LEVIRATE MARRIAGE (Hebr. "yibbum"):
Marriage with a brother's widow. This custom is found among a large number of primitive peoples, a list of which is given by Westermarck ("History of Human Marriage," pp. 510-514). In some cases it is the duty of a man to marry his brother's widow even if she has had children by the deceased, but in most cases it occurs when there are no children, as among the Hindus ("Institutes of Manu," v. 59-63). Among the Hebrews marriage with a brother's widow was forbidden as a general rule (Lev. xviii. 16, xx. 21), but was regarded as obligatory (Deut. xxv. 56) when there was no male issue, and when the two brothers had been dwelling on the same family estate. The surviving brother could evade the obligation by the ceremony of Ḥaliẓah. The case of Ruth is not one of levirate marriage, being connected rather with the institution of the Go'el; but the relations of Tamar with her successive husbands and with Judah are an instance (Gen. xxxviii.). If the levirate union resulted in male issue, the child would succeed to the estates of the deceased brother. It would appear that later the levirate marriage came to be regarded as obligatory only when the widow had no children of either sex. The Septuagint translates "ben" (son) in the passage of Deuteronomy by "child," and the Sadducees in the New Testament take it in this sense (Mark xii. 19; comp. Josephus, "Ant." iv. 8, § 23).
By Talmudic times the practise of levirate marriage was deemed objectionable (Bek. 13a), and was followed as a matter of duty only. To marry a brother's widow for her beauty was regarded by Abba Saul as equivalent to incest (Yeb. 39b). Bar Ḳappara recommends ḥaliẓah (Yeb. 109a). A difference of opinion appears among the later authorities, Alfasi, Maimonides, and the Spanish school generally upholding the custom, while R. Tam and theNorthern school prefer ḥaliẓah (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 165). The marriage was not necessary if the brother left a child by another marriage, even if such a child were on the point of death (l.c. 157). A change of religion on the part of the surviving brother does not affect the obligation of the levirate, or its alternative, the ḥaliẓah (Isaac b. Sheshet, Responsa, i. 2), yet the whole question has been profoundly affected by the change from polygamy to monogamy due to the taḳḳanah of Gershom ben Judah (see Marriage).
The Samaritans followed a slightly different course, which may indicate an earlier custom among the Hebrews; the former practised the levirate only when the woman was betrothed and the marriage had not been consummated (Ḳid. 65b). The Karaites appear to have followed the same practise, and Benjamin Nahawendi, as well as Elijah Bashyaẓi, favored it Adderet Eliyahu, Nashim," p. 93a).
It has been suggested by Kalisch ("Leviticus," ii. 362-363) that the prohibition in Leviticus is of later date than the obligation under certain conditions in Deuteronomy, but it is equally possible that the Leviticus prohibition was a general one, and the permission in Deuteronomy only an exception when there was no male issue. J. F. Maclennan ("Studies in Ancient History," i. 109-114) suggested that the existence of levirate marriage was due to polyandry among the primitive Hebrews, and has been followed by Buhl ("Sociale Verhaltnisse," p. 34) and Barton ("Semitic Origins," pp. 66-67); but this is rather opposed to the Hebraic conditions, for it would be against the interests of the surviving brother to allow the estate to go out of his possession again. There is, besides, no evidence of polyandry among the Hebrews.
- Geiger, in Jüdische Zeitschrift, 1862, pp. 19-39.