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    Yibbum & chalitzah – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. What is your opinion about the rule in the Torah that if a man dies leaving a childless widow, the woman must marry her husband’s brother (Yibbum) or go through a renunciation ceremony called Chalitzah?

    A chalitzah shoe

    A. The Torah rule about Yibbum (yavam = “brother-in-law”) and Chalitzah (“loosening of the shoe”) is in Devarim 25.

    The Mishnah at the end of B’chorot gives priority (i.e. regards as the desired outcome) to Yibbum over Chalitzah. In tractate Yevamot there is a strong argument that the priority is the other way round.

    The difference might be geographical. Maimonides and Karo give priority to Yibbum whereas Isserles emphasises Chalitzah. Alternatively, the difference might be spiritual and psychological.

    Chalitzah is very rare. In all the many years I served in the rabbinate in Australia I recall only one Chalitzah ceremony, which was conducted by Rabbi Osher Abramson, head of the Sydney Beth Din, using a Chalitzah shoe which I found in the office of the Great Synagogue.

    Chalitzah releases the brother-in-law from the obligation to marry the widow. If there was a Yibbum the name of the deceased husband would be preserved in the child of the new marriage; the deceased husband in a sense walks the earth once more.

    The Chalitzah has the result of allowing the woman to marry someone else without retaining the connection with the previous husband. The Chalitzah ceremony is full of symbolism; the brother-in-law has the Chalitzah shoe removed from his foot so that if the widow now has a child with the new husband, the Chalitzah has brought about a closure of the previous marriage.

    The Israeli rabbinate has ruled that Chalitzah takes priority over Yibbum though former Sephardi chief rabbi Rav Ovadiah Yosef disagrees.

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