Understanding the Purpose of the Levirate Marriage and Its Symbolism

One of the ancient institutions that have persisted since archaic times is the levirate marriage. Here is a brief synopsis of the institution and its underlying rational.

Life of a widow in the ancient world was precarious at best. Having no inheritance rights, she was easily exploited and was frequently reduced to abject poverty and/or prostitution. Many ancient civilizations from India, Africa, to the Ancient Near East utilized the levirate marriage (from the Latin  levir, a “brother-in-law”) as a means of protecting the brother’s wife from being exposed to poverty. Society expected the surviving brother of a deceased man (who lacked an heir) to marry the widow. It is interesting to note that according to the Kabbala (and Hindu folklore), the soul of the dead brother is re-incarnated in the body of child his wife is carrying.

The offspring from their marriage were considered children and heirs of the deceased. In a society that defined the importance of a woman in terms of her ability to bear and raise children, the levirate marriage enabled a woman to be fulfilled. This law served to guarantee the deceased brother’s wife a place in her husband’s family and protected her from exploitation.  This law was consistent with the biblical ethos calling upon the community of God ‘to remember and care for “the sojourners, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut. 10:14-19; 24:17-22; 27:19). During the early period of Israelite history, this practice was not considered optional, but a duty to be faithfully carried out .

For the brother-in-law, the levirate marriage was not without its downside. By observing the law, he could actually damage his own estate, for it could be either diminished as a result of siring a son who would co-inherit with him. Likewise, it would be his to take responsibility for the widow as well as managing his dead brother’s land, not to mention, and be financially responsible for his sister-in-law as his wife. However, families took great pride in providing care for all of its members—the duty to take care of the widow was considered to be a morally important duty–not to be casually disregarded.

Performance of the levirate was considered by ancients to be a truly magnanimous act on the part of the living brother. He was assuming obligations without necessarily deriving any corresponding benefits; it was an act of kindness not only to the widow, but it also witnessed to the dignity of the deceased individual, for his name would be perpetuated among his people.

The sacred biblical framers realized that not every person would be willing to observe the institution described above. A mechanism was set in motion that would allow the widow to remarry anyone of her choosing, but she could not do so without the assistance of her brother-in-law. A special ceremony known as halitzah provided the means by which a brother-in-law releases himself of the obligation to marry his deceased brother’s wife should the brother have died before producing offspring. The ceremony involves taking off the brother-in-law’s shoe, as he hands it to his deceased brother’s wife to release her from the duty of marrying him in order to produce a name for his brother. The woman is then free to marry whomever she chooses.

In Deuteronomy 25:9, the law reads, “then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, and shall spit in his face.” Quite literally! Commentaries softened the text to mean that she should spit toward him.  In the story of Ruth, her levir removed his shoes, and by doing so, removed any interest that he would have in taking care of Ruth’s land and household. This enabled Boaz to become the next in line to perform the levirate marriage (Ruth 4:7), a widow removed his authorization to administer the land of her household.

Spitting among Bedouin Arabs is still often a cause of blood feud. Since antiquity, macho societies of the Near East considered being spat by a woman is even a greater dishonor and humiliation. Nevertheless, in this case the Torah protects the woman, and there is nothing the kinsman can do.

But why the humiliation?

The purpose is to embarrass the levir for not carrying out his duty in front of the community, which was held at the entrance chamber of the city, where the all the town officials and magistrates sat.  In an honor-based society, where pride and respect are qualities men will fight and die for, the ceremony described must have had a sobering effect on a society which placed the good and welfare of the family over that of the individual. Only a selflessly devoted man who had no interest in personally profiting from the deceased’s estate, would be willing to raise a son whose name would perpetuate the deceased and not his own.  Thus, the failure to observe this law reflected a lack of brotherly concern and was looked upon with contempt by the widow; the pulling off of his shoe was meant to embarrass the next of kin.

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