The English term “brother-in-law” can denote one of four possible familial connections: A woman’s husband’s brother or her sister’s husband; or a man’s wife’s brother or his sister’s husband. In this essay, we explore the words for the sibling of one’s spouse and the spouse of one’s sibling in the Hebrew language.
Our point of departure is the commandment of the levirate marriage, which decrees that when a childless married man dies and one of the deceased’s brothers must marry his widowed sister-in-law (Deut. 25:5).
The phrase levirate marriage is derived from the Latin word levir (“brother-in-law”). The Hebrew term for this commandment is yibbum, which is a cognate of the yavam/yevamah – words that describe the deceased’s brother (yavam) and the deceased’s widow (yevamah), who are commanded to marry each other.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) traces the term yavam to the biliteral root bet-mem, whose core meaning is reflected in the word bam (“in them/through them”). Rabbi Pappenheim notes that this two-letter root can be further broken down into a merger of two single monoliteral roots, the letter bet (the prefix “in/through”) and the letter mem (the suffix “them”). He thus understands the root bet-mem to denote the composite meeting point of multiple parties.
He thus explains that the bamah (“private altar”) is derived from this word, as it denotes a site at which many people gathered together in communal worship. Bamah also denotes “high place” – and many commentators understand this to be the word’s original meaning, since such gatherings typically happened at elevated places to increase their visibility.
When it comes to the word yavam, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that this term for a relative-in-law contrasts with other terms for relatives-in-law. For example, a person in a marriage has only one father-in-law and one mother-in-law, so the terms choten/chotenet or cham/chamot describing those relationships always refer to one person.
But through marriage a bride or groom can accrue any number of siblings-in-law. This has the potential to create a sort of “mass gathering” of family members, hence the word for a sibling-in-law (yavam/yevamah) is derived from the root that denotes the meeting and conglomerating of multiple individuals.
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865) cites Rabbi Pappenheim’s explanation, but prefers a different approach. He too connects the word yibbum to bamah, but explains the connection differently, adopting the traditional understanding of bamah as a “high place,” so that yibbum entails “lifting up” a downtrodden and childless widow by marrying her and making her feel important again. Alternatively, he suggests that yibbum involves “elevating” the deceased brother’s soul by establishing a family in his name.
Based on the Talmudic principle that in marriage the spouses are considered the same, Rabbi Pappenheim broadens the definition of yavam/yevamah to include a spouse’s sibling’s spouse. For this he cites Ruth 1:15, in which Naomi characterizes Orpah as Ruth’s yevamah, even though she was Ruth’s husband’s brother’s wife. (This usage is also found in the Mishnah (Yevamot 15:4), where yevamah refers to a woman’s husband’s brother’s wife.)
Rabbi Pappenheim further explains that the act of the levirate marriage is called yibbum because when a man died, his wife was no longer actively considered a sister-in-law to his brothers, but when one of the brothers marries her, she rejoins the family and is now once again considered a sister-in-law to the remaining brothers.
Thus, since marrying the widow entails reintroducing her as a yevamah to the rest of the family, the commandment to marry her is called yibbum.
Rabbi Wolf Heidenheim (1757–1832) takes the opposite approach, explaining that the verb yibbum does not imply reinstating the widow’s lost status as a yevamah because from a halachic perspective she always remains a sister-in-law to her husband’s brothers. Rather, he explains, yibbum implies that when a brother marries her, he eliminates her status as a yevamah vis-à-vis himself. According to this approach, the act of yibbum serves to undo her status as yevamah and instead make her a wife.
Alternatively, Ibn Ezra (to Gen. 38:8) seems to explain that the term yibbum does not relate to the yevamah, but the to the yavam. The act of yibbum is then the quintessential act of “brother-in-lawing” one’s yevamah in the sense that the yavam responsibly acts in the way of brothers-in-law who take responsibility for their widowed sisters-in-law and bring them into their own family (see also Meshech Chachmah to Deut. 25:5).
Rabbi Mecklenberg and others (cited by Rabbi Heidenheim) explain that biblical Hebrew has no special word for “brother-in-law” or “sister-in-law,” rather the latter is called eshet achiv (literally, “his brother’s wife”) like in Gen. 38:8-9, Lev. 18:16, 20:21, and it is only in later rabbinic Hebrew that the terms giss/gissa* for siblings-in-law were introduced. They argue that the terms yavam/yevamah refer specifically to those who are party to the commandment of yibbum and are not general kinship terms for siblings-in-law. Nonetheless, Rabbi Heidenheim cites Ibn Ezra (mentioned above) and HaBachur, who clearly disagree with this approach and understand yavam/yevamah to have a kinship meaning even outside of the context of yibbum.