Halitzah: The Ceremonial Release from Levirate Marriage
Halitzah is the ritual that releases a childless widow from levirate marriage, wherein her brother-in-law must marry her to give her a child in his brother's name.
Halitzah appears in the biblical book of Ruth in which Boaz, a close relative of Naomi, agrees to marry Ruth and act as redeemer for Mahlon, her dead husband. He may only do so after a closer relative than Boaz formally relinquishes the right of redemption by removing his sandal and handing it to Boaz. They have a son Oved who is the grandfather of David--from whose line the messiah will come. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Halitzah [literally] "taking off" the shoe [is] the rite by means of which a widow whose husband has died without issue is released from the bond of levirate marriage [in which the brother of a childless man is obliged to marry his widow].
In the book of Deuteronomy (25: 5-10) the law is promulgated that the widow of a childless man is obliged to marry his brother, but if the levir ("brother-in-law") refuses to marry her, he has to undergo the rite of halitzah:
"But if the man does not want to marry his brother's widow, his brother's widow shall appear before the elders in the gate and declare, 'My husband's brother refuses to establish a name in Israel for his brother; he will not perform the duty of a levir.' The elders of his town shall then summon him and talk to him. If he insists, saying, 'I do not want to marry her,' his brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull [from the root chalatz, hence the name halitzah] the shoe off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: 'Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother's house!'" (verses 7-9).
From this [passage] it appears that the purpose of halitzah was to put the levir publicly to shame for refusing to do his duty of marrying his brother's widow. The widow is considered bound to the levir in that she cannot marry anyone else until she has been released by halitzah.
In the rabbinic sources the opinion is expressed that while it is clear from the biblical passage that the ideal is for the levir to marry the widow, "nowadays" he should not be allowed do so but must release her through halitzah. The reason for the change is that since levirate marriage involves a man marrying his brother's widow, an act otherwise forbidden, the levir must be motivated solely by his wish to carry out his religious obligation and it can no longer be assumed that the levir's intention is "for the sake of heaven." Another opinion is recorded, however, that levirate marriage has priority over halitzah. The difference of opinion continued for centuries, some Sephardi and Oriental communities following the opinion which prefers levirate marriage to halitzah.