June 23rd is the official date recognized by the United Nations as International Widows Day. The day was first observed in 2005, and, in 2010, it was ratified by the U.N. to address “the poverty and injustice faced by millions of widows.” Too often, particularly in agrarian societies, the death of a woman’s husband leaves her without a means of support or at the mercy of others who have a claim on the estate.
In Jewish law, a marriage is made official by means of a ketubah, marriage contract, which establishes the support that husbands are required to provide their wives. If a husband passes away, the support is expected to come out of the deceased’s estate. This is important because according to the Jewish laws of inheritance, a man’s estate normally goes to his son(s). While one would hope that these sons would be naturally inclined to support their mother, that is not always the case. This law also provides protection for widowed step-mothers, who might otherwise be cut off by their step-children.
One of the most interesting aspects of the mitzvah not to oppress the widow is that, whereas one may think that these rules are only directed at widows who face impoverishment, it applies to all widows, no matter what their socio-economic status may be.
The protection of a widow, and orphans, is not only a question of financial support. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888), the word almanah (widow) is related to the word illem, which means “dumb” or unable to speak, because the widow loses her ability to speak to the world on her own behalf. “It [the law] says any widow not only poor, even rich widows and orphans are easier to be taken advantage of and misused, than other people” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, commentary on Exodus 22:21).
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