“When brothers dwell together and one of them dies and leaves no offspring, the wife of the deceased shall not become that of another party, outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall unite with her: he shall take her as his wife and perform the levir’s duty.”  (Deuteronomy 25:5)

            What does a brother owe a brother?  (This portion talks explicitly about brothers, but we can expand it to speak of all siblings.  What do brothers and sisters owe one another?)  There is an ancient law with modern consequences.  If one brother dies and he is married with no children, his wife is not free to marry someone else.  It is the obligation of the surviving brother to marry the wife and have a child in the name of the brother who died.  The living brother must keep the name of the dead brother alive.

            This ancient practice is called Levirate marriage.  We see it in Genesis with Judah’s sons.  Er the oldest son dies, and Onan the next son is expected to have a child with Er’s wife Tamar.  Onan spills his seed upon the ground, refusing to have a child in his brother’s name, and then he dies.  Judah does not give his youngest son to Tamar, so she dresses as a prostitute, tricks Judah, and is eventually impregnated by him.  The father keeps the son’s name alive.  Later in the Bible, Ruth must submit to a similar ritual of Levirate marriage by a relative of her late husband, a descendant of Judah and Tamar.  The relative refuses, allowing Ruth to marry Boaz.  This ancient practice comes up regularly in the Bible.

            What if the brother refuses to marry and have children with the widow?  In the Bible he must submit to a rather humiliating ritual.  The widow removes a sandal from his foot, spits before him, and says, “This shall be done to the man who refuses to build his brother’s house” (Deuteronomy 25:9).  The ritual is called halitza and is meant to shame the reluctant brother.

            In Biblical times when a man could have more than wife, the obligation to marry his brother’s widow was encouraged.  Of course, the widow had little say about this.  The Rabbis of the Talmud later outlawed Levirate marriage.  They required the widow and the brother go through the ritual of halitza.  The courts even had a special sandal created for this purpose.  Some may remember the 1972 Israeli movie I Love You Rosa, about a widow forced to wait for her eleven-year-old brother-in-law to come of age.  In Orthodox Jewish practice, the widow may become stuck, dependent on the action of her late husband’s brother, who can refuse to participate or even demand money to release her.

            Outside the Orthodox community, these laws are usually ignored.  There is a deep sense that to tie a widow to a brother-in-law is ethically wrong, and that a widow without children should be free to marry.  Nonetheless, there are consequences to ignoring this ancient law.  If she is not properly released, the status of her future children in Jewish law might be affected.

            Even if a law has fallen out of practice, we can certainly learn some very relevant insights from it.  Here we have a case of a brother expected to keep his brother’s name alive.  Brothers [and sisters] owe something to one another.  Jewish law speaks of indentured servitude, where a person must sell himself or herself into slavery for an unpaid debt.  Family members, beginning with his or her brother or sister, have an obligation to redeem him or her.  In fact, the Hebrew word for redemption, goel, originally meant goel hadam, “blood redemption.”  It was the obligation of one’s blood relatives, beginning with one’s siblings, to redeem such an indentured servant.

            Let me share one of my favorite Biblical teachings on the subject.  “A friend is devoted at all times, but a brother is born for trouble” (Proverbs 17:17).  I understand this to mean that friends are there for good times.  But when we are in trouble, our brother or sister, our flesh and blood, is the first we need to turn to.  Siblings help siblings.  Perhaps that is the meaning of one of the most quoted verses from the book of Psalms. “How good and how pleasant for brothers to dwell together” (Psalms 133:1).

            The ancient ritual of Levirate marriage may have fallen out of practice.  But we can still learn from it.