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Widowhood in Judaism

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Widowhood in Judaism is treated as a distinct state of being, for a woman. If the widow's husband had died after the start of the actual marriage (Hebrew: nissuin), rather than merely dying after the betrothal (Hebrew: erusin), she became a legally independent individual[1]; the Talmud states that a woman became independent from her father upon her marriage (nissuin), and she would become independent from her husband when he dies[2]. It was said that a formerly married widow was tantamount to an orphan[1].

Though Judaism takes a somewhat benign attitude towards widows, historically it has also imposed a small number of onious requirements on them. For example, if a widow's husband had appointed her to be the guardian of his children, and some were still infants, her husband's heirs had a Talmudic right to demand an oath from the widow, concerning her management of the children[3]; however, her husband could, before dying, remove this task, by means of written revocation of it[3].


The Book of Isaiah argues that one should judge the fatherless, plead for the widow[4]; in Judaism, it consequently became customary to give cases raised by any widow the second highest priority (the fatherless having the highest), when scheduling cases for a rabbinic court[1]. The later[5][6][7] Deuteronomic Code takes up this principle, commanding that the fatherless (and resident aliens) should not be deprived of justice, and forbidding people from taking a widow's cloak as a pledge[8]; in Judaism this command was regarded as referring to all movable property belonging to a widow, rather than merely her outer clothing[1].

In the second prologue of the Book of Deuteronomy, which scholars regard as a later prefix to the Deuteronomic Code[5][6][7], it is said that such protection is also provided by God himself, judging the (cases of the) fatherless and the widow[9]. Similarly, a psalm argues that God was a father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows[10]. The Talmud permits a widow to remain resident in her husband's house[11][1].


The Deuteronomic Code legislates the requirement for gleanings to be left for consumption by widows (and by the fatherless, and by resident aliens)[12]; according to the Holiness Code, which scholars attribute to a different author and time period[7][13][14][15][16], gleanings were actually to be left to the poor, and to strangers[17][18]. The Deuteronomic Code also expects widows (and the fatherless, and resident aliens) to be treated as guests at Shavuot[19] and Sukkot[20], and permits them (and the fatherless, and resident aliens), every third year, to eat from the proceeds of the Levite Tithe[21][22]

More substantive and continual means of support are provided for widows by the Talmud, which allows a widow to claim support from her husband's estate, even after the estate had been inherited by his heirs[11][1]; as with married life, if the woman made such a claim, she had to surrender all her earnings to the owners of the estate, in order to offset their duty to support her[11][1].

As with an absent husband, it was argued that a widow should be allowed to sell any parts of her former husbands property, if necessary to sustain herself[1]. She was not required to make such sales via rabbinic courts[1]; however, the Talmud argues that if she did not involve a rabbinic court, and sold land for this purpose, for less than it was actually worth, the sale would be void[23]


In Judaism, alimony for a widow is a right written into most Jewish marriage contracts (Hebrew:ketubah)[24]; the alimony itself is often referred to as the ketubah, in consequence of this. There was no statue of limitations against a widow collecting her alimony, as long as she possessed the ketubah for the marriage in question[24]; if she no longer possessed this ketubah, and had re-married since the death, the statute of limitations for the claim was 25 years since the death[24]. However, in the Talmud's opinion, once a widow had claimed her alimony, or had agreed to receive it, she should no longer be allowed to claim support from her husband's estate, nor to live in his former home[11][1].

The Talmud sets the minimum amount for this alimony as 200 zuzim for a bride who had been a virgin when the marriage began, and a mere 100 zuzim for a non-virgin bride[25]; 200 Zuzim is generally considered[by whom?] to have been enough for a woman to financially support herself for a full year. These minimum amounts were not the upper limit, meaning that the groom could, if he wished, increase the amount of alimony that the bride would receive[24]. Any property which came into the marriage as a dowry-like gift, was legally possessed by the husband during the marriage[26], but it eventually returned to the widow's ownership, as part of her alimony (at least according to the classical rabbis)[27].

The right of a widow to claim the alimony could be transferred by her to absolutely anyone, for any reason, including selling the right[28][29][30]. If she died before completely obtaining the alimony, her heirs could inherit the right to claim the outstanding amount; the Talmud argues that such inheritance would carry with it an obligation to pay for the proper burial of the woman[31].

There are, though, several things which Jewish tradition regards as sufficient to cause the alimony to be forfeited, should the bride have committed them. These included immodest behaviour[24], adultery, having sexual intercourse with her husband while she was ritually impure due to menstruating[24], given her husband food that was ritually forbidden[24], and obdurate refusal, for more than a month, to have sex with her husband[24]. It could even be forfeited if the wife had failed to inform her husband, prior to the marriage, of all of her physical defects which were not already known about by him[24].

The chained wife

As the classical rabbis do not allow a man to be presumed dead merely on the basis of a prolonged absence, the wife of a man who has travelled to foreign locations and become lost (such as explorers in the Amazon, and soldiers in World War II), or of a man who has deliberately abandoned his wife and become uncontactable, would continue to be married to him, according to the views of Jewish tradition[32]. A woman trapped into a marriage in this way was referred to as an agunah, literally meaning a chained/anchored wife; in modern times, the term agunah has also come to refer to women trapped into a marriage for other reasons, such as being refused a divorce by their husband.

In order to mitigate the hardship arising from being an agunah, Judaism has traditionally been willing to also accept a much more lax standard of evidence about a husband's fate, compared to its requirements for other questions[32]. To prevent the situation arising in the first place, some Jewish husbands provisionally divorce their wives before undertaking long journeys, or taking part in warfare; such divorce only takes effect if the husband goes missing for more than a certain period of time. Provisional divorce has been used by some Jewish American soldiers, during World War II, but other Jewish groups, such as the Chief Rabbinate of the modern State of Israel, have completely rejected the method.


According to Jewish tradition, as soon as a widow remarried, she would no longer have the right to reside in her former husband's home, nor to claim support from his estate[1]. Remarriage, though, was not entirely a free choice, and was subject to several restrictions.

Waiting period

The classical rabbis forbade all widows from remarrying, until at least 90 days had passed since the death of their previous spouse[33]; the delay existed to reduce doubt about the paternity of any subsequent children, by making it easier to discover whether the widow was pregnant[33]. A similar waiting requirement, known as iddah, exists in Islamic society, for similar reasons. Purely for the sake of bureaucratic standardisation, the classical rabbis insisted upon a woman waiting the 90 days even when it was obvious that she could not be pregnant[34].

A widow was also forbade from re-marriage if she became visibly pregnant during the 90 day waiting period, or if had a child which was both younger than 24 months old, and had still been breastfeeding when the widow's husband had died[35][36]. Once the child had reached 24 months in age, or died, the widow was allowed to re-marry (if there was no other impediment)[35][36].

Forbidden remarriage

The Talmud suggests that it would be unwise for men to marry a widow[37]. Furthermore, it completely forbids a widow from remarriage if two of her previous husbands have died from natural causes, while she was married to them[38]; it was believed that such a woman was too dangerous to marry, either due to bad luck, or due to her having a dangerous vagina harbouring some malignant disease[38].

If a widow had been suspected of adultery, she was forbade, by the Talmud, from ever marrying her suspected accomplice[39][40], unless she first married someone else[41]; this intervening marriage was thought to refute, to some degree, the accusation of the adultery[41]. Similarly if it is necessary for legal action to confirm a woman's widowhood (due to her husband being absent or missing), the classical rabbis instruct that she may not marry any of the witnesses who have testified that her husband is dead[42][43].

Priests, and those who claim descent from them

The Holiness Code demands that the Israelite high priest must only marry a virgin[44][45], spelling out that this forbids marriage to a widow[46]. According to the regulations in the Book of Ezekiel, even ordinary priests should be forbidden to marry widows, unless the previous husband of the widow had also been a priest[47]. The classical rabbis followed the regulation of the Holiness Code in this respect, except that they permitted a high priest to remain married to a widow, if he had married her while he was merely an ordinary priest[48].

Although the first century destruction of the temple in Jerusalem resulted in the priesthood being redundant, the Torah frequently portrays the Israelite priesthood as an hereditary position, and so the rabbis of the middle ages regarded these regulations as applying, still, to all men who claim to be descended from such priests; such claims can often be detected in modern surnames resembling the Hebrew word kohen, the term used in most parts of the masoretic text to mean priest (the cognates in related languages, however, mean soothsayer[49]). In the middle ages, several rabbis forced such men to divorce any wife prohibited by these rules, often by threatening excommunication if this was not done[50].

Compulsory remarriage

Among the Israelites, a wife was legally regarded simply as property[51][52] (valuable property that needed to be looked after[51][52]), and was thus inherited by close relatives, like other property[53][54]; this principle was widespread among ancient cultures, and it was usual for the deceased husband's brother to be the first choice to inherit the wife[53][54][55]. This levirate marriage (levir is the Latin term for a husband's brother) was made almost compulsory by the Septuagint's version of the Deuteronomic Code, if the husband and his brother lived together, and the husband was childless[56][57]; the masoretic text, of this passage, makes it compulsory even when the husband was just lacking a son (and he had lived with his brother)[58][52]. In contrast, the Holiness Code of Leviticus appears twice to forbid the institution, listing it among forms of incest[59][60][51].

If the brother in question refuses to take part in the levirate marriage, the wife was permitted by the Deuteronomic Code to loosen his shoe, and spit on him[61]; this act, known in Judaism as Halitzah, also existed in other cultures which practised levirate marriage[55]. This purpose of this act, however, is not explained by the Torah, though the Book of Ruth implies that it derives from an historic practice customary at every transaction involving landed property[62][52]; the person disposing of the property gave away his shoe as a symbol of the transaction[52][63]. In later Judaism, Halitzah was interpreted as releasing the widow and her brother-in-law from an obligation to marry each other.

By the time the Talmud was written, levirate marriage was regarded by rabbinic Jews as an objectionable practice[64], and Ashkenazi Jews now almost always perform the Halitzah ritual instead[57]; nevertheless, levirate marriage, in accordance with the Deuteronomic Code, continues to be the usual practice of Sephardi Jews[57]. The Samaritans and Karaites usually only performed levirate marriage if the original marriage had not been consummated[57].


Historically, Judaism has not treated widowers equally with widows, and widowers were generally treated much the same as single men. However, in Judaism, bereavement has traditionally had a temporary impact on their ability to remarry. In the Talmud, a widower was expected to mourn the loss of his wife for seven days, before he was permitted to remarry[65].

Prominent Jewish writers in the middle ages argued that children should mourn the loss of a parent for the twelve months following the death, a period known as shneim asar hodesh; thus if a widower had children, he was not permitted to remarry until three of the traditional Jewish festivals have occurred since his wife's death[66][67]. There was an exception to this latter rule, though; if a windower had children who were so young that they still needed motherly care, he was permitted to remarry at any point after his seven day mourning, so that he could quickly find a wife to help bring up his children[66][67].

See also


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Widow", a publication now in the public domain.
  2. Ketubot 4:2
  3. 3.0 3.1 Ketubot 9:5
  4. Isaiah 1:17
  5. 5.0 5.1 This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "Deuteronomy", a publication now in the public domain.
  6. 6.0 6.1 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Deuteronomy", a publication now in the public domain.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (1987)
  8. Deuteronomy 24:17
  9. Deuteronomy 10:18
  10. Psalms 68:6
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Ketubot 4:12
  12. Deuteronomy 14:19-21
  13. Peake's commentary on the Bible, Revised Edition (1962)
  14. This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Pentateuch", a publication now in the public domain.
  15. This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Leviticus", a publication now in the public domain.
  16. This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "Leviticus", a publication now in the public domain.
  17. Leviticus 19:10
  18. Leviticus 23:22
  19. Deuteronomy 16:11
  20. Deuteronomy 16:14
  21. Deuteronomy 14:28
  22. Deuteronomy 26:12
  23. Ketubot 11:4-5
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 24.3 24.4 24.5 24.6 24.7 24.8 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Ketubah", a publication now in the public domain.
  25. Ketubot 12a
  26. This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Husband and Wife", a publication now in the public domain.
  27. This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "dowry", a publication now in the public domain.
  28. Ketubot 51a
  29. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Ishut, 10:10
  30. Jacob ben Asher, Arba'ah Turim, Eben haEzer 66:9
  31. Ketubot 11:1
  32. 32.0 32.1 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Agunah", a publication now in the public domain.
  33. 33.0 33.1 Yebamot 4:10
  34. This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "marriage laws", a publication now in the public domain.
  35. 35.0 35.1 Yebamot 41a
  36. 36.0 36.1 Yebamot 42a
  37. Pesahim 112a
  38. 38.0 38.1 Yebamot 64b
  39. Yebamot 2:8
  40. Sotah 25a
  41. 41.0 41.1 Yebamot 24b
  42. Yebamot 25a
  43. Gittin 45a
  44. Leviticus 21:13
  45. Leviticus 21:14
  46. Leviticus 21:14
  47. Ezekiel 44:22
  48. Yebamot 77a
  49. This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "Priest", a publication now in the public domain.
  50. Jacob ben Asher, Eben ha-'Ezer, 6, 7
  51. 51.0 51.1 51.2 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "marriage", a publication now in the public domain.
  52. 52.0 52.1 52.2 52.3 52.4 This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "marriage", a publication now in the public domain.
  53. 53.0 53.1 This article incorporates text from the article "Levirate" in the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  54. 54.0 54.1 This article incorporates text from the entry History of Marriage in Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, a publication now in the public domain.
  55. 55.0 55.1 Edvard Westermarck, History of Human Marriage (1891), pp. 510-514
  56. Deuteronomy 25:5 (LXX), (faux-archaic english translation)
  57. 57.0 57.1 57.2 57.3 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "levirate marriage", a publication now in the public domain.
  58. Deuteronomy 25:5-6
  59. Leviticus 18:16
  60. Leviticus 22:21
  61. Deuteronomy 25:7-10
  62. Ruth 4:7
  63. {{Jewish Encyclopedia|article=Halizah|url=
  64. Bekhorot, 13a
  65. Mo'ed Katan, 23a
  66. 66.0 66.1 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah Ebel, 6:5
  67. 67.0 67.1 Jacob ben Asher, Yoreh De'ah, 392

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