Last year a friend – who had free tickets – and I went to visit a museum, unique in that it showcases shoes. At first, I wasn’t that enthusiastic about going, even if it was free, because the tomboy in me wondered what could be so interesting about footwear. My parents owned a shoe store that initially was in our house, the living and dining rooms converted into the store, so I was surrounded by shoes and sandals and boots.
(One of my earliest memories was of my twin brother and me crawling under the chairs and gleefully finding “treasure” – diamonds, actually rhinestones that had fallen off the clip-on buckles.)
So I tagged along to keep my friend company, not that interested in the very old; designer or postmodern styles that would be on display.
To my pleasant surprise, the displays were quite impressive, showcasing shoes that were representative of many countries, cultures and eras.
What was fascinating for me were two very unique types of shoes. One was likely several hundred years old, more of a slipper, that was very narrow and pointed. Apparently, this shoe was worn by upper-class Chinese girls whose feet had been tightly bandaged for years in order to stunt bone growth, a rather painful and lengthy procedure. These hapless females barely could walk on their deformed feet but the resulting mincing steps were apparently appealing to future suitors.
Ballerinas train for years to dance on their toes, but have normal feet. Their ballet slippers looked similar, but actually bigger. Based on this sample, it was obvious that the bones on the feet of these aristocratic girls had been crushed. When I was older and helped out in the store, I often saw toes that had been squeezed on top of each other after years of women wearing very pointed and narrow shoes that were in fashion, but the rest of the foot was relatively normal. Not so long ago, women wore very tight corsets lined with whalebone, that were tightly laced to create tiny waists. I imagine eating more than a morsel would have been difficult.
What we women suffered – and still do – in the name of “looking good.”
But this article is being written because of the second shoe that totally captured my attention. The shoe, protected in a glass case, had been used to perform chalitzah. The performance of chalitzah was the only avenue for a childless widow to halachically be allowed to remarry outside her late husband’s family. A man closely related to someone who died childless, was required to marry his widow, and father a child who would be considered the offspring and heir of the deceased. This was called yibbum, or a levirate marriage. If he refused or was unable to marry the widow, she was released to marry, by performing chalitzah, which involved a ceremony in which she spat and threw a shoe at him. The shoe in the museum had been used for that purpose, many decades ago.
In the book of Ruth, we learn that Boaz married his late kinsman’s childless widow. King David was a descendant of this union – and Moshiach.
Seeing the shoe triggered several thoughts. One was how “fortunate” widows were who had children or were pregnant with their first child. This situation occurred in my mother’s extended family. A cousin of hers survived the Holocaust and moved to Israel. I visited her the summer of 1973. Her newlywed son, David, was studying in Europe so I didn’t get to meet him, but met his younger brother who was probably 20.
David and his wife came home for Yom Tov, and when the Yom Kippur War broke out, he joined his troop.
David’s tank was blown up. About seven months later, his wife had a daughter.
I was grateful there had been a child. I’m not sure, since they were quite secular, if there would have been yibbum with his brother or a chalitzah.
Tragically, there are young men killed in car crashes, drownings, cancer and lately even from Covid-19. I had a thought that perhaps there is a way, due to advanced medical technology, to making yibbum/chalitzah obsolete. Already, young men who are undergoing harsh treatments for various cancers, especially in their reproductive organs, have been preserving their fertility by having their seed frozen to be successfully used to father children in the future.
Perhaps every chassan should, as I’ve suggested in an earlier column, get life insurance – but go one step further and get what I call “fertility insurance.”
If G-d forbid, he suddenly dies childless, his widow can still have his child posthumously and he will have a continuation.
If she, for whatever reason, does not want to or is unable to do this, there is another option: There are older single girls, who feel their biological clock is winding down, who have had children by artificial insemination. I personally know of two women, one never married, one divorced, who years ago got a daas Torah to do so. Perhaps they could be viewed as a pilegesh – concubine, of the unknown stranger who is the father of their child.
Perhaps a single woman who does want a child, could be matched with the family of the niftar, and using medical technology, bear his child, in a halachically approved manner.
It likely would be a win-win situation. The older single would have a baby; the niftar would have offspring; and his devastated parents would see “nachas.” The single mother would possibly have emotional or financial support from her child’s paternal grandparents – or not. It would be all mutually spelled out beforehand.
Out of the box, perhaps, but sometimes expanding the box’s parameters makes sense.