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Then his sister-in-law shall approach him before the eyes of the elders; she shall remove his shoe from on his foot and spit before him; she shall speak up and say, “So is done to the man who does not build the house of his brother (Devarim 25:9).
In this week’s parsha we learn about the procedure of chalitza. If a man dies without children the law requires that one of his brothers is obligated to marry his widow. In the event that all the brothers refuse to marry her, the procedure of chalitza is performed. Chalitza is literally translated as, “the removal of the shoe.” The procedure consists of two parts. First, the widow removes the shoe from her brother-in-law and then spits in front of him and declares “so is done to the man who does not build the house of his brother.”
We may note that the act of removing a shoe represents a great display of honor. Indeed, Chazal teach us that one form of a slave serving his master is the untying of his shoes. Furthermore, one of the methods one can use to legally acquire a slave is to have the slave remove his shoes. When the widow removes the shoe of her brother-in-law it is as if she is saying to him that she regards him in such high esteem that she views him as her master and is willing to serve him as a slave.
Yet, the very next moment she spits in front of him. This act represents the ultimate display of disgrace. Indeed, the Torah explicitly states that such an act is an expression of disgrace. When Hashem explained to Moshe as to why Miriam must be quarantined for seven days because of her tzaraas, He said “And were her father to spit in her face, would she not be humiliated for seven days?” (Bamidbar 12:14).
It appears that the procedure of chalitza is contradictory. On the one hand the widow performs an act of honor but immediately thereafter performs an act of disgrace. How do we understand this?
Let us suggest that although chalitza actually consists of two parts, the primary act is the spitting in front of her brother-in-law. From the perspective of the widow, the refusal of her brother-in-law to marry her represents a great defect in his character. How can a person abandon his deceased brother? How can a person refuse to marry the widow of his brother and preserve his name? The Torah agrees with her assessment and requires her to rebuke and disgrace him by spitting before him.
However the Torah teaches us that giving rebuke is not a simple matter. If the recipient of the rebuke does not feel that the rebuke is sincere it will only lead to a cycle of hatred. It is absolutely essential that one convey at the outset that his rebuke is sincere and only meant for the benefit of the recipient. Before the widow gives rebuke by spitting before him, she shows him honor. Only after she conveys her high esteem for him, is she allowed to relate her frustration with his unwillingness to marry her and preserve the name of his brother.
We derive from this law that before we rebuke and chastise we must first show respect and honor. Furthermore, one who is not capable of giving honor to others is in no position to give them mussar. We may also note that although the primary part of chalitza is the rebuke, yet chazal did not choose to refer to this procedure by the term yarka, i.e. the spitting, but by the term chalitza, the removal of the shoe. The primary part of giving mussar is first giving honor.
© Efraim Levine 5760/2000 - 5763/2003