Funny you should ask this question. It reminds me of when I asked a very similar question while I was studying the very intricate and complicated Tractate of Yevamot (the section of Talmud that is devoted to these laws) which is one of the most difficult texts that are regularly studied in the Great Yeshivot. In the short space I have here I cannot fully explain how I discovered the importance of studying all that, but I can attempt to answer your question briefly.
You ask “Are "Yibbum" and "Halitzah" (ceremonies related to the process of levirate marriage) still relevant today?” The short answer is that there is NOTHING in the Torah that is not relevant today, in terms of learning eternal values and what they are to mean to us. There are certainly areas that, for practical reasons (e.g. we do not have a Temple for now) we cannot practice. But they are still there for us to learn our full complement of Jewish values, until such time that we will have the privilege to practice Jewish life fully again.
From your question I assume that you know what Yibbum & Halitzah are. Briefly, for anyone else reading this, they apply in a relatively rare case. A man aspired to fulfill the calling of his life here on Earth by establishing a home and marrying. As Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch explains, the husband & wife long to be granted an ultimate wish -- to bear children who will survive them, children who will carry on the values and spiritual image that parents try to impart -- to which they dedicate much of their lives. Tragically, he dies not having achieved this goal; there is no descendant, no heir, no one to carry on and perpetuate his memory on Earth. His dear wife, his partner in life wife will marry a stranger, his material goods be divided amongst others, and he will be forgotten without a trace. This would be the case, had the Torah not provided, for certain circumstances, the possibility of moral and spiritual replacement through Yibbum.
The basic idea, then, is that the husband's closest blood relative – his brother – would bond with his widow, for the sole purpose of producing a child that would be in perpetuation of the deceased's memory. This bonding of two of the closest people to the deceased, in his memory, and with his possessions, assures that his memory will live on in the child that will be born and called by his name.
This, however, is not an absolute obligation. If the decision is made not to perform Yibbum, a releasing ceremony, Halitzah, is an option through which the widow and the brother declare their intention to forgo this opportunity.
Already in Talmudic times, Abba Shaul taught that when it was seen that the frequency with which Yibbum, rather than Halitzah was chosen was closely related to how beautiful the widow was or how large the estate, rather than spiritual reasons, the Rabbis foreclosed the Yibbum option and insisted that only Halitzah be practiced, until such time (Messianic era?) that we will be once again sufficiently saintly that we will practice Yibbum for the right reasons only.
What can we learn from this area of law other than the dry technical stuff? I think it says a great deal about what families are about; the role of relationships, parents and children, etc. We should seek to perpetuate the memory of those who came before, and even more of those cut down in the fullness of life. To honor their memory is supreme.
Bottom line - If a married man dies childless today, and leaves a brother, his widow needs to perform Halitzah with that brother before she may remarry. This is a serious requirement, according to many hlachic opinions she will be considered an adulteress if she remarries without having undergone Halitzah
No, it is not relevant in the sense that it should be practiced.It is relevant in the sense that it gives us deep insight into the sociology and familial patterns of our ancient and medieval ancestors.Furthermore, it underscores the benefits of our own modern society and how we have largely broken from practices that contributed to the subjugation of women and humiliation of men.
Deuteronomy (25:5-10) explicitly details the law concerning the yibbum, known as the levirate marriage.It essentially details that if a married man dies, leaving his wife childless, his brother has a choice to either marry the widow and bear her a son with the name of the deceased or to reject her.If the surviving brother rejects her, a halitzah or “tearing” ceremony takes place, wherein the widow tears the shoe from his foot, spits in the brother’s face, and declares: “This is done to the man who does not build his brother’s house!”The brother is then to be called bet halutz ha-na’al, “Family of the Un-Shoed One.”
In this law, we see that the Torah sensitively encourages a childless man’s name to be carried on with the two closest people to him.Today, there are many traditions in Judaism that also encourage ways for the name of a deceased family member to live on through others.However, we also see in this law a patriarchal family system that assumes the married woman will remain a member of her husband’s family after his death.Without the yibbum or levirate marriage, the childless widow in this society can neither be a virgin in her own father’s house nor a mother in her husband’s family, which were the two primary roles for women in that society.Therefore, given their circumstances, this arrangement benefitted women.
Levirate marriage, however, may not have actually been appealing to men at the time. For example, the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38) and Ruth and Boaz, portray the women disguising themselves in order to entice the men into the relationship.After all, why would he enter into it? If he bears a son with his brother’s widow, the brother’s property that would have been passed on equally between him and any other surviving brothers as part of family property will now solely go to this son.And yet the alternative of the halitzah, shoe-stripping (a symbol of public emasculation) and spitting rite is certainly intended to encourage him to marry her because of its cruel public humiliation.
Later, the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud alleviate some of the problems for the surviving brother, called the levir.They ruled that the newborn son would be the proper child of the levir and that the levir (not the son) would become the owner of the deceased brother’s property (Mishnah, Yevamot 4:7).This provides a financial advantage for levirate marriage and gives the levir the same authority over his family as in any other marriage.Nevertheless, even in a polygamous society, refusal to marry must have still been very compelling, making halitzah a still necessary procedure.Many Rabbis in the Mishnah’s discussion (Yevamot 12:3) also attempt to make halitzah less humiliating do by not requiring the spitting to make it valid.
Then, in the 10th century, Rabbeinu Gershom (960-1028) banned polygamy amongst Ashkenazim, making levirate marriage a more significant choice, which led to a general preference of halitzah over the levirate marriage.Maimonides (1135-1204) also designates a section of his code of law to this issue: The Laws of Yibbum and Chalitzah.There he necessitates that the widow must first agree to the levirate marriage (2:16) and he formalizes and specifies the procedure as to where it should take place, who should be present, when the declarations are made (beforehand), and what kind of shoe is permissible (4:1-6).By doing so, he brings more respect and dignity to all who participate.
For over a century, progressive Jews have understood yibbum and chalitzah as a symbol of women’s subjugation within a patriarchy more than as a rite to honor a deceased’s name and property.And in 20th western societies women are financially independent and are no longer solely identified by their ability to bear children.Therefore, in 1950, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Herzog, supported by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Uziel, abolished the practice both because Ashkenazim already had stopped doing it and because it would be difficult for two family traditions (Sephardi and Ashkenazi) to coexist.Mizrachi and many Sephardi Jews criticized the prohibition, and halitzah is still customarily practiced.
The Reform Movement in Germany abolished levirate marriage and halitzah in the 19th century because a) it was already hardly practiced for the past several hundred years, especially in Ashkenazi communities, and b) it was understood to impose indignity and cruelty upon women. Most – if not all – Conservative rabbis do not practice it.Although no official response by the movement has been given, the Rabbinical Assembly proceedings clearly regard it as a ceremony of “indignity and injustice” and as Rabbi Isaac Klein stated: “The ceremony has become repugnant and meaningless to the modern mind.”
What are these laws? Yibum (pronounced "yi-BOOM"), or levirate marriage, in Judaism, is a complex situation that is mandated by the Torah. It states that the brother of a man who died without children has an obligation to marry his brother’s wife if she is childless. If either of the parties refuses to go through with the marriage, both are required to go through a ceremony known as halitzah (ha-li-TZAH), which is a symbolic act of renunciation of their obligation to perform levirate marriage.
These acts may be relevant to the observant communities who practice them, but to those communities who do not follow the halachah, they are irrelevant.
In the ancient Near East, these laws were important where, upon the death of a leader or patriarch, property needed to remain within the clan. Property was bequeathed to the surviving children, and children needed to exist in order to inherit the birthright and legacy of the parents. If no child existed, the property could otherwise be lost.
Today the laws and customs of inheritance are observed differently, and property does not need to remain within a clan, at least in our society.
From a religious point of view, Judaism has seen a gradual decline of yibum in favor of halitzah; most contemporary observant Jewish communities strongly discourage yibum. However, for observant Jews, they believe they must minimally follow the ceremony of halitzah, because God commanded it.
This is the relevant passage from Deuteronomy 25:5-10: “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” That man’s line shall be known in Israel as ‘The Family of the Unsandaled’.”
In so saying, the Torah reflected the needs of the land of Israel in the year 600 BCE. But by the Rabbinic era, the practice of levirate marriage was frowned upon, and halitzah was encouraged over yibum.
A difference of opinion appeared among the later authorities, however, with Spanish authorities mostly upholding the custom, while Rabbeinu Tam supporting halitzah. If the surviving brother were married, Ashkenazim, who follow the takanah of Rabbi Gershom abolishing polygamy, would be compelled to perform halitzah.
In modern times Orthodox Jews have generally upheld the position of Rabbeinu Tam and perform halitzah rather than yibbum; Conservative Judaism formally retains it; Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism have abolished it.
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