September 15, 2016
The mitzvah of chalitza, the ritual which is performed when a man refuses to marry the widow of his childless brother, is laden with numerous layers of symbolic meaning. They state:
Then the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him, and he shall stand and say, “I do not wish to marry her.” Then his sister-in-law shall approach him before the eyes of the elders; she shall remove his shoe from upon his foot and spit before him; she shall speak up and say, “So is done to the man who will not build the house of his brother.” Then his name shall be proclaimed in Israel, “The House of the one whose shoe was removed.” (Devarim 25:8-10)
Abarbanel offers four explanations for this unusual ritual.
First of all, the sister-in-law is showing her contempt for this man who has refused to continue his brother’s lineage by marrying her and having children with her. It would be unacceptable to actually spit on him directly to produce the embarrassment and humiliation that he deserves. Rather, she removes his shoe, the article of clothing which symbolizes the man, as it “contains” the individual, and spits in front of it.
Secondly, the man became connected to his sister-in-law immediately with the death of his brother. He must either marry her or disconnect from her with the ritual of chalitza. When a man and woman are connected in marriage, she follows her husband. Similarly, when the shoe is tied onto the foot it “follows” the foot. By removing the shoe she severs the connection between them. Furthermore, by proclaiming “So is done to the man who will not build the house of his brother”,she is declaring that she is not to be punished for such a brazen act; rather he, in fact, deserves such a public humiliation.
Thirdly, Abarbanel offers a Kabbalistic interpretation. The body is the container for the soul and it is the soul that directs the actions of the body. Similarly, the shoe is the container for the foot which directs its movement. Just like a shoe can be removed from one foot and placed on a different one, so too the soul is removed from the body at death and can be “placed” in another body (reincarnation). If this man had produced a child with his sister-in-law, it would be as if the soul of his brother in some measure would reappear in the body of the child due to the closeness of their fraternal bond. By choosing not to marry her he has permanently severed the possibility of reuniting the soul of his brother with his wife’s child. The nature and gravity of his act is symbolized by the removal of the shoe and the contemptuous act of spitting.
Fourthly, her entire focus is not on herself, but rather on the honor of her deceased husband. By bending down and removing her brother-in-law’s shoe, she demonstrates that she is willing to make herself subservient to him in order to preserve her husband’s legacy. When he refuses to marry her, she spits at the shoe; her act of subservience is transformed into the act of contempt which he deserves. However, her words never refer to her own personal humiliation, but only to the honour of her husband.
She does not say that her brother-in-law’s name should be proclaimed as “the house of the one who did not want to marry a certain woman.”
Rather, she refers specifically to “the house of the removal of the shoe”, a clear reference to the specific case of the dead and childless brother.
Finally, the entire ritual has to take place in front of the elders. It is hoped that the public humiliation will discourage the brother from refusing to marry his sister-in-law.