Widow (אִלמָנָה, χήρα). The benevolent influence of the Bible is in nothing more apparent than in the superior treatment which woman has experienced among those nations where it has prevailed; especially in that most forlorn; and helpless class of females who have been deprived of the support and protection of a husband. Among pagans, on the contrary, and conspicuously in Oriental lands, the condition of widows is most deplorable. They are generally regarded with suspicion and contempt, and, in many countries, with positive abhorrence, as if the cause of their husbands' death. In India this oppression seems to have reached its culmination of misery; and the atrocious custom of widow-burning or suttee (q.v.), was for ages the doom of this unfortunate class. SEE WOMAN.
I. Widows among the Hebrews. — Besides the general law against their hard treatment (Ex 22:22-24), there was special legislation respecting them.
1. Their rights should always be respected (De 10:18; De 27:19); nor should their clothing or cattle be pledged (De 24:17), nor their children be sold for debt (2Ki 4:1; Job 24:9). According to Maimonides (Sanedr. 21, 6) their cases must be tried next after those of orphans.
2. They must be invited to the feasts accompanying sacrifices and tithe- offerings (De 14:29; De 16:224; 26:12 sq.). Childless priest- widows living in their fathers' houses had a right to the priests' meat (Le 22:13). In later times it was the custom that the rich sent them wine for the passover meal; in the time of the Maccabees widows were also allowed to deposit their property in the temple treasury (2 Macec. 3:10).
3. Gleanings were left for them (De 24:19-21), and they shared in the battle spoils (2 Macc. 8:2830). Their remarriage was contemplated (Le 21:14, but the high-priest was forbidden to marry one), and only on the childless widow did the Levirate law operate (De 25:5; SEE LEVIRATE ). The later Judaism greatly facilitated the remarriage of widows (Jebanloth, 15:1 sq., 4 sq.; 16:4 sq.), but this was to be done not less than ninety days after the husband's demise. According to Kethuboth, 12:2 sq.; Gittin, 4:3, if the widow remained in her husband's house the heirs had to provide her with the necessary rooms and means for her support; but if she went to her father's home she forfeited her right to support more than was absolutely necessary, and neither she nor the heirs could lay claim to her dowry until the expiration of twenty-five years, provided she could prove by oath that she had not yet received anything of it. In order to get subsistence, widows were allowed to sell the property of their husbands, both real and personal (Kethuboth, 8:8; 9:9; Maim. Ishuth, 16:7 sq.). In case a man left two widows, the first wife had prior claims (ibid. Cosj. 17:1). Betrothed women whose prospective husbands died were considered as widows, and such a one the high-priest was also forbidden to marry. In spite of these laws and regulations, complaints of the unljust treatment of the widows in Israel were heard at different times (Isa 1:17,23; Isa 10:2; Jer 7:6; Jer 22:3; Eze 22:7; Mal 3:3), and even in the New Test. period (Mt 23:14).
See Selden, De Succ. ad Leg. Ebr. in bona Defunct.; Mendelsohn, Rit. Gesetze, 4; Gans; Erbrecht, 1:152 sq.; Saalschutz, Mosaisches Recht, 831 sq., 860 sq.; Fronmuller, De Vidua Hebraea (Wittenberg, 1714); Dassovius, Vidua Hebraea, in Ugolino's Thesaurus, 30:1025 sq.; Herzog, Real-Encyclop. s.v.; Lichtenberger, Encyclop. des Sciences. Religieuses, s.v. (B.P.)
II. Widows among Christians. —
1. In the early Church abundant and careful provision was made for them by special ministration appointed under the apostles themselves (Ac 6:1-6); and Paul gives particular directions concerning them (1Ti 5:3-16) in terms which have been understood by some commentators as ranking them in a special class of Church officials, but which rather seem to indicate their general maintenance at the expense of the body of believers, after a careful discrimination, such as the nature of the times then dictated. The writers who immediately succeeded the apostles often refer to the duty and practice of caring for the poor widows of the Church (Hermas, AMand. 8:10; Sin7. 1:8; 5:3; Ignlatius, Ad Smyrn. 6; Ad Polycarp. 4; Polycarp, Ad Philip. 4, etc.). In still later times the Apostolical
Constitutions and other authorities speak of a distinct order by this name (τὸ χηρικόν), but these appear to have held an eleemosynary office, rather than to have been themselves beneficiaries. SEE DEACONESS. They eventually took vows like nuns, and, in fact, devoted themselves to a conventual, or, at least, continent and actively benevolent life. See Smith, Dict. of Christ. Antiq. s.v. At the same time this body formed a convenient refuge for the destitute widows of those days, and in the Roman Catholic Church nunneries have largely been recruited from the ranks of bereaved or disappointed women. But, aside from this, Christian churches have in all ages exerted themselves with a praiseworthy diligence and liberality to furnish shelter and maintenance for believing widows whose relatives have been found unable or unwilling to provide for them. In more recent times special retreats, called "Old Ladies' Homes," have been established, where, for a moderate charge or entirely gratuitously, indigent widows are comfortably and pleasantly taken care of, without compelling them to become objects of public charity. SEE POOR.