Levirate Marriage and Halitzah

Ancient customs involving a childless widow.

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Levirate marriage is the obligation of a surviving brother to marry the widow of his brother if he died without having sired children (Deut. 25:5-6). The corollary is that the widow must marry a brother-in-law rather than anyone outside the family. The oldest of the surviving brothers had the first obligation to perform this commandment, which also allowed him to inherit all of his dead brother's property.

What is my life going to be?

The explicit purpose of this commandment was to have the surviving brother produce an heir to perpetuate the name of his dead brother, so that it would not "be blotted out of Israel."

The literal meaning of the biblical text implies that the firstborn child of a levirate marriage would be named after the dead brother, to carry on his memory. However, this is true only in the spiritual sense, for there was no requirement to name the newborn son after the dead brother.

The duty of levirate marriage was obligatory only on one who was alive at the time of the death of his childless brother; it did not apply to one born after his brother's death. Furthermore, both brothers must have the same father. If either of these conditions was not fulfilled, the childless widow was immediately free to marry anyone she chose.

couple walking arm in armBut what's in it for her?

The institution of levirate marriage also served to protect the wife. In numerous verses, the Torah lumps widows with orphans and strangers as the disenfranchised members of society to whom special kindness must be shown. The situation of a widow without children was especially dire, for she had no one to care for her and provide material support.

The levirate law guaranteed her a new family, enhanced status, and financial resources. The most famous story about levirate marriage in the Bible is that of Tamar, who was an ancestor of King David (Gen. 38). After the death of his older two sons (who had both married her), Judah refused to allow his third son to perform this obligation with the childless Tamar. Eventually, Judah himself unknowingly fulfilled the commandment when he had relations with Tamar, and she subsequently gave birth to a child.

And if he refuses?

As an alternative, the surviving brother could perform halitzah ("taking off the shoe") instead of levirate marriage (Deut. 25:9). If the brother-in-law refused to marry the childless widow, she would (in the presence of the elders) take off his shoe-- a symbol of mourning, since his failure to perform levirate marriage meant that his brother was now irrevocably dead.

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Ronald L. Eisenberg

Ronald L. Eisenberg, a radiologist and non-practicing attorney, is the author of numerous books, including The Jewish World in Stamps.