Levirate Marriages

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Most people are not familiar with the topic of levirate marriage. Therefore, the command of levirate marriage seems very strange.

This article will look at examples of levirate marriage in the Bible and the Talmud.

Here are the cases of levirate marriage I’ll discuss:

  • Onan and Tamar
  • Judah and Tamar
  • Ruth and Boaz
  • a story in the Talmud

Levirate Marriage and Yibum

I’ve already written an article about the concept of levirate marriage and yibum.

Levirate Marriage, Yibum, and Chalitzah

In this article I will just give a brief summary, starting the commandment in the Torah:

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.

The general idea of levirate marriage (in Hebrew, yibum) is that a brother marries his sister-in-law after her husband’s death. But, yibum is only in effect if the dead brother has no living descendants.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explains some of the purpose and reasoning about levirate marriage.

If, as a result of the husband’s death, a marriage remains incomplete as regards its ultimate purpose (whose whole essence is the continuation of the human race in the specific direction set by the unique family qualities), this defect can be made good: one of the closest relatives should continue the marriage with the childless widow.

Now let’s look at the first levirate marriage recorded in the Bible.

Er and Onan

It turns out the first levirate marriage in the Bible happened more than 200 years before the Torah was given.

Judah, one of Jacob’s 12 sons, had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Here’s how Er and Onan died:

Genesis / Bereshit Chapter 38

6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.
7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the eyes of God, and God put him to death.
8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Come to your brother’s wife and perform levirate marriage with her, and raise up offspring for your brother.”
9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he came to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother.
10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of God, and he put him to death also.

We see in verse 8 that Judah is telling Onan what to do. We see that yibum was practiced in the area even before the Torah was given.

It’s probable that yibum was a custom that was known and widely practiced at that time. Certainly, as it’s presented in Genesis 38, the concept was known and there was no need for Judah to offer a lengthy explanation.

Via the levirate marriage, yibum, Tamar became Onan’s wife in every aspect of the concept of marriage.

Once Onan died, then it became Shelah’s duty to perform levirate marriage with Tamar. However, Judah hesitated to have his youngest son, Shelah, perform yibum.

Genesis / Bereshit Chapter 38

11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, until Shelah my son grows up”—for he said [to himself] he too might die like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house.

How much did Judah know about what had happened with his older two sons and Tamar?

There is a Jewish tradition that Er thought having children would spoil Tamar’s beauty. He valued her beauty more than having children, therefore, he also spilled his semen on the ground.

If Judah knew this, then perhaps he wanted to wait until Shelah was older and more mature and would not make the same mistake as his 2 older brothers.

Another approach in Jewish tradition, is Judah did not know what happened. He did not know that God considered his sons to be evil. But he suspected that Tamar was a woman who causes her husbands to die, and hence, he kept Shelah away from her.

In any case, at this point, Tamar is “pledged” to Shelah and cannot marry any other man.

Judah and Tamar

While Tamar was waiting to marry Shelah, Judah’s wife died.

After some time, Judah went to shear his sheep.

Tamar heard that Judah was going to be nearby. She disguised herself as a prostitute. According to tradition, she wanted to become part of Judah’s family and have children.

Here’s what happened when Judah saw Tamar, but didn’t realize who she was:

Genesis / Bereshit Chapter 38

16 He turned aside to her at the roadside and said, “Come, let me come to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me if you come to me?”
17 He answered, “I will send a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge until you send it.”
18 He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave [them] to her and he came to her, and she conceived by him.
19 Then she arose and went away, and removed her veil, and she put on her widow’s clothing.

We learn from verse 16 that if Judah had recognized Tamar, he would not have approached her. In other words, he had no intention of fulfilling the law of levirate marriage / yibum with her.

It turns out, intention is not a requirement to fulfill the commandment of yibum. In other words, when Judah had relations with Tamar, that was the fulfillment of yibum and she became Judah’s wife.

After a few months it became clear that Tamar was pregnant. However, she was “pledged” via yibum / levirate marriage to Shelah. Therefore, becoming pregnant could only be act of adultery.

As a result of the adultery, she is sentenced to death.

Genesis / Bereshit Chapter 38

25 As she was being brought out, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cords and the staff.”
26 Then Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I am, for I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not continue to know her.
27 When the time of her labor came, behold, there were twins in her womb.

The fact that she was condemned indicates an ongoing relationship with Judah’s family. If not, then she’s not guilty of adultery at all.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explains it this way:

Although she was the widow of the deceased, Tamar remained bound to the remaining members of the family to such a degree that her supposed crime was considered as serious as adultery. According to the laws of yibum, the marriage bond originally forged by the deceased is still in force in relation to one of the nearest members of the family.

When Tamar proved that it was Judah that she had had relations with, that removed from her any suspicion of adultery.

Why? Because, as Rabbi Hirsch states, before the Torah was given, Tamar was bound to any of the relatives of the deceased, not just his brother.

As was stated above, when a man and a woman have a levirate marriage, she becomes his wife in every aspect.

If this is true, then why does the verse state “And he did not continue to know her”? If they are husband and wife, then it’s permitted to have relations.

However, there are different opinions about the Hebrew phrase that is translated as “And he did not continue to know her.”

Some explain it that they never again had relations. There are others who explain it means they did not cease from having relations. The Hebrew is vague and lends itself to both explanations.

Ruth and Boaz

Let’s start with a summary of the story of Ruth.

Elimelech and his wife Naomi left Israel and moved to Moab. While there, their two sons married Moabite women: Ruth and Orpah. Elimelech and his two sons died.

Naomi decided to return to Israel. At first, both Ruth and Orpah said they would return with her. Naomi tried to discourage them. Orpah decided to stay in Moab, but Ruth came with Naomi to Israel.

Elimelech had a close relative named Boaz. Ruth asked Boaz to fulfill the role of “redeemer.” The redeemer would purchase the estate of Ruth’s deceased husband and also marry her.

Here’s how Boaz responded to Ruth:

Ruth Chapter 3

12 And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I.
13 Remain tonight, and it shall be in the morning, if he will redeem you, good; let him do it. But if he does not want to redeem you, then, as God lives, I will redeem you. …”

Boaz acts on his promise to Ruth immediately the next morning.

Ruth Chapter 4

1 Then Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there. And behold, the redeemer, of whom Boaz had spoken, was passing by. So Boaz said, “Turn aside, sit down here, so-and-so [Hebrew: Ploni-Almoni].” And he turned aside and sat down.
2 And he took ten men of the elders of the city and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down.
3 Then he said to the redeemer, “The portion of the field which belonged to our brother Elimelech, is being sold by Naomi, who has returned from the country of Moab.
4 So I thought I would tell you of it and say, ‘Buy it in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.’ If you will redeem it, redeem it. But if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you.” And he said, “I will redeem it.”

Boaz calls Elimelech their “brother.” It’s not clear if his words should be taken literally or not. The word “brother” can be used just to indicate a familial relationship.

As we see, Ploni-Almoni is willing to redeem the field. However, Boaz has an additional message for Ploni-Almoni.

Ruth Chapter 4

5 Then Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, also from Ruth the Moabite, the wife of the dead, must you buy it, to raise up the name of the dead in his inheritance.”
6 Then the redeemer said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”

Ploni-Almoni is not willing to marry Ruth. He believed that a Moabite woman was not permitted to convert to Judaism.

Ruth Chapter 4

7 Now this was [the custom] in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, a man drew off his shoe and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel.
8 So when the redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it for yourself,” and he drew off his shoe.
9 Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon from the hand of Naomi.
10 Also Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, I have acquired to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his place. You are witnesses this day.”

Boaz agreed with the opinion that a Moabite woman could convert. Therefore, he accepted to redeem the field and to marry Ruth.

Note the language that Boaz uses in verse 10. He says he is marrying Ruth “to raise up the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off …”

This language is very similar to the language used to describe the purpose of yibum / levirate marriage.

Ruth Chapter 4

13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he came to her, and God gave her conception, and she bore a son.
14 And the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be God, who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name be famous in Israel!
15 He shall be to you a restorer of [your] soul and to nourish your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”
16 And Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom and she became his nurse.
17 And the women neighbors called him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.

After marrying Boaz, Ruth gives birth to a son. But the women proclaim, “a son has been born to Naomi.” This son, who they called Obed, is in a sense a replacement child for Naomi.

Did Boaz Perform Yibum?

Was the marriage of Ruth and Boaz an act of levirate marriage?

The commentator Ibn Ezra says clearly it was not. See his comment on Deuteronomy / Devarim 25:5.

On the other hand, Ramban on Genesis 38:8 implies that it was yibum.

Rav Hirsch commenting on Devarim 25:9 states that the marriage of Boaz and Ruth was similar, but not identical to yibum.

The main reason to question if Ruth and Boaz was yibum is due to doubts about her status as a Jewish woman. When Mahlon married her did she properly convert to Judaism?

There are strong reasons to say she did not convert until she came to Israel with Naomi.

Also, in the story, Ruth does not ask Boaz to perform levirate marriage. She asks him to redeem her.

Yibum in the Talmud

Mount of Olives Jewish cemetary

I could not find any levirate marriages being performed in the Gemara. However, there is the following event recounted in the Babylonian Talmud:

Ketubot 111a

A certain man who fell under the obligation [of marrying] a sister-in-law at Be Hozae came to R. Chaninah and asked him whether it was proper to go down there to contract with her levirate marriage. “His brother”, [R. Chaninah] replied, “married a heathen and died, blessed be the Omnipresent Who slew him, and this one would follow him!”

The “certain man” in this incident lived in the Land of Israel. Be Hozae is a city outside of the Land of Israel.

It cannot be that the brother who died had actually married a non-Jew.

Rather, R. Chaninah has a reputation that he opposed leaving the Land of Israel for any reason. Therefore, he used strong language to express his contempt for the Jewish woman of Be Hozae.

There is a similar story mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud:

Jerusalem Talmud, Moed Katan Ch 3 Halacha 1

A Kohen once came to R. Chaninah and asked: May I go to Tzur in order to perform yibum or chalitzah?
R. Chaninah replied: Your brother left and blessed be God who killed him, and you wish to do the same?!
Some say that R. Chaninah responded as follows: Your brother left the bosom of his mother for the bosom of a strange woman and blessed be God for killing him, and you wish to do the same?

As in the report in the Babylonian Talmud, the man lived in the Land of Israel and Tzur is outside of Israel.

Note carefully R. Chaninah’s response in both accounts. He could have answered, “No, don’t leave Israel because yibum is no longer in effect.”

Rather, his only stated objection is that he is opposed to leaving Israel for any reason.

In neither talmud’s account does R. Chaninah state that yibum / levirate marriage is no longer in force.

So we see, yibum was considered a real possibility in the time of R. Chaninah who lived about 1900 years ago, about the year 200 CE.