“When a Brother Dies Childless”

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, we learn the law of the “levirate marriage,” known in Hebrew as יִבּוּם, “Yee’boom.” “Yee’boom” is the obligation of the surviving brother of a man who died without leaving children to betroth his brother’s widow and bear children, in order to perpetuate his late brother’s name and memory.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 25:5 states, כִּי יֵשְׁבוּ אַחִים יַחְדָּו וּמֵת אַחַד מֵהֶם, וּבֵן אֵין לוֹ, לֹא תִהְיֶה אֵשֶׁת הַמֵּת הַחוּצָה לְאִישׁ זָר, יְבָמָהּ יָבֹא עָלֶיהָ וּלְקָחָהּ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וְיִבְּמָהּ When brothers dwell together and one of them dies, and he has no child, the wife of the deceased shall not marry outside to a strange man; her brother-in-law shall come to her, and take her to himself as a wife, and perform levirate marriage.

Scripture then states that the firstborn child shall perpetuate the name of the deceased brother, so that his memory will not be blotted out from Israel.

However, if the surviving brother does not wish to marry his widowed sister-in-law, then a ceremony that is known as חֲלִיצָה “Chah’lee’tzah,” is performed, releasing him from the betrothal obligation. As part of the ceremony, the widow removes a special shoe that was placed on the foot of her brother-in-law and spits in front of him, saying, “So is done to the man who will not build the house of his brother.”

In general, the Torah prohibits a man from marrying his brother’s wife. However, it is considered an act of great kindness to try to perpetuate the deceased brother’s memory.

Apparently, the custom of the levirate marriage goes back to great antiquity. During the period of the patriarchs, the Torah in Genesis 38 tells of Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, who, when her first husband died, was betrothed to his surviving brother. Her second husband, who did not want to impregnate Tamar to perpetuate his brother’s memory, also dies because he was evil in G-d’s eyes.

Since Talmudic times the practice of Ashkenazi Jews has been to perform “Chah’lee’tzah” rather than “Yee’boom.” Chah’lee’tzah is preferred because betrothing the brother’s widow can lead to suspicion that it is being done for personal gain (financial, romantic or physical), rather than out of a desire to fulfill the commandment.

Thus, the practice of “Yee’boom” has been discontinued in Ashkenazic communities. Today, surviving brothers are required to separate themselves from their brother’s widow through “Chah’lee’tzah.” The Chief Rabbinate in Israel has also forbidden the practice of “Yee’boom,” even among Sephardic communities who used to practice it.

There are several interesting technical details regarding the ritual of “Yee’boom.” “Yee’boom” is only required to be performed among brothers who are born to the same father. If the deceased man had children with another woman, “Yee’boom” is not required. If the deceased had no brothers at the time of his death, but a brother was born after his death, that brother is freed from the obligation of “Yee’boom.” If a child was born during the deceased’s lifetime, but then died, there is also no requirement of “Yee’boom.” If the widow is barren and not capable of giving birth, again there is no requirement of “Yee’boom.”

In times when “Yee’boom” was practiced, the court was required in each instance to speak to the surviving brother to determine the best course of action. Under most circumstances, the court would try to persuade the surviving brother to fulfil the commandment of “Yee’boom.” But if they felt that the couple was incompatible, “Chah’lee’tzah” would be recommended.

Rabbeinu Bachya, explains that during the “Chah’lee’tzah” ceremony, having the widow remove the shoe from the brother who refuses to perform the levirate marriage is regarded as a sign of mourning. Since the surviving brother has now demonstrated that he does not desire to keep his deceased brother’s spiritually alive, his brother is now irrevocably dead.

Sforno explains that by spitting on the ground in front of the surviving brother, the widow demonstrates contempt for the man who refuses to perpetuate the memory of her late husband.

The Abarbanel explains that every human being seeks immortality which can be attained in both a spiritual and physical manner. Procreation is the only means of physical immortality, and as such, the soul of a man who dies childless descends into despair, because the soul no longer has a physical vessel. The loss of the physical vessel can be repaired by the birth of a child who will be identified as the son of the deceased. Hence, the levirate marriage results in the closest approximation of physical immortality for the deceased.

Through the remarkable institution of “Yee’boom,” the Torah, in its inimitable way, attempts to sanctify the life of a human being—-even one who is no longer alive.

May you be blessed.