Biblical marriage practices give support to the widowed

Rabbi Adam Bellows serves United Hebrew Congre-gation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Light.  


Interrupting the Joseph cycle in Genesis is an account of one of his brothers, Judah. In Genesis 38, we read of Judah’s marriage to the unnamed daughter of a merchant with whom he conceives three sons. For his eldest son, Er, he provides a wife named Tamar. Yet Er dies before he and Tamar could bear a son. Herein lies the first example of the Levirate Marriage or Yibbum

“If brothers reside together, and one of them dies childless, the deceased’s wife shall not marry an outsider. Her husband’s brother must [take] 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.” (Deut. 25:5-6). 

For those who did not wish to enter into such an agreement, there was a way out. The Chalitzah ritual nullifies the Levirate Marriage: 

“But if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, [she] shall … 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 . . . 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.” (Deut. 25:7-10).

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Soon after Tamar is given to Er’s brother, Onan, in a Levirate Marriage, he dies, as well, before she conceives a son. Thus, she is betrothed to Judah’s youngest son, Shelah, though she must remain widowed and chaste in Judah’s house until Shelah comes of age. 

It is worth noting that Tamar has no choice in any matter throughout this whole ordeal. She seemingly has no say in becoming wife to any of Judah’s sons, nor does she have any say in remaining chaste while awaiting her marriage to Judah’s youngest son, Shelah.

One might look at the Levirate Marriage as a practice that punishes a woman for circumstances of which she has no control. While this is true to a certain extent, one must consider the social structure in which this law was developed. In a patriarchal hierarchy, which was the predominant societal model in the Ancient Near East, a woman’s identity was closely tied to her relationship with a man. She was seen as either a man’s daughter, wife, or mother. Property did not transfer to women, so a woman’s social security meant being a member of a man’s household.

In Tamar’s case, when Er died, she inherited nothing, and without a male heir, she would have been left destitute. The Levirate Marriage ensured she could receive what had belonged to her husband. If she had been married to Onan and had conceived a son before his death, her late husband’s inheritance would have gone to that son. With her as the hypothetical son’s mother, she would then have been protected.

The story of Ruth and Naomi in the Book of Ruth is so astounding because they tried to live without the protection of a man. First, Naomi’s husband dies, but remains part of her sons’ households. When her sons die, we read, “So the woman was left without her two sons and without her husband” (Ruth 1:5). The story continues with Naomi and her widowed daughter-in-law, Ruth, choosing to live without the protection of a man’s household. They scrounge for gleanings after the barley harvest, and eventually connect with a kinsman named Boaz who vows to protect Ruth. In the end, he marries Ruth and declares that the property of Naomi’s and Ruth’s late husbands shall transfer to him that their houses may be re-established when Ruth conceives a son.

So although it is important that the ritual of Chalitzah exists to allow a widow freedom after her husband’s death, we can see how its intent is to support that widow. That is precisely why the widow in the Chalitzah ritual shames her brother-in-law for not doing his duty. His duty would have, at one time in history, meant her protection. 

As the Beit Din recites at the end of a Chalitzah ritual, “May it be G-d’s will that the daughters of Israel will never need to perform either Chalitzvah or Yibbum.