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Levirate Marriage and the Family in Ancient Judaism

Dvora E. Weisberg

Publication Year: 2009

In this study, Weisberg uses levirate marriage (an institution that involves the union of a man and the widow of his childless brother) as described in biblical law and explicated in rabbinic Judaism as a lens to examine the status of women and attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, and reproduction in early Jewish society. While marriage generally marks the beginning of a new family unit, levirate comes into play when a family's life is cut short. As such, it offers an opportunity to study the family at a moment of breakdown and restructuring.

With her discussion rooted in rabbinic sources and commentary, Weisberg explores kinship structure and descent, the relationship between a family unit created through levirate marriage and the extended family, and the roles of individuals within the family. She also considers the position of women, asking whether it is through marriage or the bearing of children that a woman becomes part of her husband's family, and to what degree a married woman remains part of her natal family. She argues that rabbinic responses to levirate suggest that a family is an evolving entity, one that can preserve itself through realignment and redefinition.

Published by: Brandeis University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) is delighted to present this study of the nuclear family in ancient Judaism by Dvora E. Weisberg, associate professor of rabbinic literature and director of the Simha and . . .

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p. xi-xi

I am grateful for the friends and colleagues whose suggestions and questions have enriched this work, including Rachel Adler, Judith Baskin, Eugene Cooper, Yakov Elman, Tamara Eskenazi, Joel Gereboff, . . .

Note on Translations and Abbreviations

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p. xiii-xiii

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pp. xv-xxvi

To understand the constantly changing nature of families, just flip through a photo album. Begin by opening the album to a wedding picture. Captured on the page is a newly married couple, surrounded by . . .

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1 | The Institution of Levirate

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pp. 1-22

What is levirate and how did it function in ancient Israel and early Judaism? Was levirate in ancient Israel treated as a new marriage, or was the levir, the brother of the deceased . . .

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2 | Levirate from the Hebrew Bible Through the Mishnah

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pp. 23-44

The preceding chapter explored levirate as an institution that exists in various forms in many cultures. This chapter focuses on levirate as an institution in early Judaism. It considers discussions . . .

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3 | Mapping the Family

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pp. 45-96

The death of one of its members can throw a family into disarray. In the case of a childless couple in a traditional patriarchal society, the death of the husband leaves his wife alone among his . . .

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4 | Brothers

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pp. 97-122

Ordered by his father to “provide offspring for [his] brother,” Judah’s son Onan takes steps to ensure that he will not in fact provide his deceased brother with a child. This act is “displeasing . . .

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5 | From Wife to Widow and Back Again

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pp. 123-166

The conditions in which Tamar, the widowed daughter-in-law of Judah, finds herself in Genesis 38 capture the essence of what it means to be the widow of a childless man in Israel. Upon the death . . .

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6 | Paternity and Continuity

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pp. 167-194

The stated goal of levirate in ancient Israel, according to Deuteronomy 25 , was the creation of a posthumous heir for a childless man. Levirate was mandated when a man “dies and leaves no . . .

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7 | Conclusion

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pp. 195-205

The family imagined by and legislated for in rabbinic literature is not the family portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. Some of the features of the idealized rabbinic family correspond to those . . .


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pp. 207-230


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pp. 231-234


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pp. 235-246

E-ISBN-13: 9781584658252
E-ISBN-10: 1584658258
Print-ISBN-13: 9781584657811

Page Count: 276
Publication Year: 2009