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Are 9/11 Widows and Widowers Allowed to Remarry?

Are 9/11 Widows and Widowers Allowed to Remarry?


Dear Rabbi,

I’ve always wondered what the widows and widowers of those killed in the 9/11 attacks have done about remarrying. I know that Jewish law requires one to obtain either confirmation of death or a Jewish certificate of divorce before remarrying.

What happened to the women and men who, in many cases, did not know whether or not their husband or wife was in the building at the time of the crash? As recently as August, 2011, 41% of the victims remain unidentified.

What is done in such cases?


You raise an important question. In fact, following the tragic attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, this was a very difficult issue for many rabbinical courts (known in Hebrew as a beth din). There are thirteen known cases where the widow or widower sought to find proof that their family member was actually deceased. It was a sensitive process, where mourning spouses needed to be treated respectfully while searching for proof that their spouses were not alive. Each situation needed to be treated with careful attention to both the feelings of the family and the requirements of Jewish law.

The rabbinical courts realized that they needed to act immediately, since “immediately following 9/11, there was an incredible sense of unity and cooperation,” Rabbi Yona Reiss, of the Beth Din of America, later recalled. “Many individuals and firms were quick to share accounts and records upon a moment’s notice, based on a collective sense that the residents of New York City—indeed, the United States as a whole—had become a closer-knit community as a result of the tragic circumstances.”

Probability vs. Certainty

Jewish law is clear that we do not rely on probabilities when issuing permission to remarry. It needs to be demonstrated that there is a near certainty that the person is no longer alive.

Take, for example, a man who filed for death benefits for his late wife, claiming she was killed on 9/11. It was later discovered that he had murdered her. Or another case, where a street vendor outside the World Trade Center was presumed dead, but was found many months later in a hospital, alive. These are just examples; many more similar scenarios did and could have happened.

The Talmud discusses a case where a person witnesses a man struggling in the water, but never actually sees him drown. Can the victim be considered dead? When tackling the question, the Talmud differentiates the possible outcomes depending on which type of body of water the person was in.

1) A contained body of water where one can see the other side, but does not see the man anywhere.

2) An endless body of water where one cannot be certain that the person did not emerge on the other side.

In the first case, the wife would be granted permission to remarry. In the second, permission would not be granted without additional evidence.

These serve as paradigms for other cases. Therefore, what the court of Jewish law would have to come up with is a scenario where we would be certain that the individual was in a place where he or she would have inevitably died.

Suppose someone walks into an oven. This would be considered in Jewish law similar to “water with an end,” since there is no possibility of escape. Thus, for example, someone whose office was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center (which was hit first), above the floor into which the plane crashed—if there was evidence that this person was at their desk, he or she would be considered certainly dead.

On the other hand, for someone whose office was in the South Tower under similar circumstances, where they might have evacuated after the North Tower was hit, the Jewish court would need to have more proof, or more probable circumstances, to conclude that he or she did not survive.

The investigation, then, would include analyzing the whereabouts of the individual on the day of the tragedy. The rabbinical court would speak with family members, coworkers, friends, and anyone else who might have had contact with the person. Examples could include checking MTA cards to see whether the person got on the train, interviewing people whom he would have typically met on the way to work, and checking logs of telephone conversations she may have had from her desk that morning. This was all made difficult by the fact that the buildings’ entire employee records for the month of September were lost with the collapse of the Twin Towers.

For the rabbinical court to be authorized to do all of this research, the spouse would sign a letter granting permission for them to contact government agencies, business associates and other necessary contacts, and to gain access to the relevant records.

Due to the seriousness of the issue of granting permission to remarry after a spouse’s presumed death, it is an age-old practice for there to be peer review of the evidence. Therefore, after the rabbinical court arrives at their conclusion, they would present the information to a well-respected, knowledgeable rabbi to sign off on the decision.

Sample Cases

These examples are by no means comprehensive but give one a taste of the kind of research that was needed.

In the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, located in the North Tower into which the first plane crashed, there were no survivors. However, there were a few individuals who, for whatever reason, left the building before the attack. Conversations with them, and their testimony that a certain person was in a meeting, would be added to other evidence that said person did not leave before the crash, thus rendering their spouse eligible for remarriage.

Many in the South Tower immediately evacuated the building after the North Tower was hit. One eyewitness related to the rabbinical court, concerning an individual whom they were looking into, that he witnessed a well-intentioned officer in the lobby of the 78th floor telling him that there was no reason to leave the building and that he could go back to work on the 86th floor.

In another instance a person had booked a ticket to board American Airlines Flight 11. The rabbinical court spoke extensively with the airline personnel, who confirmed that he had a boarding pass, thus assuring the court that he had indeed boarded the plane.

The guidepost in Jewish law, when it comes to a spouse in this situation, is to be compassionate. Ultimately, that is what the rabbinical courts sought to do after 9/11, and for the most part they were greatly successful.

May we never need to use these laws, and may we never know further sorrow in our lifetime.

Please see our ten year memorial page for the 9/11 attacks.

This response is based on the new and fascinating book, Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspective on September 11th edited by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde (Beth Din of America Press, September 2011).

Watch: Widows and Widowers of 9-11: When Remains of Missing People Are Never Recovered.

Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Lisa Providence, RI May 4, 2013

Are 9/11 Widows and Widowers Allowed to Remarry Judaism doesn't ban remarriage, so there's NO reason why Jews can't remarry. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA October 9, 2011

Divorce Judaism? Never! Once a Jew, always a Jew is taught because of the way Judaic law is set up with regard to divorce. For the person that is able to remarry, he or she can see to the other side and they know that their partner must be lost and dead in the lake, but this is not the case with Judaism. With Judaism, the religion, if we get lost in it, and turn away, we can’t remarry because our partner, Judaism, though lost, could still be found anywhere. This fact proves itself time and time again, as people get lost in Judaism, and even demand a divorce, many also to find their way home. Reply

Feigele Brisbane, Australia September 18, 2011

Sad but reality! First comes to my mine, how can one think about remarrying or replacing someone close after losing them in such tragic circumstances, this day has been so entrenched in everyone—but then I know life goes on, can’t stop time here on earth!
I believe the Jewish religion is based on rationality and much common sense and will give a person the chance of a fair deliberation on any matter without being accused of wrong doing, unlike other religions who condemn innocents for no reasons.
In this matter, each case has to be examined one by one until “peer review of the evidence” has been proven, there are no general rules and even examples of such matter could not be followed. Reply

I am Stan Soboleski with common horse sense! Atco, NJ-US September 17, 2011

can a widow remarry? The overall answer was not given to the question. Is the answer YES or NO?
If a person is a widow can she remarry?
If a man who is a widower can he legally remarry? Yes or No?
The question was not 'How do I prove my wife is dead in the NY area!'
The question is not "Can I remarry under Jewish Law when the courts prove my wife is missing for 7 years.

The question is if a person is a widow or widower, can they legally remarry!
Yes or No?
You make my brain ache with so much dancing around with words while avoiding a clear YES or NO.
My answer is a BIG 'Y E S !' You can legally remarry under Jewish or Gentile Law. Reply

Anonymous Seabrook, Texas September 15, 2011

the law an the beit din I once read a story about a rabbinical student who, before a board of questioning, was asked to name the 5-volumes of the Shulcan Aruch. Knowing that there were only four volumes, the student gave the names of the four volumes considering the mention of a 5th volume to be an inadvertent error on the part of the questioner. When the questioner responded that he would like to know the name of the 5th volume, the student stated that to his knowledge there were only four volumes.The questioner then stated that the name of the 5th volume was the most important because without it the other four were all but useless. The name, he said, of the 5th volume was, "Common Sense."

I do not know if this is in accordance with the law but I feel better knowing the story. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA September 11, 2011

This article touched me so much that I'm near speechless. If you see my other posts, you'll know this NEVER happens to me, ever. I can imagine the feelings and emotions of the rabbis in a case like this. Reply

Years later, we look back at the 9/11 terror attacks and ask what we have learned as Jews, as Americans and as people.
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