Parasha Inspiration – Vayeshev

וַיְהִ֗י עֵ֚ר בְּכ֣וֹר יְהוּדָ֔ה רַ֖ע בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֑ה וַיְמִתֵ֖הוּ יְהֹוָֽה: וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוּדָה֙ לְאוֹנָ֔ן בֹּ֛א אֶל־אֵ֥שֶׁת אָחִ֖יךָ וְיַבֵּ֣ם אֹתָ֑הּ וְהָקֵ֥ם זֶ֖רַע לְאָחִֽיךָ: וַיֵּ֣דַע אוֹנָ֔ן כִּ֛י לֹּ֥א ל֖וֹ יִֽהְיֶ֣ה הַזָּ֑רַע וְהָיָ֞ה אִם־בָּ֨א אֶל־אֵ֤שֶׁת אָחִיו֙ וְשִׁחֵ֣ת אַ֔רְצָה לְבִלְתִּ֥י נְתָן־זֶ֖רַע לְאָחִֽיו: וַיֵּ֛רַע בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה וַיָּ֖מֶת גַּם־אֹתֽוֹ:

Now Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the eyes of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. So Judah said to Onan, “Come to your brother’s wife and perform the rite of the levirate, and raise up progeny for your brother.” Now Onan knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when he came to his brother’s wife, he wasted [his semen] on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother. Now what he did was evil in the eyes of the Lord, and He put him to death also.

Genesis 38:7-10

This week’s Torah portion contains the somewhat odd commandment of the Yibum, the levirate marriage. Part of the difficulty in understanding this commandment is in the translation. The term Yibum does not mean marriage at all. Neither does the word for marriage appear anywhere in the Hebrew. Therefore, what is Yibum, and why is it a commandment?

Intrinsic in Hashem’s instruction of the Yibum is the concept of the rights of a wife. Torah often instructs us to be kind and show mercy to widows and orphans. Why? The answer is that widows very easily became disenfranchised after the death of their spouse. Not only that, but the property and land associated with the deceased could disappear from the family as well. To avoid these things, Hashem commanded us with the Yibum.

If the husband of a childless couple passes away, the husband’s brother must give the deceased’s spouse a child as a continuation of the family line. The child will be considered by the community as being the child of the deceased, rather than the child of the deceased’s brother. In this way, the continuity of inheritance is assured.

In this week’s portion, Onan chooses not to fulfill the commandment of the Yibum. The violation of this mitzvah is considered so egregious that Hashem puts Onan to death. Torah does not explain why Onan makes this choice. Suffice it to say that the reason is unimportant. What is important is that the commandment of Yibum was violated.

The commandment of Yibum is considered so important and worthy of study and understanding, that one of the largest tractates of Talmud is completely dedicated to the practice, Yevamot. The practice and importance of the continuation of the line of inheritance is an ongoing theme in Torah, and while we do not engage in the practice of Yibum today, it is incumbent upon us to assure that the rights of the spouse of the deceased are not broken. Shabbat shalom.

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Rabbi Steven Bernstein

Steve was born on Lag B’Omer in Ann Arbor, MI but was raised in Gainesville, FL. The son of two University of Florida professors, he excelled in the sciences in school. In addition to his normal academic studies, he pursued his Jewish education studying with many Rabbis and professors of Judaic Studies from the University including visiting Rabbis such as Abraham Joshua Heschel and Shlomo Carlebach.