Q. What is the halachic status of the wives of men who died in the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA?
A. In Jewish law there is no presumption of death. On the contrary, there is a presumption of life. A person who was alive when last heard of is presumed to be still alive unless there is evidence of their death. If there is no evidence of death, their spouse is not deemed to be a widow or widower.
A woman whose husband is missing is an agunah (“chained” to the subsisting marriage) unless and until there is evidence that the husband is dead. But from Talmudic times onwards the rabbis applied every leniency in the case of agunot and frequently found ways of ruling that the wife could now enter into a new marriage, though if the original husband should turn up after she has remarried she cannot live with either the first or the second husband, despite the fact that she acted in good faith.
There was an urgent rabbinic endeavour to free agunot in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Ya’akov Jay Levinson, a former member of the Israeli police service’s victim identification unit, advised several of the rabbinic panels involved in the issue. In a very few cases, bodies were found. In a number of other cases in which no bodies were found, death was ascertained by comparing DNA samples with DNA found in the rubble of the towers.
Some of the other cases were resolved by determining that there was no way the men could have escaped from the floors where they were when the attack occurred. In one case, the man’s whereabouts were known because he telephoned his wife immediately after the attack. In another, the man’s computer was found, and the time stamps on some of the files proved that he had been in his office at the time of the attack.