Note: This article has no practical halachic applications today. This is especially true regarding widows of IDF soldiers and others who have died al kiddush Hashem. This chapter is merely intended to present the way the issue of marrying a widow was dealt with and presented in ancient works, based largely on kabbalistic sources. It is for informational purposes only.
Among the pieces of advice that Rabbi Akiva gave to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was that one should not marry a divorcee or a widow. As the Talmud explains, this is due to a concern that a woman who was previously married might fantasize about her former spouse during marital relations. Doing so is considered to be very inauspicious for one’s marriage.1 Although Rabbi Akiva acknowledged that there is nothing wrong with marrying a widow, it was his personal opinion that it is not the ideal.
Following this Talmudic passage, the issue of marrying a widow was all but dormant until the thirteenth century, with the appearance of the Zohar. The Zohar writes that marrying a widow is “dangerous.” “Dangerous” is a euphemism throughout rabbinic literature for decisions or activities that are said to be harmful or fatal due to the negative spiritual forces they arouse.2 This is based on the belief that when a widow marries, the soul of her former husband enters her body. The husband’s soul, being upset that another man has taken his wife, is said to be a source of trouble and tension in the new marriage. Indeed, we are taught that a married couple continues to share a single soul even after one of the spouses has died. There are similar teachings regarding a widower who remarries.3
Rabbi Yosef Chaim David Azulai, in his work Chaim Sha’al, relates a chilling episode that he experienced with someone who married a widow.4 An individual who had recently married a widow approached Rabbi Azulai to inquire whether he had done the right thing in marrying this woman. The man explained to Rabbi Azulai how his new wife had been previously married three times. Her first husband was a young man who died from a plague that was rampant in their area. Some time later, she married her second husband, who was much older than she was. He too died soon after they were married. Yet again the woman remarried, this time to a rabbi, and he too died.
The story does not end here. The man told Rabbi Azulai that his wife’s three prior husbands had recently appeared to him in a dream. In this dream, the second older husband was silent and said nothing. The third husband, the rabbi, said that he forgave him for marrying his former wife. But the first young husband was very angry and aggressive. He threatened to exact vengeance from him for having married “his” wife.
The fellow was visibly shaken by his dream and asked Rabbi Azulai if he could somehow intervene and protect him from the young husband who had threatened his life. Rabbi Azulai told him that it is not possible to contend with someone who appears in a dream. Rabbi Azulai simply advised him not to worry about the dream, that he would pray for him, and then sent him on his way. Unfortunately, this fellow mysteriously died a short while later. Following this event, Rabbi Azulai decided to adopt the view of the Zohar and would thereafter counsel people to avoid marrying a widow.
Nevertheless, people routinely marry widows and it is completely permitted to do so.5 Among the reasons for this is that today most people are said to possess souls that are reincarnated. Since our souls are essentially “recycled” rather than new, the spiritual bond between a husband and wife is much weaker than it once was. It is only when a husband and wife both have “new” souls that we apply the teaching that the souls of a married couple are bound together forever. According to this approach, a former husband is unable to significantly disrupt the new marriage and no claim of infringement can be made.
There is also a view that the Zohar’s opposition to marrying a widow is only referring to a woman whose first husband was a scholar and the second one is unlearned. According to this approach, the soul of the deceased husband is distressed that his wife has taken a new husband of a lower stature, so to speak. Similarly, there is a view that the Zohar’s opposition to marrying a widow is only advisory in nature and only directed to Torah scholars, not necessarily anyone else.6 This approach may very well render the entire matter a “non-issue,” as authorities have already questioned whether anyone in our day qualifies for the designation of “scholar.”7 There is also an opinion that the Zohar’s opposition to marrying a widow only applies during the first year following the death of her husband. Following the first yahrzeit, however, there would be no restrictions on or reservations about marrying a widow. Indeed, a good husband does not desire to see his wife live alone for the rest of her life.
Nevertheless, in light of the Zohar and later authorities who adopted the Zohar’s position, there are those who advise one to perform the Tikkun Harashash, also referred to as Tikkun Almana, before marrying a widow. The Tikkun Harashash is a selection of prayers and kabbalistic readings compiled by Rabbi Sar Shalom Sharabi (the Rashash, 1720-1777) that is said to ensure that there will be no negative spiritual influences in the impending marriage. The Tikkun is recited in the presence of a minyan, often at the grave of the previous husband. The Tikkun Rashash is generally only performed in Jerusalem.
In addition to the fact that there is no halachic problem with marrying a widow, it is reasonable to conclude that the Torah would not permit something inherently dangerous. Indeed, the Torah explicitly states that there is only one man who may not marry a widow: the Kohen Gadol.8
- Pesachim 112a (“There are four people in the bed of divorcees”) and Zohar, Mishpatim (“One who marries a widow is like one who goes out to sea in strong winds and without ropes; one does not know whether one will pass in peace or drown”).
- Zohar, Mishpatim, p. 101.
- Sefer Hamiddot, s.v. “Chitun.”
- Chaim Sha’al 2:19; Rav Pe’alim 2, Sod Yesharim 1.
- EH 9. See also Teshuvot V’hanhagot 4:279.
- Imrot Chaim to Ben Ish Chai, Shoftim;16. See Chaim Sha’al 2:19; Rav Pe’alim 2, Sod Yesharim 1; Maharsham 2:141; Chavot Yair 197; Sedei Chemed, Ishut 1:4.
- Rema, YD 243:7.
- Vayikra 21:14; Yechezkel 44:22.