Yibum, the Levirate Marriage

The concept of inter-generational connection and obligation has been lost in the value system of most of the world, but not in a Torah life.

Moshe Kempinski ,

moshe Kempinski
moshe Kempinski
moshe Kempinski

In this period of unrest and Covid 19 virus fears it is important to establish some sound parameters of living with purpose. All that we once knew about the balance and rhythm of our lives has been suspended.

It is in times such as these we need to relook at our lives and what truly gives them purpose.

The concept of inter-generational connection and obligation has been lost in the value system of most of the world. The "here and now" ideology has become so important that it has driven society to discard the past and to ignore the future. The concept of not only "where we came from", but "who we came from” has been made irrelevant.

In the book of Devarim we are reminded of these important truths.

The Torah tells us;

"If brothers reside together, and one of them dies childless, the dead man's wife shall not marry an outsider. Her husband's brother must come to her, taking her as his wife in a levirate marriage. The firstborn son whom she bears will then perpetuate the name of the dead brother, so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel"( Deuteronomy 25:5-6).

That is to say, if a married man dies childless, the widow should, if she wishes to, marry her deceased husband’s brother. The firstborn son they produce together is considered a continuation of the deceased husband’s name and line. This practice is called Yibum, or levirate marriage.

If the woman desires this arrangement and the brother-in-law does not, then the following applies;

"Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and he shall stand up and say, "I do not wish to take her." Then his brother's wife shall approach him before the eyes of the elders and remove his shoe from his foot. And she shall spit before his face and declare, "Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother's household! And that family shall be called in Israel 'the household of the one whose shoe has been removed.'" (ibid. 25:8-10).

Why would all this be so important?

The key verses to focus on in order to begin to understand the concept are “so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel"(ibid:6) and “And that family shall be called in Israel 'the household of the one whose shoe has been removed.”( ibid:10).

In the “world's view” death is considered so final. For some it is an entry into oblivion and nothingness. For others it is an entry into a new dimension of spiritual reality. Those in the first category may put all their energies and passion into their present mortal existence. In their understanding there is nothing of value after death.

There are those in the second group who place too much emphasis in what will be. In this group there are many whose efforts are only focused at achieving rewards in that next life. This mortal existence according to these, is primarily viewed as a test or a trap.

Judaism unifies and elevates both points of view. Jewish thinking believes that there is very real and awesome existence awaiting our souls when we enter into greater proximity to the Divine source. Yet at the same time our life here has very deep and spiritual importance.

Our life here is not about waiting but rather about walking. We in this existence have been given the opportunity to become G-d’s language.

Reb Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk asked his students “in what language does G-d speak?” After a lively discussion he simply stated “Man is the language of G-d.”

We are on the earth to be G-d’s voice in reality, to express His Oneness and Holiness. To be obedient and connected to that Divine Will which in turn becomes the most powerful expression of His language.

That, then, may be the subtext of the commandment "Be fertile and increase, (pru urvu) and fill the world" (Genesis 1:28). Every child in essence becomes another vehicle for G-d to express Himself in the world.

The laws of Yibum then become clearer.

As long as we are on this earth we are able to be G-d’s language and we are able to declare and praise (Lehallel) His Presence in our reality. Yet we are also aware of another important truth;

“For the dead cannot praise you; they cannot raise their voices in praise. Those who go down to the grave can no longer hope in your faithfulness. Only the living can praise you as I do today. Each generation tells of your faithfulness to the next.”(Isaiah 38:18-19)

We are taught that again in the Book of Psalms.


“The heavens are the heavens of Hashem, But the earth He has given to the sons of men. The dead do not praise Hashem, Nor do any who go down into silence;” (Psalm 115: 16-17 )

Life does not end in the afterlife. That is clearly seen in Rachel’s crying in the heavens” So says Hashem: A voice is heard on high, lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children for they are not.”( Jeremiah 31:14)

Yet “praise” cannot occur in the heavens.

There is no point in declaring that fire is hot or ice is cold when you are standing in the midst of it. There is no power in praise when in the afterlife the reality of G-d’s existence is so simply “there”.

Yet on the other hand we read in the Book of Psalms ;

”It is good to give thanks to Hashem to sing praises to your name O most High ( Psalm 92:1). Then again “Praise Hashem! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting."(ibid 147:1).

Then how can we overcome this dilemma?On the one hand “the dead cannot praise You” and the other” it is good to sing praises to our God”

The answer lies in our children and our grandchildren.

When Jewish children say a prayer to honour their deceased parents, they recite the kaddish prayer. Yet the words of this prayer do not mention their deceased loved ones or their memories. The text of the prayer is actually all about glorifying and sanctifying G-d’s name ( Yitgadal VeYitkadash Shemi Rabah)

It goes on and declares;


Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen. etc etc.

We become the mouthpiece for our deceased loved ones. We speak out the praise that they cannot do. This is the essential truth of the Yibum ritual.

As we have said, the essence of the commandment "Be fertile and increase, (pru urvu) and fill the world" (Genesis 1:28) is that every child becomes another vehicle for G-d to express Himself in the world.

Yet just as importantly, every child becomes another vehicle for our ancestors and deceased beloved souls to express praise in the world.

That is the essential secret of Yibum

The firstborn son whom she bears will then perpetuate the name of the dead brother, so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel" ( Deuteronomy 25:6). Not only his name will not be obliterated but his ability to be a vehicle for praise will not cease as well.

LeRefuat Yehudit Bat Golda Yocheved

Lerefuat kol haptzuim



top