Until 100 or so years ago, marriage was, on the whole, a practical arrangement that provided stability for property and protection for women. Marriage in the modern world is defined as a union between two people who wish to commit themselves to each other and to create their own unique family unit. This relatively new, romantic definition of marriage makes the Torah laws of yibbum, the so-called “levirate marriage,” challenging to understand.
The Torah in Deuteronomy 25 instructs that if a man dies childless, his widow “shall not marry an outsider.” One of her late husband’s surviving brothers is encouraged to marry her in a levirate marriage, and their firstborn son is to be considered the progeny of the deceased. If the brother-in-law does not wish to wed the widow, a chalitzah (divorce) ceremony is arranged. The widow removes the shoe from her brother-in-law’s foot, spits in front of him and announces “Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s household.” His family is henceforth referred to as “The household of the one whose shoe has been removed” (25:5-10). If the widow does not wish to wed the brother-in-law, the same ceremony is performed.
The specifics of when and how either yibbum or chalitzah takes place are complicated enough that an entire tractate of the Talmud is named Yebamot. There are many situations in which the question is rendered moot - for instance, if the brother-in-law is already married to the widow’s sister - in which case, such a union would be prohibited.*
While the particular laws of yibbum and chalitzah are unique to Judaism, levirate marriages - when a widow marries her brother-in-law - are actually quite common in different cultures around the world.
Although it is a mitzvah for a man to marry the childless widow of his deceased brother in order to build up his brother’s house, the later sages strongly encouraged chalitzah. Of primary concern was the ruling in Yebamot 109a that a man who marries his brother’s widow purely because he desires her, or for reasons of his own gain, is considered as if he is committing incest.
In the twenty-first century, actual yibbum is practically unheard of.
*Jewish law does not allow a man to marry two sisters. Additionally, since the Middle Ages, most Jewish communities follow a ruling prohibiting polygamy.
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