The Torah tells us that when a man dies without leaving any children, there is a mitzvah for his brother to marry the widow. This is called yibum in Hebrew, or levirate marriage (lēvir is Latin for “husband's brother”). If either party doesn’t want to marry, there is an alternative ceremony called chalitzah.

What is the reason for this mitzvah?

Seemingly, it is to create a child who will perpetuate the name of the deceased, as implied by the verse “The first child that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother, so that his name may not be blotted out in Israel.”1

However, as the Talmud2 points out, the child does not actually need to be named after the deceased. Rather the word shem (“name”)here refers to inheritance, indicating that the child inherits the estate of the dead brother.3

The commentaries explain that there is a deeper meaning behind this mitzvah as well.

One Body

One explanation4 is that, like Adam and Eve, one's spouse is considered to be a limb of the same body. When a person dies childless, he has nothing left in the physical world aside from his wife, “who is the bone of his bones and the flesh of his flesh.”5 Therefore, out of G‑d’s kindness to the deceased, there is a mitzvah to establish offspring through the wife, together with the brother—who is also like half of his flesh. This child will take his place and serve G‑d in his stead, bringing him great merit, as it is known that a child gives merit to the parents.6

One Soul

The mystics explain that the deeper reason behind the mitzvah of yibum has to do with the reincarnation of souls. They explain that when the brother marries the deceased’s wife, the soul of the departed is reincarnated into their child, enabling the soul to complete the purpose for which it came down into the world.7 Ordinarily, when a soul needs to reincarnate, only the spark of the soul that needs rectification reincarnates; in the case of yibum, the entire soul reincarnates.8

Chalitzah—Between Humans and Angels

As mentioned, if either the brother or the wife don’t want to do yibum, they have the option of doing the chalitzah ceremony. As described in Deuteronomy, the community gathers to witness a ritual that includes the wife removing the brother’s shoe and spitting in his direction, all in the presence of a rabbinical court.9

Based on the above explanation of the Kabbalists, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, gives us a better understanding of the ritual of chalitzah.10

When a person dies without offspring, his soul generally needs to reincarnate, but it cannot do so unless there is either the yibum or chalitzah ceremony.

If the wife and brother choose not to do yibum (perhaps due to the brother’s feeling unable to live up to the great responsibility of bringing down his brother's soul11), they can choose to do chalitzah, after which the brother's soul can reincarnate into someone else.

One difference between people and angels is that angels don’t have offspring. When the person passes away without children, his soul becomes connected to the angels, who also don’t have offspring, and he is thus unable to reincarnate and fulfill his mission. The solution for this is the chalitzah ceremony, which includes the removal of the brother’s shoe.

The prophet Zechariah describes the difference between angels and people: Angels are called those who “stand in one place,” while people are referred to as “walkers,” or those who move and go. Angels are static, without the ability to grow and rise to a higher level, while people, through their (or their offspring) being down here in this physical world, are able to climb and rise ever higher.12

Thus, if the wife and brother don’t want to do yibum, the wife removes the brother’s shoe, corresponding to the removal of any buffer or hindrance to the feet being on the ground—allowing the departed soul to be a “walker” in this world once again. (It is not for naught that the archangel Metatron is referred to in Kabbalistic text as a “shoemaker.”)

This is also the reason why the wife “spits.” For in doing so, she is “letting out,” so to speak, the piece of her husband’s soul that remained connected to her, enabling it to continue on its journey and reincarnate if it needs to.

By either doing yibum or preforming the chalitzah ceremony, we not only bring rest to the departed soul and enable it to continue on its journey, we also ensure13 that eventually he will come back into this world with the resurrection of the dead in the messianic era.14 May it be speedily in our days!