The Torah commands the paternal brother of a man who dies childless to marry his brother’s widow, a mitzvah known as yibum.1 Should the deceased have any living descendants, such as grandchildren, yibum is not performed even if his children have died.2 It is explained that the mitzvah of yibum ensures that the name and memory of the deceased man is perpetuated among the Jewish people through the offspring that are born from the yibum marriage.3
The mitzvah of yibum, however, can be waived through a process known as chalitza. Chalitza is a ceremony in which the widow removes her brother-in-law’s shoe and spits upon the ground before him. This symbolic procedure releases the brother from any obligation to marry her. A Beit Din is required to perform this procedure.4
While it is clear that the Torah’s preference is for one to perform yibum rather than chalitza, this is rarely the case nowadays and yibum is generally no longer an option – a man does not marry his brother’s widow.
However, the dispute regarding whether one should perform yibum or chalitza actually dates back to the Talmudic era.5 Most of the rabbis of the Talmud were of the opinion that yibum is to be preferred, while the great sage Abba Shaul insisted that chalitza be performed instead. Their disagreement revolves around the intention of the one performing yibum. This is because one who marries his brother’s widow for no other reason than to fulfill the mitzvah of yibum and to perpetuate his brother’s memory is to be praised; on the other hand, one who performs yibum for lustful or other unbecoming considerations is to be shunned.
To better understand:6 As a general rule, a man is forbidden to marry his brother’s wife. This is true if his brother dies and leaves children behind, and also if his brother and his wife are divorced whether they have children or not. The biblical prohibition against marrying one’s brother’s wife remains in effect forever. Yibum is the only exception; according to the practice of yibum, marrying one’s brother’s widow is not only permitted but is a mitzvah. According to Abba Shaul, however, if the one performing yibum does so with the wrong intention, not only has he not fulfilled the mitzvah of yibum but he has transgressed the severe prohibition of marrying his brother’s wife. The other rabbis disagree, and argue that the yibum is valid regardless of the brother’s intentions, and it is therefore not a transgression of the prohibition against marrying one’s brother’s wife.7
According to the Rambam, the Beit Yosef and others, the halacha follows the view of the rabbis, and therefore yibum is to be preferred.8 The Rema, however, is of the opinion that the halacha follows Abba Shaul, and therefore chalitza is preferred.9 Therefore, Sefardim, who generally conduct themselves according to the rulings of the Rambam and Beit Yosef, have historically been more receptive to yibum while in Ashkenazi communities yibum has never been practiced at all; only chalitza is performed.10 Today, most Jewish communities worldwide follow the view of the Rema. Indeed, even in the State of Israel, yibum is not performed, and Israeli law, based on a ruling issued by both the Ashkenazi and Sefardi chief rabbis in 1950, requires those in this situation to perform chalitza rather than yibum. Some halachic authorities, however, insist that those who choose to perform yibum today are entitled to do so.11
It is interesting to note that a Kohen Gadol is ineligible to perform yibum and must always perform chalitza instead. This is because the Torah explicitly states that a Kohen Gadol must marry a virgin. It also says that he may not marry a widow.12 This double limitation (containing both a positive and negative mitzvah) overrides the mitzvah of yibum.13
- Yevamot 22a,87b.
- Yevamot 70a.
- Devarim 25:5-6.
- Devarim 25:7-10; Yevamot 101a; EH 169:1.
- Yevamot 39b.
- Teshuvot HaRambam 170.
- See also Aruch HaShulchan, EH 164:8 and Shevut Yaakov 3:135.
- Rambam, Hilchot Yibum 1:2; EH 165:1.
- Rema, EH 165:1.
- Radbaz 4:108.
- Yabia Omer 6:14.
- Vayikra 21:13-14.
- Rambam, Hilchot Issurei Biah 17:2.