Yibbum (pronounced "yee-boom"), or levirate marriage, in Judaism, is one of the most complex types of marriages mandated by Torah law ( ). According to the law, the brother of a man who died without children has an obligation to marry the widow. However, if either of the parties refuses to go through with the marriage, both are required to go through a ceremony known as halizah, involving a symbolic act of renunciation of their right to perform this marriage. Jewish law (halakha) has seen a gradual decline of yibbum in favor of halizah, to the point where in most contemporary Jewish communities the former is strongly discouraged.
The concept of yibbum is not unique to Judaism. Known as levirate marriage (when the marriage is to the deceased's brother) or widow inheritance (when it is to any surviving male relative), it has been practiced by other societies with a strong clan structure. It is or was known in societies including the Punjabis, Jats, Huns (Chinese "Xiongnu", "Hsiong-nu", etc.), Mongols, and Tibetans.
In the Hebrew Bible
When brothers live together, and one of them dies childless, the dead man's wife shall not be allowed to marry an outsider. Her husband's brother must cohabit with her, making her his wife, and thus performing a brother-in-law's duty to her. The first-born son whom she bears will then perpetuate the name of the dead brother, so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel.
Marriage with a brother's widow is forbidden by the Torah (Leviticus 18:16; 20:21), except for the case of yibbum. The surviving brother is given a choice to fulfill the yibbum obligation or to perform halizah, though the latter choice is described by the verse disfavorably. The brother who agreed to marry his sister-in-law would be the sole benefactor of his brother's estate instead of splitting it with the family. The offspring of the levirate union would be seen as a perpetuation of the deceased brother's name. Levirate marriage is permissible only when the dead brother had no children at all.
The most famous case of a levirate-type marriage in the Hebrew Bible is the unusual union of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar as recorded in the Book of Genesis chapter 38:8. It is, however, not strictly a case of yibbum since Judah was Tamar's father-in-law and Torah was not yet given at the time. It may reflect the contemporary Middle East practices at the time.
A famous instance involving a case analogous to yibbum is recounted in the Book of Ruth when after the death of her husband, Ruth is noticed and welcomed by her husband's remaining kinsman Boaz. After Ruth is rejected by an anonymous Ploni Almoni, Boaz marries her. In this case as well, the custom involves a set of kin than would not be subject to levirate marriage, as both Ploni Almoni and Boaz were not brothers of Ruth's late husband.
Laws of yibbum and halizah
Halakha (Jewish law) has a rich tradition around yibbum. These laws were first recorded in the Mishna and Talmud in Yevamot, and were later codified by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah. The subject is considered one of the most intricate in Jewish law, partly because of the complication that arise from multiple brothers and multiple wives.
When yibbum applies
According to halakha, when a married man dies without having any children, male or female, from any relationship (including premarital and extra marital), his widow and his brother must perform either yibbum or halizah. For the laws of yibbum only brothers that share a common father are considered brothers. In order for yibbum to apply, all of the following conditions must be met:
- The brothers share a common father
- The dead brother had no surviving children, male or female, from any relationship, at the time of his death
- The brother performing yibbum was born before his brother's death
- The brother performing yibbum is not forbidden to marry any of his dead brother's widows (e.g. if any of them is his daughter, yibbum doesn't apply to him at all)
- The brother performing yibbum is physically capable of fathering children
- The widow is physically capable of bearing children
Even if some of the brothers don't meet all the conditions to be eligible for yibbum, as long as there is one that does, yibbum applies to him. If there is no brother that meets all of the conditions, neither yibbum not halitzah applies, except if the widow is forbidden to marry the brother as a result of a prohibition not involving the punishment of kares (spiritual exicision), in which case halitzah would apply.
It is forbidden for any of the widows to remarry until yibbum or halizah has been performed. If the deceased left multiple wives yibbum may only be performed with one of them, at which time the remaining wives are permitted to remarry. Likewise, if yibbum is not performed, halizah is only performed with one of the widows, after which all of them may remarry.
If all surviving brothers are still children, the widow must wait until one reaches halachic adulthood, at which time he can perform yibbum or halizah. Similarly, if the brother is missing, the woman is required to wait until he is located. This can lead to a situation similar to an agunah.
How yibbum is performed
According to Biblical law, there is no need for a marriage ceremony between the widow and the deceased's brother as they are already bound by divine decree, thus, they need only cohabit to perform yibbum. Nevertheless, the Sages decreed that the couple perform a marriage-like ceremony called maamar, recite the marriage blessings (sheva brachot) and write a prenuptial agreement (ketubah).
Only one brother may perform yibbum. The oldest brother is given preference, but if he refuses, any brother can perform yibbum, and if a brother performed yibbum out of turn, it is nevertheless valid. After one brother performs yibbum or halizah, none of the brothers may marry any of the widows.
Because there is a general prohibition on a man marrying his brother's wife, anytime that a yibbum is not required (for example the deceased had a child) it is forbidden. Likewise, anytime that there is a doubt whether yibbum is required, it is also forbidden and halizah is required. 
The Samaritans followed a slightly different course, which may indicate an earlier custom among the Hebrews; the former practiced the levirate only when the woman was betrothed and the marriage had not been consummated. The Karaites appear to have followed the same practice, and Benjamin Nahawendi, as well as Elijah Bashyazi, favored it.
History of yibbum
By Talmudic times the practice of levirate marriage was deemed secondary in preference to halizah because of the brother's questionable intentions;  indeed, to marry a brother's widow for her beauty was regarded by Abba Saul as equivalent to incest. Bar Kappara also recommends halizah.  A difference of opinion appears among the later authorities, with Alfasi, Maimonides, and the Spanish school generally upholding the custom, while Rabbeinu Tam and the Northern school prefer halizah. A change of religion on the part of the surviving brother does not affect the obligation of the levirate, or its alternative, the halizah. Additionally, if the surviving brother is married, Ashkenazim, who follow the takkanah of Gershom ben Judah abolishing polygamy, would be compelled to perform halizah.
Orthodox Jews in modern times have generally upheld the position of Rabbeinu Tam and perform halizah rather than yibbum. Conservative Judaism formally retains it. Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism have abolished it.
- ↑ Mishneh Torah Laws of Yibbum and Halizah 1:3; Shulchan Aruch, Eben ha-'Ezer, 156:2
- ↑ Shulchan Aruch, Eben ha-'Ezer, 157:1; Mishneh Torah Laws of Yibbum and Halizah 1:8
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 17b
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 22a
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 87b
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 17b
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 2,3
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 24a
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 12a
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 3a
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 20
- ↑ Mishneh Torah Laws of Yibbum and Halizah 1:2
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 44a
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 44a
- ↑ Shulchan Aruch, Eben ha-'Ezer, 161:1;Mishneh Torah Laws of Yibbum and Halizah 1:9
- ↑ Mishneh Torah Laws of Yibbum and Halizah 1:1
- ↑ Mishneh Torah Laws of Yibbum and Halizah 2:1
- ↑ Shulchan Aruch, Eben ha-'Ezer, 166:2; Mishneh Torah Laws of Yibbum and Halizah 2:2
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 24a
- ↑ Mishneh Torah Laws of Yibbum and Halizah 6:4
- ↑ Talmud Kiddushin 65b
- ↑ Adderet Eliyahu, "Nashim," p. 93a
- ↑ Talmud Bekhorot 13a
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 39b
- ↑ Talmud Yevamot 109a
- ↑ Shulchan Aruch, Eben ha-'Ezer, 165
- ↑ Isaac ben Sheshet, Responsa, i. 2)
- Halizah, Jewish law
- Yevamot, the tractate in the Talmud devoted to the subject of yibbum
- Widow inheritance, for a discussion of similar practices in other cultures
- This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.
- Levirate Marriage in the Jewish Encyclopedia.
|Texts in Jewish law relating to this article:|
|Babylonian Talmud:||Gittin 34b-37b|
|Mishneh Torah:||Yibbum V'Chalitza 1:3|
|Shulchan Aruch:||Even HaEzer 156-157|
|* Not meant as a definitive ruling. Some observances may be rabbinical, customs or Torah based.|