Question: I am a teacher and I have an orphaned girl in my class. How must I act when she misbehaves? Similarly, a colleague of mine is a divorced woman. Is there any special prohibition to cause them pain?
Answer: In the previous Halacha we have explained that Hashem has commanded us not to oppress widows and orphans. Anyone who does so transgresses a grave sin and his sin is too great to bear.
The Rambam (Chapter 6 of Hilchot De’ot) writes: “One must be careful when dealing with orphans and widows, for they are extremely downtrodden, even if they are wealthy. We are even warned regarding a king’s widow and orphans, as the verse states, “You shall not oppress any widow and orphan.’”
The Rambam continues and explains: “How must one treat them? One should only speak to them softly and treat them respectfully. One should not hurt their bodies with physical labor or their hearts harsh words. One should value their money more than one’s own assets. One who teases, angers, hurts, tyrannizes them, or diminishes their money transgresses a negative Torah commandment; all the more so if one hits or curses them. The punishment for this sin is stated explicitly in the Torah, as the verse states, ‘And my anger shall flare and I shall kill you with the sword.’ This means that Hashem has made a covenant with them (widows and orphans) that whenever they cry to Him as a result of injustice, they shall be answered, as the verse states, “For if they cry out to me, I shall surely hear their cries.”
Nevertheless, clearly, if an orphan must be reprimanded for his own benefit, this must certainly be done. Indeed, the Rambam writes: “When we say that it is forbidden to oppress a widow or orphan, this is only if one is oppressing them for his own benefit. However, if a teacher oppresses them in order to teach them Torah or a trade or in order to guide them along the correct path, this is permissible. Even so, one should not act with in the normal way one would toward anyone else. Rather, one should guide them with much pleasantness, mercy, and respect, as the verse states, ‘For Hashem shall fight their fights.’ This applies to any orphan, whether one has lost a father or a mother.”
We see from the words of the Rambam that although a teacher must discipline an orphan student when the student is misbehaving, however, great care should be taken in order not to cause the orphan undue pain. The teacher must treat the orphan with great mercy, kindness, and respect amid much understanding and compassion.
Until when is one considered an orphan regarding this issue? The Rambam writes, “until they do not require the assistance of an adult to raise them and take care of their needs and he can fulfill his own needs on his own like other adults.” This means that that there is no specific age until when orphans have this halachic classification; rather, this varies for every person, for if one is suffering and extremely emotional such that one requires a father or mother figure to take care of him, this individual is still classified as an orphan. Even an eighteen year old can possibly still retain this classification.
The Mechilta states in the name of Rabbi Yishmael that just as one may not oppress a widow or orphan, it is likewise forbidden to oppress any person, as Rashi (Shemot 22) comments that the Torah is not merely referring to widows and orphans; rather, it is forbidden to oppress anyone. The reason why the Torah singles out widows and orphans is because they are relatively weaker than others and it is more common for them to be harassed.
Thus, the more one is sensitive because of any event he has experienced, the more one must take care to treat such an individual with care and consideration and not to hurt him. Similarly, our Sages teach us (Baba Metzia 59a), “One should always take care not to hurt one’s wife, for since her tears are near, her pain is closer in coming.” This means that since women are naturally more sensitive than men, one must be extra cautious not to hurt their feelings because they are easily insulted. It is for this reason that their prayers are more readily answered (similar to what we have written in the name of Rabbeinu Bechaye regarding widows and orphans in the previous Halacha).
Thus, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l once pointed out that the Torah’s strictness regarding the oppression of a widow can sometimes apply to a downtrodden divorced woman as well and anyone who hurts her will surely be punished gravely, for she already endures plenty of suffering and her tears are close to the surface.
Let us conclude with an incident that occurred during the lifetime of the saintly Chafetz Chaim zt”l. In his neighborhood lived a widow who rented a house nearby. As a result of her extreme poverty, she could not afford to pay the rent. The landlord arrived at her home on a cold winter night and evicted her amidst much shouting and carrying on. In this way, this poor widow was thrown into the street on the night of Yom Kippur. The Chafetz Chaim exclaimed, “I have waited many years to see what would be the lot of this cruel, wicked man. Indeed, approximately a decade later, this landlord was bitten by a rabid dog from which he contracted rabies; when this man’s illness became worse, he would roam the streets of Radin barking like a rabid dog with drool dripping from his mouth. All of the town’s residents distanced themselves from him and he eventually died shamefully and miserably.”
In the future, Hashem shall resurrect all the dead and all widows and orphans shall rejoice once again. May Hashem abolish death eternally and wipe away all of our tears forever, Amen.