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Yibum: Keeping the deceased’s name alive

One of the most esoteric laws in the Torah is yibum, the law of the Levirate marriage. The Torah forbids a man from marrying his brother’s wife, but if the brother dies childless, the living brother marries his deceased brother’s widow (Deuteronomy 25:5–10).

The Torah offers a rationale for this command. The marriage takes place so that the deceased’s name will continue on. In the words of the Torah: “The firstborn [from the Levirate marriage] shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, so that his dead brother’s name not be blotted out…from Israel” (25:6).

A Torah portion is read during Shabbat service.File photo
File photo
A Torah portion is read. File photo

It must be noted that if the widow and brother-in-law are incompatible, the rabbis throughout the ages dissuade yibum; instead, chalitzah (formal separation) takes place (Yevamot 101b). Today, “the mitzvah of chalitzah takes precedence over the mitzvah of yibum,” following the opinion of Abba Shaul (3a).

Still, an analysis of yibum itself reveals that the law is based on the principle of chesed (kindness). The greatest kindness may be helping the dead, who are, after all, unable to help themselves. Through yibum, the deceased leaves a legacy in the world – a child born of those closest to him who carries his name.

Note that the key letters of yibum are bet and mem, or bam, which literally means “in them.” By performing this act, the living brother unites with the deceased brother’s wife, seeing to it that his deceased brother’s legacy lives on. In a certain sense, the child is a product of all three; he comes from bam, all of them. The yud preceding the bet and mem may turn the word bam into the future tense. By performing yibum, the new couple allow the deceased brother’s legacy to live on into the future.

Rabbi David Silber notes that three cases in Tanach of yibum follow an interesting pattern. In the first, after Sodom is destroyed, Lot has relations with his daughters. Of course, this is not the exact case of yibum. Still, the intent of the daughters was the same – to continue their father’s seed. But in this case of “yibum,” Lot, who is drunk, has no consciousness of the act being performed (Genesis 19:30–38).

In the second, Judah has relations with his daughter-in-law Tamar, the widow of two of his sons. This, too, is not the exact case of yibum. Still, Tamar’s intent was to have a child from Judah after he blocked her from marrying his only remaining son. Here, Judah is originally unaware of engaging in an act of yibum, as Tamar was disguised as a harlot, and he did not recognize her. In time, however, Judah comes to realize what he did. After the fact, he understands that he has continued his seed through Tamar (Genesis 38:25, 26).

In the third, Boaz has relations with Ruth. This too is not the exact case of yibum since Boaz was the second redeemer in line. Nonetheless, the goal was to continue the line of Ruth’s deceased husband. In this case, Boaz engages in the Levirate marriage with full intent and consciousness before the act (Ruth 4).

The pattern of yibum in Tanach is clear as these three stories progress from lack of consciousness whatsoever to consciousness only after the fact to consciousness even before the fact.

Not coincidentally, the Messiah will come from Ruth and Boaz. Ruth is a descendant of Lot and his daughters; Boaz is a descendant of Judah and Tamar. Individuals engaged in acts of goodness on behalf of others are destined to redeem the world.

Candle lighting:

Ki Teitzei parsha

August 25 at 7:30 p.m.

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