levirate marriage

(Latin: levir, a husband's brother)

A Hebrew ordinance, by which the brother of a man who died without male issue was obliged to marry the widow. As a religious ordinance the Levirate existed solely in Israel, though ethnologists claim that a similar custom, subject to various modifications, has been found in many tribes. The Hebrews express the law by the specific term Yibbem. A dispensation from the law was made possible by a rite, which they call halizah. Both the ordinance and the mode of being dispensed from the law are described in the New Testament (Deuteronomy 25). The custom existed before the Mosaic legislation, for Juda gave Thamar to Onan by this custom, and acknowledged that he should have given her to Sela (Genesis 38). The term brother signifies the nearest of kin in the collateral line, and the obligation passed down the line to a terminus not now discernible. The object of the law was to keep the inheritance in the same family, and prevent the extinction of heads of families. The son begotten of the levirate marriage inherited the name of the deceased man and his possessions. To be held by this law, the levir must be unmarried. God permitted, but never commanded, polygamy.

New Catholic Dictionary

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