Q. Can you explain the law of yibbum and chalitzah?A. The Torah provides (Deut. 25) that a childless widow is to marry her husband’s brother. The law is called levirate marriage. The name derives from the Latin levir, a brother-in-law. In Hebrew, brother-in-law is yavam, and his marriage to her is yibbum. If he does not wish to marry her, there is a ceremony of renunciation called chalitzah (literally, “removal”, since it entails her removing a shoe from his foot).
The basis of the Biblical rule is the ethical duty to protect the woman and preserve the memory of the deceased husband through the birth of a child to the woman and her husband’s brother. Some commentators (Nachmanides, Abravanel and others) regard this as a form of gilgul, reincarnation, and suggest that the soul of the departed returns by means of the new child.
Chalitzah has also been given a spiritual interpretation. According to Malbim, the essence of the human being is his soul, but the soul cannot exist on earth without a body. The body is symbolised by the shoe, since standing on the earth requires feet and they in turn need to be housed in shoes. When the childless widow removes her brother-in-law’s shoe it is as if she is saying that he has declined to allow his brother’s soul a new home on earth.