Jun 20, 2007

a Halitza story

For those of you who do not know, "Halitzah" is a mitzva in the Torah. In brief, when a married man dies, leaving a wife but no children, that man's brother (if he has at least one), is commanded by the Torah to perform a marital ceremony called "Yibum" with his brother's widow.

The idea of this is to establish the dead brother's name in Israel by producing children.

If, for whatever reason, the brother cannot or chooses not to do so, of if the widow refuses to marry him, the Torah changes the mitzva to one of Halitza. That is a separation ceremony in which certain verses are read from the Torah, the woman spits into a shoe, and they are offically separated and each can go on living their lives as they wish.

Nowadays, we do not perform the mitzva of Yibum. Whenever such a situation arises, we perform halitza instead of yibum. I understand the reason to be that the Rabbis decided (even in the time of the Talmud this decision was beginning - it is not a decree of today's Rabbis) that our thoughts are less than pure. It was suspected that when the brother was performing Yibum, he might have thoughts of desire for his sister-in-law, ratehr than thoughts of establishing his dead brothers name.

Because of this, they decided that we would no longer perform Yibum, but only halitza.

Enough of an introduction.

It seems that halitza is not a very common occurence. Whenever I have heard of one taking place it is always "after the fact" and having been done with a sense of urgency and even excitement. Usually one hears that "The Rabbi called me about a halitza going to take place and invited me to come watch."

An emotional halitza took place this week in Jerusalem.

One year ago a woman lost her husband in the Second Lebanon War. They had no children. She was obligated to have the halita ceremony performed in order for her to begin to move on and look for a new husband.

Her family members had tried to press her to partake in the halitza ceremony so she could move on. She refused, saying that her husband is still with her. To her he was still alive.

Eventually the family turned to the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Amar, to help with the situation.

The Rabbi tried to convince her to do the halitza. He explained that as long as she continued to refuse, her husband's soul could not rest peacefully. Aside from doing it for herself, she was urged to do it for her dead husband's sake.

He promised her that he would personally deal with the halitza. At the ceremony would also be a memorial service for her dead husband, and eventually she agreed.

After all the preparations were made, the ceremony was performed in the offices of the Chief Rabbi of Israel, one year to the day of the death of her husband, who died in the Second Lebanon War. May his memory be blessed, and may she have the strength and conviction to move on and begin her life anew.

And if anybody knows how I could arrange to witness such a ceremony, please drop me a line.


  1. Interesting post; it sounds like a moving ceremony, indeed. It really brings home just how closely people were affected/touched/hurt by last summer's war, and just how small a country Israel really is...

    A question, though, about yibum/halitza. You said: It was suspected that when the brother was performing Yibum, he might have thoughts of desire for his sister-in-law, ratehr than thoughts of establishing his dead brothers name.

    I am not asking this to make light of anything, but I think we all know what the act of yibum is, and as a married man, I know that "thoughts of desire" are pretty much required to make it work... So if a couple insists on yibum, how can anyone tell if they really are trying to honor the dead brother? It's all internal... And just in asking, I think I begin to see the wisdom in just doing Halitza...

  2. Michael - as far as I know, he cannot insist on Yibum. Beis Din will not allow Yibum. Though someone contacted me offline and told me that some sefardim still do perform yibum...

    We cannot know, and yes desire is neccessary for performance of the actual consummation, but it seems the thought of re-establishing the brothers lineage is utmost importance and because we cannot be convinced of the person really having that goal in mind, we therefore do not perform it at all.

  3. I do know of a chassidic family in the US that is via Yibum. I don't know the details of how, but I do know that the husband died from a car accident, and a year later the brother married the widow and (don't remember if it was 3 or 5 children). And yes, they are now raising a son of the brother's name.

    I agree this is very uncommon, but I haven't heard that it's absolutely prohibited.


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