Does the Torah Legislate Affirmative Action for Orphans?

February 11, 2015 | Gil Student
About the author: Gil Student is an Orthodox rabbi, the editor of, and the book editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine.

The Torah repeatedly mandates care for orphans (along with widows and the poor), most notably by creating a special tithe to be given them and by commanding “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan” (Exodus 22:22). The Talmud understands the latter injunction as endowing orphans with special legal privileges. But do these apply to anyone whose parents have died, or only to children? What about orphaned children with inherited wealth, or indigent adult orphans? Searching rabbinic literature, Gil Student concludes that only those under the age of twenty, who are not yet able to fend for themselves, qualify—and there are, he writes, important lessons here:

Life is full of challenges. If we offer preferential treatment to everyone who has suffered setbacks or encountered difficult or even traumatic circumstances, then the preference would be nullified by abundance. . . . A child separated from his parent or whose parent is unable to raise or assist him is not an orphan but still must overcome difficult challenges. Why doesn’t he receive preferential treatment? The Torah reserves this treatment for the unique, tragic case of an orphan. Everyone else [ought to receive] sympathy and encouragement, as well as our charity and support, but not preferential treatment.

Additionally, and perhaps important for contemporary discussion of affirmative action, adults must take responsibility for their situations. The disadvantages and setbacks of our upbringing do not entitle us to perpetual special treatment. Even those who seem to come from charmed backgrounds carry emotional baggage. Children need guidance and support, and therefore orphan children receive preferential treatment. Adults, though, need to take control of their lives. While we must deal with every individual sensitively, we have no Torah-based affirmative action for adults.

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