Widows in Jewish Tradition

The Torah tells us to protect widows--but not all Jewish authorities recommend marrying them.

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On the other hand, another Talmudic passage (Pesahim 111a-b) quotes the advice given by Rabbi Akiba to Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai: 'Do not cook in a pot in which your neighbor has cooked,' explained, in one version in the Talmud, to mean that Rabbi Simeon was advised not to marry a widow because, as it is put euphemistically, 'not all fingers are alike,' that is, she may compare, to his detriment, the performance of her second husband with that of her first.

Although this certainly does not constitute advice for all Jews, a passage in the Zohar (ii. 102a-b) states that to marry a widow is dangerous because the spirit of her first husband can cause harm to her present husband. Here again the Zohar does not actually forbid a widow to remarry and, in any event, Jewish law does not normally take the Zohar into account where its teachings are in contradiction to clear rulings of the Talmud.

While a few pious men in the past did refuse to marry a widow, the normal attitude throughout the ages is permissive and there are many instances of pious scholars marrying widows. In some medieval sources, however, it is stated that the widow of a martyr should not remarry.

Where a man dies without issue, the laws of levirate marriage and halitzah come into operation.

The Talmud (Yevamot 64b) observes that it is dangerous to marry a woman who has been widowed from two former husbands, either because she may have some malignant disease in her womb which caused their deaths or because it may be her fate not to have a husband to support her. The second view is applicable to cases where the woman was widowed from her first two husbands without having lived with them or where the death was due to an accident.

The Shulhan Arukh (Even Ha-Ezer 9:1) rules that if her marriage to the third husband had already taken place there is no need for them to be divorced, and further qualifications are found among the codifiers.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.