Levi­rate Mar­riage and the Fam­i­ly in Ancient Judaism

Dvo­ra E. Weisberg
  • Review
By – October 28, 2011

Levi­rate mar­riage—yib­bum—is a mar­riage between a man and the child­less wid­ow of that man’s broth­er, with the goal of pro­duc­ing a child. It is a para­dox­i­cal kind of mar­riage— under nor­mal cir­cum­stances, such a mar­riage between in-laws would be for­bid­den. It is con­fus­ing — to what degree is the dead broth­er still a part of this rela­tion­ship? Is the child his? It is dis­turb­ing — in prin­ci­ple, the mar­riage can be con­sum­mat­ed against the will of the woman. 

Weisberg’s book focus­es on the exten­sive dis­cus­sions of yib­bum in rab­binic lit­er­a­ture— the Mish­nah, the Tosef­ta, and espe­cial­ly the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud. Her line-by-line tex­tu­al analy­sis is fresh­ened and illu­mi­nat­ed by insights from anthro­pol­o­gists who have stud­ied sim­i­lar insti­tu­tions in oth­er cul­tures, espe­cial­ly among African tribes. There are some inter­est­ing insights into what the rab­bis thought about fam­i­ly, the ten­sion between a mar­ried cou­ple and their extend­ed net­work of rel­a­tives, and the dif­fer­ent inter­ests and intrigues that can com­pli­cate that sit­u­a­tion. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes.

Discussion Questions