Hebrew In Israel | Levirate Marriage – Learn Torah

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Hebrew In Israel | Levirate Marriage – Learn Torah

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In my recording on the weekly Parasha of Vayeshev, I mentioned an Assyrian law that might shed some light on the deeds of Tamar, and how is it she could have laid with her husband’s father.  We find in the Assyrian law A33 the following:

If a woman is still living in her father’s house, but her husband has died, as long as she has sons, she may live in whichever of their houses she chooses.  If she does not have a son, her father-in-law is to give her to whichever of his <other> sons he prefers. ………… or if he wants, he may give her as spouse to her father-in-law.  If both her husband and her father-in-law are dead, and she has no sons, she is a legal widow, and may go wherever she wants.

As can be seen, this law gives an expansion on the Biblical law of Levirate marriage which is limited only to the brothers:

כִּייֵשְׁבוּ אַחִים יַחְדָּו, וּמֵת אַחַד מֵהֶם וּבֵן אֵיןלוֹלֹאתִהְיֶה אֵשֶׁתהַמֵּת הַחוּצָה, לְאִישׁ זָר:  יְבָמָהּ יָבֹא עָלֶיהָ, וּלְקָחָהּ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וְיִבְּמָהּ.  ו וְהָיָה, הַבְּכוֹר אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵדיָקוּם, עַלשֵׁם אָחִיו הַמֵּת; וְלֹאיִמָּחֶה שְׁמוֹ, מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל.  ז וְאִםלֹא יַחְפֹּץ הָאִישׁ, לָקַחַת אֶתיְבִמְתּוֹ; וְעָלְתָה יְבִמְתּוֹ הַשַּׁעְרָה אֶלהַזְּקֵנִים, וְאָמְרָה מֵאֵן יְבָמִי לְהָקִים לְאָחִיו שֵׁם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵללֹא אָבָה, יַבְּמִי.  ח וְקָרְאוּלוֹ זִקְנֵיעִירוֹ, וְדִבְּרוּ אֵלָיו; וְעָמַד וְאָמַר, לֹא חָפַצְתִּי לְקַחְתָּהּ.  ט וְנִגְּשָׁה יְבִמְתּוֹ אֵלָיו, לְעֵינֵי הַזְּקֵנִים, וְחָלְצָה נַעֲלוֹ מֵעַל רַגְלוֹ, וְיָרְקָה בְּפָנָיו; וְעָנְתָה, וְאָמְרָה, כָּכָה יֵעָשֶׂה לָאִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר לֹאיִבְנֶה אֶתבֵּית אָחִיו.  י וְנִקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל:  בֵּית, חֲלוּץ הַנָּעַל

“When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man.  Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.  “It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.  “But if the man does not desire to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel; he is not willing to perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’  “Then the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him.  And if he persists and says, ‘I do not desire to take her,’  then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, ‘Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’  “In Israel his name shall be called, ‘The house of him whose sandal is removed.'” Deuteronomy 25:5-10

Though the Torah limits the marriage to only the brothers, we find that in the book of Ruth (4:1-10) that the Levirate marriage might have been expanded to a close or closest member of family.  This statement has to be said with caution due to the fact that the text uses the root גאל and not יבם.  However, the main point in the dialog between the characters is about the field, and Ruth is only presented as a secondary element to the redemption, though in the overall story she is the focal point.  This means that it is possible that the action done by marrying her was also a Levirate marriage.

It is also interesting that in both cases (Deuteronomy and Ruth) a shoe/sandal is the tool with which the action is done.  Some scholars argue that shoes were a symbol of ownership, and when one wanted to represent that they owned something they would step in it (such as the field of Navot 1Kings 21:15-16) or step next to it.  This idea is represented in the word šēpu used in adoption text from Mesopotamia which translates into “foot” where the new owner is to put his foot in front of the object passed on to him (Malul 2006 p.138).

The removal of the shoe from the brother symbolized the removal of the rights of Levirate marriage, and releases the brother and family from responsibility over the former sister/daughter in law.  This responsibility is that of a family to its members, and the protection it provides to its members.  When a woman was married she was removed from her father’s family to her husband’s family, making them her new protectors.  Hence the removal of the shoe/sandal was a symbol of removal of ownership and membership in the family.

It is not clear from the text in Ruth who removed his shoe, but it can be argued that the unknown relative removed his own shoe and gave it to Boaz as a symbol of his removal from ownership and the giving of it to Boaz.  In this action he also gave Boaz the right to marry Ruth.

In closing, we can see that it might be possible that before the giving of the Torah, Levirate marriage was done on a much more expanded manner than is presented in Deuteronomy, and that it is possible that in actual practice Levirate marriage was done in a more expanded manner, making us wonder if they did actually have some kind of oral tradition beyond the given text of the Torah.

Middle Assyrian code, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin


Originally Published:  16 December 2014

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