The Price Of Posterity

Among the many laws regarding moral and ethical behavior within interpersonal relationships, this week’s reading of Parashah KiTetse’ includes an ancient but striking solution to the preservation of a family name in the event of untimely death; levirate marriage . Although this practice was common among many tribal cultures to preserve their autonomy, it is codified in a formal ceremony for the first time in the Torah. In essence, the custom centers on the widow of a man who has died without leaving a male heir. It then becomes incumbent upon her brother-in-law, if he is able and willing, to marry her so that she might produce a son to perpetuate her husband’s name, assets and spiritual legacy. If this levirate union cannot be assured, a ceremony called ‘halitzah’ is arranged to disengage the man and woman from their obligation. Halitzah takes place within a synagogue following the morning service when a number of witnesses would be present. From these witnesses, three judges and two assistants are appointed, the ‘judges’ are seated on one bench, and the assistants are seated on a second bench beside it. The brother-in-law (yabam) and the widow (yebamah) stand between them. Their case that includes certain criteria for eligibility in this rite such as the state of their mental and physical health is presented to the ‘court’. The brother-in-law asserts that he is present of his own free will and the proceedings begin. A special leather shoe (made from the hide of a kosher animal) that is the property of the community is then tied to his right leg. The lead judge makes the following statement which the widow repeats three times: “My brother-in-law refuses to raise unto his brother a name in Israel; he will not marry me.” The brother-in-law is required to repeat: “I do not wish to take her.” He holds his foot to the floor while his sister-in-law loosens the shoe and tosses it to the side of the court. She then faces her brother-in-law, spits on the floor in front of him and repeats three times the following statement after the judge: “So shall it be done unto that man who will not build up his brother’s house, and his name shall be called in Israel, ‘the house of him that hath his shoe loosed.” The widow is now free to marry whomever she wishes after the proper mourning period has ended. However, a question remained; what if the brother-in-law attempted to extort money from the widow in exchange for releasing her from the levirate obligation? Eventually, medieval Polish rabbis created a document called the “shetar halitzah” which all the brothers of the groom in a marriage were made to sign. This ensured that they would submit to ‘halitzah’ if their brother died childless without making any financial claims on his widow.

It should be noted here that in the 1,500 years since Talmudic times, when polygamy was outlawed from marriage practices, the halitzah ritual became the preferred alternative to levirate marriage. This ceremony is shown across two pages because its ramifications extend from generation to generation. In addition to the images on these pages that depict the players in this ritual, I have included the leather halitzah shoe (based on one in the collection of Congregation Mikve Israel in Philadelphia), a ceremonial wedding ring and a parchment held by the brother-in-law representing the assets and nullified obligations of halitzah. I’ve portrayed the widow, having removed the shoe as she is preparing to spit and seal the ceremony.

Is she wearing an expression of regret or relief?

 

The illustrations above may be found along with additional footnotes in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).The book is distributed internationally and may be purchased directly from the publisher by calling: 1-800-227-1428 (US), {+44} 0 1926 430111(UK) or visiting http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html.

 

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