Halitzah [literally] “taking off” the shoe [is] the rite by means of which a widow whose husband has died without issue is released from the bond of levirate marriage [in which the brother of a childless man is obliged to marry his widow].
In the book of Deuteronomy (25: 5-10) the law is promulgated that the widow of a childless man is obliged to marry his brother, but if the levir (“brother-in-law”) refuses to marry her, he has to undergo the rite of halitzah:
“But if the man does not want to marry his brother’s widow, his brother’s widow shall appear before the elders in the gate and declare, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to establish a name in Israel for his brother; he will not perform the duty of a levir.’ The elders of his town shall then summon him and talk to him. If he insists, saying, ‘I do not want to marry her,’ his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull [from the root chalatz, hence the name halitzah] the shoe off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: ‘Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house!'” (verses 7–9).
From this [passage] it appears that the purpose of halitzah was to put the levir publicly to shame for refusing to do his duty of marrying his brother’s widow. The widow is considered bound to the levir in that she cannot marry anyone else until she has been released by halitzah.
In the rabbinic sources the opinion is expressed that while it is clear from the biblical passage that the ideal is for the levir to marry the widow, “nowadays” he should not be allowed do so but must release her through halitzah. The reason for the change is that since levirate marriage involves a man marrying his brother’s widow, an act otherwise forbidden, the levir must be motivated solely by his wish to carry out his religious obligation and it can no longer be assumed that the levir’s intention is “for the sake of heaven.” Another opinion is recorded, however, that levirate marriage has priority over halitzah. The difference of opinion continued for centuries, some Sephardi and Oriental communities following the opinion which prefers levirate marriage to halitzah.
The Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel introduced the law that halitzah is always to be preferred for all Jews in the state, whatever their original practice was. Obviously, once the ban on polygamy had been established, halitzah was the only option in any event where the levir already had a wife.
There is evidence that sectarians in early rabbinic times understood literally the reference to the widow spitting in the levir’s face but, according to the rabbis, the word befanav has to be translated not as “in his face” but “to his face,” and the widow simply spits on the floor in front of the levir.
The Halitzah Rite
The halitzah rite, as now practiced with great solemnity, is based on the elaborations found in the Talmud and the [medieval legal] codes. A court of three rabbis, to which two others who need not be rabbis are added, meet on the previous day to establish the place where the rite is to be carried out, usually but not necessarily in the courthouse. On the next day, the widow is expected to fast until after the halitzah has been performed. She and the levir appear before the court and she recites in Hebrew the words in the Deuteronomic passage, and he recites the declaration that he does not wish to marry her.
A special shoe made of leather with straps, the property of the court, is given formally as a gift to the levir, who puts the shoe on his right foot and walks in it a few paces. The widow then bends down, holds the levir’s foot in her left hand, unties the shoe with her right hand, removes the shoe, and casts it aside. She then spits in front of the levir and recites the Deuteronomic declaration: “Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house.” The court then offers the prayer: “May it be God’s will that the daughters of Israel will never have to resort to levirate marriage or halitzah.”
Pros and Cons of Halitzah
Orthodox and some Conservative Jews still observe this time-honored rite, requiring the widow to obtain the halitzah release before she can remarry. Some, perhaps many, Jews have given expression to a marked aversion to halitzah on the grounds that the levir is humiliated for failing to do his duty when he is no longer allowed to carry it out. The spitting has also been seen as repugnant, and some people have morbid superstitions about the rite, aggravated by the custom in Eastern European communities for the levir to rest his back against the board upon which the dead are washed before burial.
Against this, widows left without a child by a deceased husband have been known to value the rite as affording them psychological relief–by denoting a complete severance with the past in order for a new life to begin. The problem of the agunah [a woman who has been deserted by her husband or whose husband has disappeared without giving her a bill of divorce] can arise where the brother-in-law refuses to participate in the halitzah rite unless he is given a substantial sum of money. Rabbis usually seek to persuade the brother-in-law not to engage in this form of blackmail but their efforts are not always successful. The Chief Rabbinate in the State of Israel has coped with this problem by introducing a law according to which the brother-in-law is obliged to undertake the maintenance of the widow until he agrees to participate in the halitzah rite.
Another instance of agunah in connection with halitzah is where the only brother of the deceased is a minor. Since a minor cannot perform halitzah, the widow has to wait until the boy reaches the age of 13 before she is free to remarry. So far no legal remedy has been found for this problem.
Reform Judaism in the 19th century rejected the requirements of either levirate marriage or halitzah, although Reform rabbis have been known to participate in the rite if the widow feels herself bound by conscience not to remarry without halitzah.
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.