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Sandals, Spitting, and the Rabbinate: The Halakhic Ceremony War Widows Must Undergo

Many women have been widowed during the Israel-Hamas war that broke out in October of last year. A significant number of them will have to undergo a halitza ceremony at the rabbinical court if they want to move on with their lives. The Director of the Yad La’isha Legal Aid Center spoke with Kipa News about the complex halakhic issues brought to the center in recent months

Ori Mook, Kipa News,  3/1/2024

Pnina Omer
Credit: Jared Bernstein

Life after death: Pnina Omer received three different inquiries this past week, all requesting the same thing: halitza, a halakhic ceremony that takes place when the deceased has a brother and has left a widow without children. “In all three cases, we were contacted by a third party and not by the woman herself. Keep in mind that it is still very soon – this is not the first concern of a woman who has just lost her husband. Still, I assume that more inquiries will arise in the coming months.”

Omer is the director of Yad La’isha, the Ohr Torah Stone network’s Legal Aid Center that usually focuses on helping women who are agunot. During the war, due to the vast number of fallen soldiers and murder victims, she is often called upon regarding complex halakhic issues dealing with bereavement and the loss of family members.

Halitza ceremony – as inoffensive as possible

Halitza is a ceremony that exempts the widow from the historically practiced commandment of yibum, according to which the brother of a deceased husband is obliged to marry the widow, in order to ensure the continuation of his deceased brother’s lineage. The halitza ceremony in effect allows the widow to move on with her life.

“Consequently, I called the Chief Rabbi’s office, and the immediate answer I received was that Rabbi Lau’s office is prepared for halitza and conducts such ceremonies as inoffensively as possible, without bureaucracy and outside of the courtrooms. Nonetheless, it is still a very unpleasant experience. Unfortunately, every woman in the State of Israel who has lost her husband under these conditions will have to undergo it if she wants to free herself and move on with her life,” Omer said.

How is halitza conducted?

“Despite the best of intentions, it is still an unpleasant ceremony. During the ceremony, which is conducted before three religious judges, the widow’s brother-in-law puts on a special sandal, used specifically for this occasion. The widow removes the sandal, spits in front of him, and calls out: ‘Thus shall be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house!’ The people around them then recite, ‘halutz hana’al‘ three times, after which the religious judges recite the blessing, ‘May the daughters of Israel not come to need halitza or yibum.'”

Omer says that if the ceremony is not performed – the widow cannot remarry and is considered an aguna. “The issue of an aguna due to halitza is very, very difficult and complex,” she explains. “It is one of the issues least discussed or known about. Women are completely unaware that halitza is necessary, and that it still takes place in the 21st century.”

“What happens when a woman needs halitza and her husband’s brother is a young boy?”

Omer described another way the issue could lead to agunot. “What happens to a woman who has to undergo halitza, but her husband’s brother is still a child? She has to wait for the brother to turn 13, and until then she is an aguna. And what about a woman whose deceased husband’s brother is a person with special needs? This is a very difficult halakhic issue.” She also noted that a woman who has undergone halitza is forbidden to marry a kohen – just like a divorced woman.

“Although not many halitza ceremonies are conducted in the State of Israel, there are a few conducted every year. It’s infrequent, but it’s also not rare.” According to Omer, “This is why it is something that must be prepared for. For example, a man whose brother has special needs that would prevent him from performing a halitza ceremony can take precautionary halakhic measures in advance to avoid a state of aginut. There are solutions such as adding a condition in the kiddushin, or a conditional divorce. This is true in general – and especially true during time of war.”

It turns out that divorce can be an issue of life and death

How did the war affect women who are refused a get?

%D7%A2%D7%92%D7%95%D7%A0%D7%94 %D7%A9%D7%A9%D7%95%D7%97%D7%A8%D7%A8%D7%94In addition to the questions regarding halitza, Yad La’isha also continues to receive queries regarding divorce and get-abuse.

“During wartime, the initial tendency is to push aside anything that is not an issue of life and death – but it turns out that divorce can be an issue of life or death,” says Omer. According to her, although there is a certain tendency to halt divorce proceedings, the war also sometimes accelerates the process for women already in divorce proceedings and has even led to the release of women who had been denied a get for many years.

“We had two amazing cases,” Omer shared. “One client is a young woman who married abroad. Immediately after the wedding she discovered she had married a very violent man, and after two years she felt she could no longer bear to be in the relationship. She returned to Israel – and asked him for a divorce. The moment the request was made, the husband disappeared and cut off contact. She became an aguna and when the husband is outside of Israel it is very difficult to help her.”

“It is important to understand – this woman could have been shackled forever”

“When the war broke out, the husband boarded a flight home to Israel – and we immediately issued a Stay of Exit warrant against him. We summoned him to the rabbinical court, which ordered him to grant a get, but he refused. The court continued to send him summons and finally, after a month and a little to-ing and fro-ing, it became clear to the husband that if he did not cooperate, the court would impose sanctions on him and that in fact he had no choice.” She related. “He came to Israel because of the war – and she obtained her freedom. It is important to understand that this woman could have been an aguna forever.”

In conclusion, Omer shared another story. “We have a very complex case of get-refusal that has been going on for several years. The husband came to the rabbinical court and asked to have the National Insurance Institute cancel his debts in return for a get; instead of blackmailing his wife, he was trying to blackmail the state,” she explained. “It was amazing to see the religious judge lash out at the husband and say, ‘We are at war, imagine what the State could do with the money you’re asking for.’ Within seconds, the husband realized this was not the time to argue, and after many years he granted the get.”

Read the article (in Hebrew) on the Kipa website

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