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Yibum and Chalitzah

Yibum and Chalitzah

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Yibum

"If brothers reside together, and one of them dies childless, the dead man's wife shall not marry an outsider. Her husband's brother must come to her, taking her as his wife in a levirate marriage. The firstborn son whom she bears will then perpetuate the name of the dead brother, so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel" -- Deuteronomy 25:5-6.

The Torah dictates that if a married man dies childless, the widow is to marry her dead husband's brother, preferably the eldest. The firstborn son they produce together is considered a continuation of the dead husband's line. This practice is known as Yibum, or levirate marriage. The brother-in-law is called the Yavam; the widow is called the Yevamah.

The Chalitzah Alternative

In Ashkenazi communities, Chalitzah is almost universally performed rather than Yibum

But if the man does not wish to take his brother's wife, the brother's wife shall go up to the gate, to the elders, and say, "My husband's brother has refused to perpetuate his brother's name in Israel he does not wish to perform the obligation of a husband's brother with me." Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and he shall stand up and say, "I do not wish to take her." Then his brother's wife shall approach him before the eyes of the elders and remove his shoe from his foot. And she shall spit before his face and declare, "Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother's household! And that family shall be called in Israel 'the household of the one whose shoe has been removed.'" -- ibid. 25:7-10.

If the dead man's brother does not wish to marry the widow, or she does not want to marry him, a standard divorce is insufficient to sever their bond. Instead, they perform a procedure known as Chalitzah, which means removal; in this case, the removal of the brother-in-law's shoe. Only after the Chalitzah ceremony has been completed is the widow free to marry someone else.

Many scholars have suggested reasons for this strange practice. Some say that the brother-in-law's shoe is removed in order to humiliate him for not fulfilling the mitzvah of Yibum. Still others suggest that the removal of his shoe serves to symbolize that he has no claim to his brother's inheritance.

In Ashkenazi communities, Chalitzah is almost universally performed rather than Yibum.1 There are some Sephardic communities where Yibum is practiced.2

The Chalitzah Ceremony

The widow must wait ninety-two days after the death of her husband before proceeding with Yibum or Chalitzah. This is in line with the law that a widow or divorcee must wait three months before remarrying, enough time for it to become apparent whether or not she is pregnant from her first husband, thus avoiding possible confusion over the identity of a baby's father. In the case of Chalitzah, the three month waiting period is in order to ascertain whether the Chalitzah is necessary at all, for if the women is pregnant, then her deceased husband is not childless.3

A special leather shoe is brought in, with a thick-heeled sole and long leather strapsThe widow and the deceased's brother both appear in front of the local Beth Din (rabbinical court). During this initial visit, they are briefed about the Chalitzah process. The members of the Beth Din agree to a time and place for the Chalitzah ceremony. Customarily, it is the following morning.

At that time, the following people are assembled: the court itself, which must consist of at least three judges but traditionally consists of five; two witnesses, as typically required during rabbinic proceedings; and the widow and brother of the deceased.

The brother and the widow are seated opposite the judges and asked whether they choose Yibum or Chalitzah. In those communities where Yibum is generally not practiced nowadays, the judges advise them to proceed with Chalitzah.

Because it is so crucial for the Chalitzah to be valid, the brother is asked to invalidate any prior statement he might have made that could possibly invalidate the Chalitzah.

A special leather shoe is brought in, similar to a sandal, with a thick-heeled sole and long leather straps. The Beth Din keeps this unique shoe specifically for use during the Chalitzah ceremony. The brother puts it on his right foot, wrapping and tying the straps around his leg in a specified way, with no space between skin and leather.

During the next part of the ceremony certain verses must be recited in Hebrew. If the participants do not understand Hebrew, they also recite the verses in their spoken language. Here the verses are translated into English.

The widow says (repeating in Hebrew after one of the members of the court):

"My brother-in-law does not wish to perpetuate his brother's name in Israel. He does not wish to perform Yibum with me."

The brother concurs:

"I do not wish to take her."

"May it be G‑d's will that the daughters of Israel will never need to perform either Chalitzah or Yibum..."He then presses his foot on the ground. The widow bends down and, using her right hand, loosens the straps of the shoe until it is fully released from her brother-in-law's foot. With her left hand she lifts his foot, and with her right hand she removes the shoe and tosses it away on the ground.

When she is finished, she stands and spits on the ground in front of him. The saliva should be visible to the members of the court.

She then recites the following phrase three times:

"So shall be done to the man who will not build his brother's household. And that family shall be called in Israel 'the household of the one whose shoe has been removed.'"

All those present repeat her last words three times:

"Chalutz hana'al, chalutz hana'al, chalutz hana'al," ("The one whose shoe has been removed, the one whose shoe has been removed, the one whose shoe has been removed.")

At the end of the ceremony, the members of the Beth Din recite the following blessing:

"May it be G‑d's will that the daughters of Israel will never need to perform either Chalitzah or Yibum. Blessed are You, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with the commandments and statutes of Abraham our father."

The Beth Din provides the widow with a document known as a Get Chalitzah which serves as proof of the Chalitzah so that she may remarry.

FOOTNOTES
1.

Sexual relations between a brother and sister-in-law are forbidden by the Torah unless within the context of the mitzvah of Yibum. For example, if the widow's husband did not die childless, it would be forbidden for them to marry. There is an opinion expressed in the Talmud that if the Levirate couple are intimate with each other and their intention is not to fulfill the mitzvah, rather they are attracted to each other's beauty or personality, then they have transgressed the prohibition against forbidden incestuous relations! The Ashkenazi custom to prefer Chalitzah is in deference to this Talmudic opinion.

2.

Usually only in a situation where the brother is single, since polygamy is prohibited in most modern countries.

3.

In the case of Yibum, the three-month waiting period serves an additional, significant purpose. If the widow is in fact carrying the dead man's child, not only is it no longer a mitzvah for her brother-in-law to marry her, but it is forbidden. See above, footnote 1.

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Discussion (2)
February 13, 2014
Ruth's marriage to Boaz
Wasn't Ruth's marriage to Boaz considered to be a case of the Levirate marriage practiced in her days?
Miriam Levinson
Philadelphia
May 5, 2010
Chalitzah
I find Hebrew customs so enlightening and interesting. It really makes scripture come more alive.
Karla Fox
Fort Worth, TX
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