “you” who is addressed can be deduced. For example, the law against taking bribes would likely apply to judges, to whom bribes are most often offered; furthermore, the verse refers to clear-eyed decision-making and hearing someone’s plea:
שׁמות כג:ח וְשֹׁחַד לֹא תִקָּח כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר פִּקְחִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִים.
Exod 23:8 You shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right.
In the vast majority of these second-person laws, however, it is likely that every Israelite is being addressed. For example:
שׁמות כג:יג ...וְשֵׁם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים לֹא תַזְכִּירוּ לֹא יִשָּׁמַע עַל פִּיךָ.
Exod 23:13 …You should make no mention of the names of other gods; they shall not be heard on your lips.
שׁמות כג:יט ...לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ.
Exod 23:19 ...You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
These would seem to apply to each and every Israelite. Other second-person laws must be evaluated individually, on their own terms and in their own context, to determine whom they address.
Who Is Warned against Ill-treating Widows and Orphans?
The law concerning the welfare of widows and orphans is written in the second person plural:
שׁמות כב:כא כָּל אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם לֹא תְעַנּוּן.
Exod 22:21 You [plural] shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.
God speaks here in the first person, and uses the second person, “you,” repeatedly and forcefully to warn those who disobey:
שׁמות כב:כב אִם עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה אֹתוֹ כִּי אִם צָעֹק יִצְעַק אֵלַי שָׁמֹעַ אֶשְׁמַע צַעֲקָתוֹ. כב:כג וְחָרָה אַפִּי וְהָרַגְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בֶּחָרֶב וְהָיוּ נְשֵׁיכֶם אַלְמָנוֹת וּבְנֵיכֶם יְתֹמִים.
Exod 22:22 If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, 22:23 and My anger shall blaze forth and I will kill you by the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
Rashbam (ca. 1080–ca. 1160) explains the moral lesson of this text in just three words of commentary “מידה כנגד מידה—measure for measure.” In other words, the appropriate punishment for “you,” if you mistreat widows or orphans, is that your own wives will become widows and your own children orphans.
All Israelites or Only Community Leaders?
The law does not identify the “you” to whom the prohibition is directed, but it seems to address all Israelites. The translation of this verse in The Contemporary Torah (= CT; JPS 2006), however, includes the following gloss: “You [communal leaders] shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.”
To justify their claim that these verses are directed exclusively to community leaders, CT adds a footnote:
In ancient Israel (and the Near East), the responsibility for assisting and protecting widows and the fatherless was understood to rest upon local householders, elders, priests, and the king. See, e.g., Zech. 7.10; Ezek. 22.6–7; Isa. 1.23; Jer. 22.3.
Of the four passages that CT cites, only Isaiah 1:23 is specifically directed at communal leaders or judges, chastising them for not respecting the rights of vulnerable people:
ישׁעיה א:כג שָׂרַיִךְ סוֹרְרִים וְחַבְרֵי גַּנָּבִים כֻּלּוֹ אֹהֵב שֹׁחַד וְרֹדֵף שַׁלְמֹנִים יָתוֹם לֹא יִשְׁפֹּטוּ וְרִיב אַלְמָנָה לֹא יָבוֹא אֲלֵיהֶם.
Isa 1:23 Your rulers are rogues and cronies of thieves, every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts; they do not judge the case of the orphan, and the widow’s cause never reaches them.
In the other three passages, although the prophets initially address a leader or leaders, they then command a broader audience. In Zechariah, for example, YHWH’s command to “execute true justice” may well focus specifically on judges, but the remaining commands appear to be directed at all Israelites:
זכריה ז:ט כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת לֵאמֹר מִשְׁפַּט אֱמֶת שְׁפֹטוּ וְחֶסֶד וְרַחֲמִים עֲשׂוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו. ז:י וְאַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם גֵּר וְעָנִי אַל תַּעֲשֹׁקוּ וְרָעַת אִישׁ אָחִיו אַל תַּחְשְׁבוּ בִּלְבַבְכֶם.
Zech 7:9 Thus said YHWH of Hosts: Execute true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another. 7:10 Do not defraud the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; and do not plot evil against one another.
Ezekiel’s list of the sins of Jerusalem similarly begins with a complaint against “the princes of Israel,” but it then lists crimes and sins that may be committed by all levels of society:
יחזקאל כב:ו הִנֵּה נְשִׂיאֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ לִזְרֹעוֹ הָיוּ בָךְ לְמַעַן שְׁפָךְ דָּם. כב:ז אָב וָאֵם הֵקַלּוּ בָךְ לַגֵּר עָשׂוּ בַעֹשֶׁק בְּתוֹכֵךְ יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה הוֹנוּ בָךְ.
Ezek 22:6 Every one of the princes of Israel in your midst used his strength for the shedding of blood. 22:7 Fathers and mothers have been humiliated within you; strangers have been cheated in your midst; orphans and widows have been wronged within you.
The continuation of the passage also mentions a mix of offenses that have no clear association with elites—such as not properly observing the Sabbath, adultery and other sexual offenses, and bloodshed (vv. 8–11).
Jeremiah likewise addresses his instructions about proper treatment of widows and orphans initially to the king, but then explicitly expands the instructions to include his courtiers and his subjects.
ירמיה כב:ב וְאָמַרְתָּ שְׁמַע דְּבַר יְ־הוָה מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה הַיֹּשֵׁב עַל כִּסֵּא דָוִד אַתָּה וַעֲבָדֶיךָ וְעַמְּךָ הַבָּאִים בַּשְּׁעָרִים הָאֵלֶּה. כב:ג כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה עֲשׂוּ מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה וְהַצִּילוּ גָזוּל מִיַּד עָשׁוֹק וְגֵר יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה אַל תֹּנוּ אַל תַּחְמֹסוּ וְדָם נָקִי אַל תִּשְׁפְּכוּ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה.
Jer 22:2 Say: “Hear the word of YHWH, O king of Judah, you who sit on the throne of David, and your courtiers and your subjects who enter these gates! 22:3 Thus said YHWH: Do what is just and right; rescue from the defrauder him who is robbed; do not wrong the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; commit no lawless act, and do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place.”
Other Biblical Texts
Many other biblical passages about proper treatment of widows and orphans have no connection at all to communal leaders. Malachi, for example, includes defrauding widows and orphans in a broader list of sins:
מלאכי ג:ה וְקָרַבְתִּי אֲלֵיכֶם לַמִּשְׁפָּט וְהָיִיתִי עֵד מְמַהֵר בַּמְכַשְּׁפִים וּבַמְנָאֲפִים וּבַנִּשְׁבָּעִים לַשָּׁקֶר וּבְעֹשְׁקֵי שְׂכַר שָׂכִיר אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם וּמַטֵּי גֵר וְלֹא יְרֵאוּנִי אָמַר יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת.
Mal 3:5 But [first] I will step forward to contend against you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: Who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger, said YHWH of Hosts.
In addition, Deuteronomy’s gleanings law applies to all farmers, not just leaders:
דברים כד:יט כִּי תִקְצֹר קְצִירְךָ בְשָׂדֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ עֹמֶר בַּשָּׂדֶה לֹא תָשׁוּב לְקַחְתּוֹ לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה יִהְיֶה לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ.
Deut 24:19 When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow—in order that YHWH your God may bless you in all your undertakings.
A Command for All
The evidence thus suggests a broad view among the biblical authors that people at all levels of society should take care not to mistreat widows and orphans. Indeed, in Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics, Jeremiah Unterman argues that not only communal leaders are responsible for the socially marginalized:
[N]umerous Divine laws . . . enjoin the community and its members to care for the vulnerable elements of society. For the first time, the community becomes responsible for the fate of the individual.
Unterman further claims that the biblical laws are unique:
[The Bible’s m]oral-legal obligations to help others (who are not first-degree family members) . . . have no parallel in the ancient Near Eastern law collections.
Widows and Orphans in ANE Texts
Concern for those on the margins of society does appear in ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature. For example, a Mesopotamian collection of sayings and advice instructs the reader that those who abuse the downtrodden should expect divine punishment:
Ll. 56–60 [ ] the lowly, take pity on him. Do not despise the miserable and [ ]; do not wrinkle up your nose haughtily at them. One’s god will be angry with him for that. It is displeasing to Shamash; he will requite him with evil.
An Egyptian text, “The Instruction of Amenemope” (13th–11th centuries B.C.E.), contains a similar warning against one who would defraud a widow:
vii 12–19 Do not move the markers on the borders of fields, nor shift the position of the measuring-cord. Do not be greedy for a cubit of land, nor encroach on the boundaries of a widow. The trodden furrow worn down by time, he who disguises it in the fields, when he has snared (it) by false oaths, he will be caught by the might of the Moon.
The text describes such a person as “an oppressor of the weak” (viii 2), who will lose his wealth and possessions because he has not pleased his god.
But what about ANE laws?
The prologues and epilogues to some cuneiform law collections include protecting widows and orphans as a principle. In the epilogue to the Laws of Hammurabi, for example, the king declares:
LH xlvii 59–78 In order that the mighty not wrong the weak, to provide just ways for the waif and the widow, I have inscribed my precious pronouncements upon my stela….
But the only laws concerning widows that we find in ANE codes deal with family squabbles. As Unterman puts it, ANE laws about widows and orphans invariably “deal with property disposition to the widow or orphans.” The Laws of Hammurabi (18th century B.C.E.), for example, address inheritance protections for the children of a widow who remarries:
LH §177 If a widow whose children are still young should decide to enter another’s house, she will not enter without (the prior approval of) the judges. When she enters another’s house, the judges shall investigate the estate of her former husband, and they shall entrust the estate of her former husband to her later husband and to that woman, and they shall have them record a tablet (inventorying the estate). They shall safeguard the estate and they shall raise the young children; they will not sell the household goods. Any buyer who buys the household goods of the children of the widow shall forfeit his silver; the property shall revert to its owner.
The Middle Assyrian Laws (11th century B.C.E.) include provisions for the widow whose late husband did not specifically stipulate an inheritance for her, saying that her sons, who presumably inherited, have a responsibility to take care of her:
MAL A 46 If a woman whose husband is dead does not move out of her house upon the death of her husband, if her husband (while alive) does not deed her anything in writing, she shall reside in the house of (one of) her own sons, wherever she chooses; her husband’s sons shall provide for her….
The Torah Turns Moral Values into Law
These ANE passages suggest a recognition of the moral value of treating the weak and the poor well. The laws in the Mesopotamian legal collections contain instructions for proper behavior toward a family member, and they require fair treatment in the judgment of cases involving property, but they do not address the welfare of widows and orphans in general. Thus, in terms of legal requirements, Unterman’s suggestion that the laws of the Bible are where “the concept of communal responsibility” for the disadvantaged is born is on firm ground.
Communal Responsibility for the Disadvantaged in the Biblical Commentaries
Pre-modern Jewish commentators also understood that the Torah sees care of the poor, the widow, and the orphan as the responsibility of the entire community. Abraham ibn Ezra (c. 1092–c. 1167) bases his conclusion on the shift from plural to singular in the law:
שׁמות כב:כא כָּל אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם לֹא תְעַנּוּן. שׁמות כב:כב אִם עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה אֹתוֹ...
Exod 22:21 You [plural] shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. 22:22 If you [singular] do mistreat them...”
In his (first) commentary on verse 22, he writes:
אם אחד יענה ואין עוזר, העונש על כלם.
If one person afflicts [an orphan or a widow] and no one comes to their aid, all are punished.
R. Hezekiah ben Manoah (1260–1310) expands on this idea in his Hizzekuni (v. 21):
מצוה זו כתובה בלשון רבים מה שאין כן בכל הדינין הכתובים בפרשה זו לפי שכולם פושעים בם אפילו אותם שאינם מקניטים שהרי רואים הם עלבונם ושותקים ואינן מוחין
Alone of all the laws here, this mitzvah is written in plural—for everyone can be considered to be involved in this sin, even those who do not themselves belittle [widows and orphans] but who see this being done and remain silent without protesting.
Samuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865) offers an explanation that incorporates judges into the law, but that still makes the requirement not to mistreat widows and orphans applicable to all Israelites (ad loc.):
בלשון רבים, צווי לכלל האומה, כלומר לשופטים שיעשו משפטם, ולא יניחו לשום יחיד שיענה אלמנה ויתום בלי שיהיה נענש; ולפיכך בא העונש על כלל האומה, והרגתי אתכם בחרב.
The Hebrew is in the plural. The command is to the entire nation, that is, to the judges who decide their cases; they are not to allow any individual to mistreat a widow or orphan without being punished. Therefore, the penalty falls upon the nation at large: “And I will slay you [אֶתְכֶם, pl.] with the sword.”
Ethical Obligations Apply to Everyone
The Torah understands the obligation to be fair and compassionate to widows and orphans as the responsibility of every Israelite. Communal leaders, as Luzzatto points out, may have to take action to make sure that everyone complies, but responsibility falls on all Israelites. As Unterman points out, this is one of the Torah’s innovations, an idea that revolutionized ethics and was an important step toward the principles of social welfare in modern democracies.
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Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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