Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond AppleLarry Brandt

Q. What is Kabbalah?

A. From a root that means "to receive", Kabbalah ("tradition") denotes a system that is said to date back to ancient origins.

There are mystic currents in Biblical and post-Biblical literature and the early rabbinic sources report a number of mystics and mystical experiences.

By the Middle Ages the mystical strand in Judaism had become a complex system of thinking, focussing on themes such as the nature of God and the history and structure of Creation.

Mystics often concerned themselves with the flaws and malfunctions of the world and how to mend them and re-unite God with his exiled Shechinah.

The major kabbalistic text is the Zohar, said to date back to Mishnaic times and ascribed to Shimon bar Yochai in the 2nd century, who claimed that his secret wisdom derived from earlier generations commencing with the time of Adam and Eve. The modern scholars attribute the Zohar to the 13th century rabbi Moses de Leon.

Neither the Zohar or indeed the whole kabbalistic tradition is easy reading of the modern popularistic self-help kind.


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. 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 disagreed.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Applewas for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com