Levirate Marriage, Yibum, and Chalitzah

One of the main purposes of marriage is to have children that can be raised to become productive members of the community. Sometimes a husband dies before his marriage has produced children.

It is at sad times like these that yibum or Jewish levirate marriage plays a role.

What is Levirate Marriage?

This article looks at the basic concept of yibum. I’ve written another article discussing cases of levirate marriage.

Levirate Marriages

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of levirate. Here’s a paraphrase of what I found in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th Edition:

levirate: le-vi-rate (1725): the sometimes compulsory marriage of a widow to a brother of her deceased husband.

The word levirate is from the Latin word levir which means husband’s brother.

There are a couple of things to note from this definition. First, the dictionary makes no mention of levirate marriage being exclusively a Jewish practice. The definition implies that levirate marriage exists is other cultures as well.

Second, this definition implies that any widow could be subject to levirate marriage. We will see that this is not the Jewish concept of levirate marriage.

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What is Yibum?

Now let’s look at the Jewish concept of levirate marriage. We’ll start by translating a few Hebrew words.

  • Yavam (masculine noun) – husband’s brother, brother-in-law
  • Yevamah (feminine noun) – sister-in-law
  • Yibeim (verb) – to marry one’s brother’s widow
  • Yibum (masculine noun) – levirate marriage

All of these words are variations of the 3-letter root Y-B-M or yud – bet – mem.

Even though I’ve translated “yibum” as “levirate marriage,” the Jewish concept is much more limited, as we’ll see.

What is a Levirate Marriage: The Biblical Sources

Jewish graveyard

Let’s look at the verses from the Torah that deal with the laws of yibum.

Leviticus / Vayikra Chapter 18

16 The nakedness of your brother’s wife you shall not uncover; it is your brother’s nakedness.

Leviticus / Vayikra Chapter 20

21 And a man who takes his brother’s wife when she must be avoided by him has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.

These two verses are from the chapters of the Torah that discuss forbidden sexual unions. The quoted verses give us a fundamental prohibition that a man is not permitted to marry nor to have sex with his brother’s wife.

This prohibition is in effect whether his brother is alive or dead and even if his brother divorced his wife.

However, there is one important exception to this prohibition.

Deuteronomy / Devarim Chapter 25

5 If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of levirate marriage with her.
6 And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.
7 But if the man does not wish to take his sister-in-law, then his sister-in-law shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of levirate marriage with me.’
8 Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he stands up and says, ‘I do not want to take her,’
9 then his sister-in-law shall approach him in the presence of the elders and take off his shoe from his foot and spit before his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’
10 And his name shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him whose shoe was removed.’

These are the verses that teach us about the commandments of yibum and chalitzah. Let’s look at them in order.

The Jewish Concept of Levirate Marriage

Mount of Olives Jewish cemetary

In verse 5 we see the significant difference between levirate marriage in general and the Jewish concept of yibum.

The general meaning of levirate marriage is that a brother may marry his sister-in-law after her husband’s death.

However, yibum is only in effect if the dead brother has no living descendants.

NOTE: The Hebrew word in verse 5 that is translated as “son” is “ben.” That word can, and often does, mean exclusively a male child.

However, according to Jewish tradition, in this verse the word is to be understood in the broad sense of any living descendant.

We also see that aspects of the yibum obligation apply to both the living brother and the widow.

The brother of the dead man has an obligation to perform yibum with his sister-in-law. If the dead man has more than one brother, then any of them can do the act of yibum. The oldest living brother is expected to take the initiative and perform the duty.

The wife of the dead man has an obligation not to marry a “stranger.” That is, she may not marry any man who is not a brother of her deceased husband. She remains in this status until either one of the living brothers performs yibum or submits to chalitzah.

What is Chalitzah?

In Deuteronomy 25:7 – 10 we learn about the concept of chalitzah.

If the living brother does not want to perform the duty of yibum (levirate marriage) then he needs to submit to chalitzah.

In the ceremony of chalitzah, the widow of the dead man removes the shoe of the living brother. The English word “remove” is the translation of the Hebrew verb “chaltzah” from which is derived the Hebrew noun “chalitzah.”

She then spits in front of him and says ‘So shall be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’

What is going on here?

According to Sefer HaChinuch (Commandment #599), the act of removing the shoe is the woman performing a small service for her brother-in-law. This service demonstrates that she was prepared to become his wife, but that he is the one refusing levirate marriage.

The act of spitting in front of him demonstrates that she no long has any obligation to honor him.

By the act of chalitzah the widow is completely released from the obligation of yibum and she may now marry any man she wishes.

The widow after chalitzah regains the status of “brother’s wife” as in Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21. She is forbidden to marry any of her deceased husband’s brothers.

This is a good place to mention that there are many, many details in Jewish law about yibum and chalitzah. It is not the purpose of this article to explain them all.

Any man or woman who is facing these circumstances should seek the advice of a rabbi who is an expert in this aspect of Jewish law.

The Purpose of Levirate Marriage

At first glance it seems clear that the purpose of levirate marriage is to provide support for the widow.

Here is a woman who is bereft of her husband and perhaps without any other means of support.

However, when we look more closely, it’s clear that our first guess is totally wrong.

Remember, the only widow who is subject to yibum is one whose dead husband has no living descendants. That means that most widows will not participate in yibum.

If the purpose of yibum is to provide for the support of a widow, then all widows, especially those with young children, should be included in the commandment.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch in his commentary on Deuteronomy 25:5 points us to the Genesis 1:28:

Genesis / Bereshit Chapter 1

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Verse 28 includes the first commandment given to Adam and Eve, to have children and populate the world.

Groom breaking a glass at a Jewish wedding

In the case before us, we have a man and woman who married. Our assumption is their goal was to have children and raise them to become productive members of their community.

However, the husband was not able to fulfill this. He was taken from the world without descendants. There will be no one to perpetuate his memory in the world.

The deceased’s surviving brother now steps up to replace his brother. He marries his brother’s widow and has children with her. In this way he fulfills what’s written in Deuteronomy 25:6: “And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.”

The verse does not mean that the child must actually be given the name of the deceased husband. Rather, it means that the brother-in-law, the yavam, “receives the right of inheritance to the deceased’s estate and that he assumes the deceased’s legal rights.” (Hirsch, commentary to verse 25:6)

From this we see that it’s the deceased who is the main beneficiary of yibum. As Rabbi Hirsch writes: “Once the widow and, together with her, the deceased’s legacy have been transferred to his brother, the deceased’s spiritual, moral, and personal legal name has been raised up, and his name will not be blotted out from Israel.”

This is the purpose of levirate marriage.

Levirate Marriage and Polygamy

It could happen that a married man may be faced with the prospect of fulfilling the commandment of levirate marriage.

Based on Jewish law as found in the Bible, there is no prohibition against polygamy. In fact, we see many instances of it in the Bible. For example, Abraham and Jacob had more than one wife. Also, King David and King Solomon had several wives.

However, as a practical matter, polygamy is not practiced today. A married man would refuse to marry his brother’s widow and would rather submit to chalitzah.

Levirate Marriage Today

Is levirate marriage still practiced nowadays? Yes and no.

Let’s explain.

The Chafetz Chayim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen) wrote The Concise Book of Mitzoth. The subtitle is The Commandments Which Can Be Observed Today.

The book contains two positive commandments and one negative commandment which are relevant to our topic. Here is how they are listed in the Table of Contents:

Positive Commandment 45: To marry the wife of one’s brother who has died without children.

Positive Commandment 46: That a yevamah (a childless widow) should remove the shoe of the yavam (her husband’s brother) if he does not want to take her in levirate marriage.

Negative Commandment 135: That the wife of a dead man without children is not to marry an outsider [someone other than the man’s brother].

Based on this, it appears that yibum / levirate marriage is still in effect today.

However, for Positive Commandment 45, the Chafetz Chayim concludes: “In our time, however, when there is no intention [in this] for the sake of the religious duty to establish a name for one’s dead brother, the law of the levirate marriage is not in force, but only chalitzah, described below.”

In other words, though yibum is still in effect, as a practical matter, it is not done these days.

The commandment of chalitzah is still practiced. A woman whose husband died without children is not permitted to marry until the yavam (her brother-in-law) submits to chalitzah.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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