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Balak – Consideration Towards Widows

July 7, 2011

In many places, the Torah commands us to show special consideration towards widows. For example:

[1] In a number of places the Torah admonishes us to include them among the needy whom we are obliged to help with charity, tithes etc. Devarim 14:29, 16:11, 16:14, 24:19-21; 26:12-13.
[2] There is a special prohibition against causing them anguish – Shemot 22:21.
[3] It is forbidden to compel a widow to give a pawn or collateral on a loan before it is due – Devarim 24:17.

It is worth examining the unique nature of each class of admonition.
The most common motif regarding widows is to take account of their generally precarious economic circum- stances. Someone who has enough is always obligated to provide for those who are needy, but we should pay particular attention to the widow because of the unusual difficulties she has in supporting herself and often simultaneously raising a family.

The commandment regarding anguish relates equally to any widow, whether rich or poor. Here special consideration for the widow is called for because of the likelihood of emotional vulnerability. The memory of loss together with the ongoing experience of going it alone mean that the widow is likely to be more in need of support and encouragement than others.

Between these two extremes of economic and emotional interaction, there is an intermediate kind which we have often discussed: the human dimension of our market activities. This aspect is related to in the Torah in a third mandate which is a kind of hybrid of the other two. The Torah warns us not to demand a pawn (collateral) from a widow before the loan is due.

“Don’t distort the judgment of a stranger or an orphan, and don’t repossess the garment of a widow” (Deuteronomy 24:17). The Talmud concludes that this commandment, despite its economic nature, applies even to a wealthy widow. The explanation is that this kind of demand can be demeaning or distressing beyond its economic impact.

We all recognize that some “normal” market activities, particularly collections, often involve unpleasant interactions which neither side is necessarily particularly proud of afterwards. We should always be sensitive to the human side of these transactions, and if a widow is involved, we should be especially careful that everything is carried out in a businesslike fashion.

Some authorities have written that this commandment applies equally to divorced women (Sema CM 97:22); others disagree (Shach). In general, we should learn from the Torah’s attitude towards widows that we should display special consideration towards anyone who is financially or emotionally vulnerable.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.