Dear Madam Mariana,
I dare not ask this question of anyone I know but–I must seek counsel.
In Jewish law, when a man dies, his brother is obligated to marry the widow and support her.
I live in constant fear of losing my husband who is much older than I, in part because I loathe his brothers, all three of them.
How might I prolong my husband’s life (spells, poultices, charms or recipes?) and discourage his relatives in case of any eventuality?
Losing sleep over nothing and everything.
Consuelo Medina Aluz,
Estimada Sra. Medina Aluz,
You may have mistaken the all-seeing, all-knowing, time-traveling Madam Mariana for a Rabbi. I am pretty darned wise, my dear, but Rabbi I am not. That doesn’t stop me from answering your question, though!
First, let’s explore that law you speak of. I’m assuming you’re referring to a levirate union, brought to us by Deuteronomy 25: 5-6, 9. The ancient law tells us that if a woman is widowed, not having borne a son to her (now dead, not fathering anyone) husband, his brothers, assuming they have the same father as our dead guy, are obligated, in order of seniority, to wed the lady.
Notably, she has no rights. Theoretically, same-old-same-old, it’s for her benefit, so she doesn’t become a “widow, orphan, or fatherless” loser, and ostensibly it’s so the dead brother’s name continues in this world through some mythical son fathered by his brother(s) on his widow. Oof!
In Biblical times as well as in 1594 in Spain, it’s a real problem for a woman to be un-man’d. No man, no status. Unless—money, of course. But still, since she can’t own land, she’s now cast out and homeless. Unless—son(s), of course. (This charming legality continued on to inspire, among other delights, entailment in England, spawning such worthy novels as Pride and Prejudice and practically every other historical romance ever written, in which the plucky heroine stands to lose all to the loathsome cousin who inherits the modest-yet-prosperous manse… but that’s another 250 years in the future, and besides, I digress.)
Okay, but the writers of Torah provided an escape-hatch—for the brothers! If the surviving bro didn’t want to marry the gal, he could refuse. And she would have to take off his shoe, spit in his face, and from then on he would be known as the “unsandaled one”, a disgrace, surely, but better than marrying the hag. She could now marry anyone she chose. This was called halitzah. In a society that completely disregarded her rights, sure, she’d be a real hot commodity: a gal who was so unappealing that her brother-in-law would rather suffer public, permanent disgrace than take her to bed a few times and get a son on her, as they said back then.
So, back to your problem. You’ve married an old dude, and I’m assuming that he’s not in the son-fathering mode all that often. And so, no son. I’m also assuming that since you’re in Barcelona in 1584, you’re what will come to be known as a Sephardic Jew. Sephardi followed the interpretation of Maimonides, who favored levirate unions. The German-Polish branch of Judaism, Ashkenazi, favored halitzah. Too bad!
But there are solutions! (That’s why you wrote to me in the first place, right?) First, get ye a son! Get old-dude to do his due dudeness, and do the nasty ‘til you get a son! How do we encourage this? Feed your man eggs, garlic and fish. Yes, those simple items are both healthful and totemic. Eggs, obviously. Total symbolism, and perfect-food protein. Garlic purifies the blood, and gives him vigor. (And we want vigor!)
And fish, well, envision a school of anchovies or sardines swimming through the ocean. Now think of all the good HDL cholesterol… oh, never mind. Just think fertility and long life. Kind of a two-for-one benefit.
In Barcelona, you can go down to the water’s edge and catch a whole lot of them. Grilled, delicious!
And while you’re at it, get yourself a mandrake. Subtle symbolism be damned. Wave it around. That should get you both going!
Now, should the worst happen, and he dies before the blessed event is even started, practice your spitting. You want to assure all the brothers that you’re an expert at halitzah, should the occasion arise!
Good luck, love, and many, many sons,
Corinne Joy Brown is the author of Hidden Star, and she is working on a novel of the Jewish widows of Spain.