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Levirate marriage: Wikis


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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Levirate marriage is a type of marriage in which a woman is required to marry her deceased husband's brother. Levirate marriage has been practiced by societies with a strong clan structure in which exogamous marriage, i.e. that outside the clan, was forbidden. It is or was known in societies around the world.

The term is a derivative of the Latin word levir, meaning "husband's brother".


Background and rationale

Levirate marriage can, at its most positive, serve as protection for the widow and her children, ensuring that they have a male provider responsible for them. It can also be seen as a denial of women's autonomy, and a restraint on her life. The practice was extremely important in ancient societies (e.g., Israelite and Near East), and remains so today in parts of the world, because children enabled the inheritance of land, which offered security and status. A levirate marriage might only occur if the man died childless, in order to continue his family line. A barren woman or widow was often believed to be cursed by God so every possibility was exhausted in order to bear children.[citation needed]

In the Hebrew Bible and Judaism

In Judaism, a levirate marriage (Hebrew: yibbum) is mandated by the Torah (Pentateuch) (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) which obliges a brother to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother, with the firstborn child being treated as that of the deceased brother. However, there is another provision known as halizah (Deuteronomy 25:9-10), which enables either party to avoid the levirate marriage. Later authorities in Jewish law (Talmudic period) strongly discouraged yibbum in favor of haliza.

In Islamic law

Islam lays down rules for marriage, including who can marry whom, and the Qur'an prohibits wife inheritance.[1] However, certain groups in Muslim-majority countries do or did practice levirate marriage, more often in the name of customary law than Islamic law (sharia). "Certain tribal cultures ... enforced the levirate ... according to which a brother of a deceased husband was obliged to marry his widow."[2]

Areas practiced


Great Britain

Catherine of Aragon was Princess of Wales as the wife to Arthur, Prince of Wales, and Queen of England as the first wife of King Henry VIII of England.



Soviet historian Khazanov gives economic reasons for the longevity of the levirate over two millennia of nomadic history: inheritance of a wife as a part of the deceased’s property and the necessity to support and educate children to continue the line of the deceased.

The levirate custom was revived under shaky economic conditions in the deceased’s family. Khazanov, citing [Abramzon, 1968, p. 289 - 290], mentions that during World War II the levirate was resurrected in Central Asia. In these circumstances, adult sons and brothers of the deceased man held themselves responsible to provide for his dependents. One of them would marry the widow and adopt her children, if there were any.[3]

Central Asia and Xiongnu

Levirate marriages were widespread among Central Asian nomads. Chinese historian Sima Qian(145-87 BCE) described the practices of the Xiongnu (also transliterated "Hsiung-nu") in his magnum opus, Records of the Grand Historian. He attested that after a man's death, one of his relatives, usually a brother, marries his widow.

The levirate custom survived in the society of Northeastern Caucasus Huns until the 7th century CE. Armenian historian Movses Kalankatuatsi states that the Savirs, one of Hunnish tribes in the area, were usually monogamous, but sometimes a married man would take his brother's widow as a polygynous wife. Ludmila Gmyrya, a Dagestani historian, asserts that the levirate survived there into "ethnographic modernity" (from the context, probably 1950s). Kalankatuatsi describes the form of levirate marriage practised by the Huns. As women had a high social status, the widow had a choice whether to remarry or not. Her new husband might be a brother or a son (by another woman) of her first husband, so she could end up marrying her brother-in-law or stepson; the difference in age did not matter.[4]


"The Kirghiz practice levirate whereby the wife of a deceased male is very often married by a younger sibling of the deceased."[5] "Kirghiz ... followed levirate marriage customs, i.e., a widow who had borne at least one child was entitled to a husband from the same lineage as her deceased spouse."[6]


Levirate was quite common in rural India until as recently as a few years ago, and is still practiced in certain parts of Punjab and Haryana. It is called "Latta Odhna" in the Jats of Haryana, Latta being the Haryanvi word for a cloth that women used to cover their heads and faces, and Odhna translating as "covering/wearing". This is also called "Chadar Dhakna" in other parts, Chadar being Hindi for Latta, and Dhakna being Hindi for Odhna.

The practice probably originated centuries ago in agrarian societies where vocational opportunities for women other than working at home were non-existent, and re-marriage or going back to the parents' home was not an option. Also the practice ensured and continues to do so that any land or property owned by the deceased husband would continue to stay in the family. To ensure this if the widow did not have any male progeny and a levirate was not possible she would also be made to adopt a nephew of her husband. The commoner practice was for the widow to be married off to an unmarried younger brother- a custom referred to as Niyoga. The ceremony was generally a low-key affair where families from both the widow and the husband's side got together and came to the decision without any of the fanfare that was generally associated with weddings.

In recent years, the levirate has all but disappeared except from the remote rural areas.



In Somalia, levirate marriage is practiced, and provisions are made under Somali customary law or Xeer with regard to bride price (yarad).[7]


Among the Mambila of northern Cameroon, in regard to "Inheritance of wives : both levirates are practised throughout the tribe".[8]


Amongst the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria it was a common practice for a woman to marry her late husband's brother if she had children so the children can retain the family identity and inheritance.

"Levirate marriage is considered a custom of the Yoruba, the Igbo, and the Hausa-Fulani ... . ... levirate marriages ... are commonest among the [I]gbo ... . ... Under customary law among the Yoruba, ... A brother or son of the deceased husband ... was traditionally allowed to inherit the widow as a wife ... . The inheritance of the youngest wife of the deceased by the eldest son ... continues to be practiced in Yoruba land ... . ... Under Igbo customary law, ... a brother or son of the deceased Igbo husband ... was traditionally allowed to inherit the widow as a wife".[9]


As among the Maragoli of western Kenya,[10] likewise "in the Luo case widows become mostly remarried to the deceased husband’s brother.".[11]

In the highlands of Kenya, it is "Nandi custom for a widow to be "taken over" ... by a brother ... of her deceased husband."[12] Furthermore, "according to customary law, it is tantamount to adultery for a widow to be sexually involved with a man other than a close agnate of her late husband."[13]

South Africa

In countries such as South Africa where a Levirate marriage is known as ukungena, the obligation for a woman to enter into a levirate marriage is on the decline due to increasing awareness of women's rights.

In popular culture

Hallmark Hall of Fame movie "Loving Leah" addressed the issue of Levirate marriage in the orthodox Jewish community

See also

  • Fraternal polyandry, a marriage of two or more brothers and one woman
  • Genealogy of Jesus, in which Levirate marriage is offered to explain discrepancies
  • Sororate marriage, a marriage of two or more sisters and one man
  • Widow inheritance, a modern form of levirate marriage
  • Posthumous marriage, a marriage in which at least one party is dead
  • Avunculism, a cultural custom in which a maternal uncle demonstrates some institutionalised interest in his sister’s offspring and may take on many of the responsibilities typically associated with fatherhood .


  1. ^ Chapter 4 (al-Nisa) verse 19
  2. ^
  3. ^ Khazanov А. M. “Social history of Scythians”. Moscow, 1975. p. 82 (no ISBN, but the book is available in US libraries, Russian title "Sotsialnaya Istoriya Skifov", Moskva, 1975)
  4. ^ Gmyrya L. "Hun Country At The Caspian Gate", Dagestan, Makhachkala 1995, p.212 (no ISBN, but the book is available in US libraries, Russian title "Strana Gunnov u Kaspiyskix vorot". Dagestan, Makhachkala, 1995)
  5. ^ Nazif Shahiz Shahrani: The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan. University of Washington Press, 2002. p. 124
  6. ^ Afghanistan -- Ethnicity and Tribe
  7. ^ James Norman Dalrymple Anderson: Islamic Law in Africa. Routledge, 1970. p.46
  8. ^ D. A. Percival 1 xi 35, Notes on Dr Meek's Report on "Mambila Tribe" (page numbers refer to K. C. Meek : Tribal Studies, 1929, Vol. 1), Pp542-3
  9. ^ Levirate marriage practices among the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa-Fulani
  10. ^ Jaan Valsiner: Culture and Human Development. SAGE Publications, London, 2000. p. 100a
  11. ^ Jaan Valsiner: Culture and Human Development. SAGE Publications, London, 2000. p. 99b
  12. ^ Regina Smith Oboler : "Nandi Widows", p. 77 In:- Betty Potash (ed.) : Widows in African Societies : Choices and Constraints. Stanford University Press, 1986. pp. 66-83
  13. ^ Regina Smith Oboler : "Nandi Widows", pp. 77-78 In:- Betty Potash (ed.) : Widows in African Societies : Choices and Constraints. Stanford University Press, 1986. pp. 66-83

Bible wiki

Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From BibleWiki

Marriage with a brother's widow. This custom is found among a large number of primitive peoples, a list of which is given by Westermarck ("History of Human Marriage," pp. 510-514). In some cases it is the duty of a man to marry his brother's widow even if she has had children by the deceased, but in most cases it occurs when there are no children, as among the Hindus ("Institutes of Manu," v. 59-63). Among the Hebrews marriage with a brother's widow was forbidden as a general rule (Lev 18:16, xx. 21), but was regarded as obligatory (Deut 25:5ff) when there was no male issue, and when the two brothers had been dwelling on the same family estate. The surviving brother could evade the obligation by the ceremony of Ḥaliẓah. The case of Ruth is not one of levirate marriage, being connected rather with the institution of the Go'el; but the relations of Tamar with her successive husbands and with Judah are an instance (Gen. xxxviii.). If the levirate union resulted in male issue, the child would succeed to the estates of the deceased brother. It would appear that later the levirate marriage came to be regarded as obligatory only when the widow had no children of either sex. The Septuagint translates "ben" (son) in the passage of Deuteronomy by "child," and the Sadducees in the New Testament take it in this sense (Mk 12:19; comp. Josephus, "Ant." iv. 8, § 23).

By Talmudic times the practise of levirate marriage was deemed objectionable (Bek. 13a), and was followed as a matter of duty only. To marry a brother's widow for her beauty was regarded by Abba Saul as equivalent to incest (Yeb. 39b). Bar Ḳappara recommends ḥaliẓah (Yeb. 109a). A difference of opinion appears among the later authorities, Alfasi, Maimonides, and the Spanish school generally upholding the custom, while R. Tam and theNorthern school prefer ḥaliẓah (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 165). The marriage was not necessary if the brother left a child by another marriage, even if such a child were on the point of death (l.c. 157). A change of religion on the part of the surviving brother does not affect the obligation of the levirate, or its alternative, the ḥaliẓah (Isaac b. Sheshet, Responsa, i. 2), yet the whole question has been profoundly affected by the change from polygamy to monogamy due to the taḳḳanah of Gershom ben Judah (see Marriage).

The Samaritans followed a slightly different course, which may indicate an earlier custom among the Hebrews; the former practised the levirate only when the woman was betrothed and the marriage had not been consummated (Ḳid. 65b). The Karaites appear to have followed the same practise, and Benjamin Nahawendi, as well as Elijah Bashyaẓi, favored it Adderet Eliyahu, Nashim," p. 93a).

It has been suggested by Kalisch ("Leviticus," ii. 362-363) that the prohibition in Leviticus is of later date than the obligation under certain conditions in Deuteronomy, but it is equally possible that the Leviticus prohibition was a general one, and the permission in Deuteronomy only an exception when there was no male issue. J. F. Maclennan ("Studies in Ancient History," i. 109-114) suggested that the existence of levirate marriage was due to polyandry among the primitive Hebrews, and has been followed by Buhl ("Sociale Verhaltnisse," p. 34) and Barton ("Semitic Origins," pp. 66-67); but this is rather opposed to the Hebraic conditions, for it would be against the interests of the surviving brother to allow the estate to go out of his possession again. There is, besides, no evidence of polyandry among the Hebrews.

Bibliogrphy: Geiger, in Jüdische Zeitschrift, 1862, pp. 19-39.

This entry includes text from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.
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