The Torah requires us to show extra concern and sensitivity toward orphans due to the trauma, challenges, and difficulties that they have experienced, and continue to experience. For example, one must speak to orphans in an especially gentle manner, and to honor them as appropriate. One must not cause an orphan any pain, whether emotional or physical. One is required to treat the money and possessions of an orphan better than one treats one's own. It makes no difference how wealthy or well-off the orphan might otherwise be. One who wrongs an orphan in any way violates a number of biblical prohibitions. We are taught that God is especially close to orphans and that He listens to their prayers.[1]

For the purpose of these halachot, it makes no difference whether a person is orphaned from one or both of his parents. [2] There is, however, some discussion as to how long a person is considered to be an "orphan" from the perspective of halacha. For example, is a seventy-year-old person, whose ninety-year-old parents die, now considered to be an orphan?

According to the Rambam, a person is considered to be an orphan as long as he still requires adult guidance and supervision. Once a person is independent and self-supporting, he is no longer considered to be an orphan, and by extension, is no longer eligible to receive any of the special considerations mentioned above. There is no set age; everyone is different.

Other authorities disagree and argue that an orphan automatically loses orphan status at the age of twenty. This is based on the Talmudic ruling that a child under the age of twenty may not sell land that he may have inherited from his father.[3] This seems to imply that a person is considered to be incapable and incompetent of handling major financial transactions until he or she is twenty years old. At twenty, however, one is considered to be old enough to have the needed maturity, authority, and responsibility for such transactions. It emerges, therefore, that at twenty years old, one would no longer be considered an orphan.[4]

It is suggested that the dispute regarding until when a person is considered to be an orphan depends on when it can be assumed that a person is capable of being self-sufficient and self-supportive. While many argue that this can be assumed to be at the age of twenty, others, following the Rambam, rule that it is different for every person and depends on his or her level of independence and maturity.[5] Nevertheless, one would be well-advised to always treat any orphan with an added measure of sensitivity, regardless of any actual requirement to do so. This is because one can never truly know how a person has been affected by being an orphan, and how it continues to affect them throughout their lives.

[1] Rambam, Hilchot Deot 6:10.

[2] Rambam, Hilchot Deot 6:10.

[3] Bava Batra 156a.

[4] Shevet Binyamin 229.

[5] Petach Hadvir, OC 156:5.