Orphans take a special place in Judaism. The Torah exhorts us numerous times to be particularly careful to treat orphans (and widows) with kindness and sensitivity. The sages of the Talmud set up numerous safeguards to ensure that their possessions and best interests are looked after until they are able to care for themselves.

Meet 10 Jewish leaders who were orphaned at a young age and went on to lead righteous and fulfilling lives that add richness and beauty to Jewish life until this very day.

1. Joseph the Righteous

Illustration by Sefira Ross.
Illustration by Sefira Ross.

Joseph, the eldest son of Rachel and favorite son of Jacob, was born after years of waiting, praying, and hoping. When Rachel passed away shortly after birthing her second son, Benjamin, Joseph’s special bond with his father intensified. Joseph’s half-brothers resented him dearly and sold him into slavery. Living in Egypt, he overcame temptation (and a prison stint) to become the viceroy to Pharaoh himself. Joseph is eternalized in Jewish teachings as Yosef Hatzadik, “Joseph the Righteous.”

Read the Full Story of Joseph

2. The Daughters of Zelophehad

Zelophehad was among the Jews who left Egypt but died before reaching the Promised Land, leaving five daughters but no sons. His wise and brave daughters approached Moses and asked to be given his portion of the land (which would generally have been given to a son, had he left one). Moses presented their request to G‑d, and G‑d agreed with them. Due to their sincere desire to own a portion of the Holy Land, they were given their father’s inheritance, and our tradition is that much richer.

Discover the Daughters of Zelophehad

3. Evyatar the Priest

As a child, Evyatar (known in English as Abiathar) survived King Saul’s vengeful massacre of Nob, the city of priests where men, women, and even infants were all executed. Evyatar became a faithful member of David’s retinue, and during Absalom’s rebellion he was part of a vital spying operation that thwarted the rebels’ plans and appraised David of enemy movement. During David’s reign, he served as the High Priest.

4. King Josiah

Josiah (or Yoshiyahu) inherited the throne of Judah at the tender age of eight, after the assassination of his father, King Amon. The young king presided over a spiritual awakening of historic significance. During the renovation of the Holy Temple that he commissioned, the Torah scroll written by Moses was discovered. This inspired the king and the people to renew their commitment to G‑d and rid themselves of idols.

Read the Story of King Josiah

5. Queen Esther

A descendant of King Saul with neither father nor mother, Esther was taken in by her cousin Mordechai, the leader of the Jewish community in Persia. Beautiful Esther was taken to the palace of Ahasuerus to become his queen. She hid her Judaism until the vicious Haman convinced Ahasuerus to have all the Jews in his kingdom executed. With great courage, Esther exposed Haman’s plot and, in a dramatic turn of events, saved her people.

Read the Book of Esther

6. Rabbi Yochanan

Rabbi Yochanan was born in the Land of Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple. His father died before he was born, and his mother died in childbirth, so Yochanan was raised by his grandfather. When Rabbi Judah the Prince noticed the promising young orphan, he recruited him into his yeshivah, where he was greatly impressed by Yochanan’s refined manner of speech.

Rabbi Yochanan, who lived a long and fruitful life as a Torah teacher and leader of the Jews in the Holy Land, was wont to remark that he was grateful to G‑d for having made him an orphan: since he never interacted with his parents, he could be certain that he had never treated them with disrespect.

Learn More About Rabbi Yochanan

7. Abaye

Abaye, too, was born a double orphan. He was taken in by his aunt and uncle, Rabbah Bar Nachmeni and his wife, to whom he appears to have been quite close. He quotes wise remedies and adages in the Talmud as things he heard from “Mother.” The very name Abaye—apparently not the name he received at birth—is a reflection of his orphanhood. It is an acronym for the word of the prophet Hosea: אֲשֶׁר־בְּךָ֖ יְרֻחַ֥ם יָתֽוֹם (“for in You the orphan is granted mercy”).1 As head of the yeshivah in Pumpeditah, his teachings are found (often alongside those of his colleague, Ravah) throughout the Babylonian Talmud.

Read: The Orphan Sage

8. The Holy Ari

Resting place of the Ari in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Safed.
Resting place of the Ari in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Safed.

Rabbi Isaac Halevi Luria was one of the most influential Kabbalah scholars of all time. Known as the Ari (“lion”), he led the legendary Safed Kabbalists in the 16th Century. He was orphaned from his father at a young age and taken in by his maternal uncle, the wealthy and learned Mordechai Frances of Cairo.

Despite living just 38 years, the Ari left an indelible mark on the Jewish people, opening up the wellsprings of Kabbalah in an unprecedented manner.

Learn More About the Arizal

9. Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov

© Zalman Kleinman
© Zalman Kleinman

By the age of five, young Yisrael was left orphaned from both his father and mother, Eliezer and Sarah. Before his death, Eliezer called his son to his bedside and advised him, “Fear no one but G‑d. Love every Jew with all your heart and soul, no matter who he is.”

These two directives would serve as the basis for Yisrael's service of G‑d and future teachings. A scholar and mystic who passionately loved all of G‑d’s creations, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov forged a new path of Divine service, known as Hassidism. His influence on Jewish life is felt strongly until this very day.

Learn More About the Baal Shem Tov

10. The Tzemach Tzedek

Young Menachem Mendel was the grandson of the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. His parents were Rabbi Shalom Shachna and Rebbetzin Devorah Leah. Sensing that a Divine decree threatened the future of the Chassidic movement, Rebbetzin Devorah Leah asked G‑d to take her life instead, absorbing the harsh decree upon herself. Her wish was fulfilled, and her son, who had just turned three, grew up on the knee of his illustrious grandfather.

Under his leadership, Chabad in Russia attained its peak, both in terms of numbers of adherents and in the scope of its influence. A prolific writer of mystical teachings as well as a revered halachic authority, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, was a bold and insightful leader of 19th century Jewry. Among his many endeavors, were his efforts on behalf of the Jewish Cantonists, who were kidnapped and forcibly inducted into the Czar’s army for 25 years.

Read: The Story of Devorah Leah