Rabbinic Court Clerk Tries to Turn Private Ritual Into 'A Circus,’ Widow Says

Clerk wanted halitza ceremony to be open for yeshiva students; decision reversed after widow turned to Jerusalem municipal councilwoman.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Outside the Jerusalem rabbinical court.
Outside the Jerusalem rabbinical court.Credit: Tess Scheflan
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The clerk of a rabbinic court attempted to make a “halitza” ceremony — a ritual by which a widow is released from the religious obligation to marry the brother of her dead husband — a public event. By pulling some strings, the widow said, she avoided turning her halitzah into “a circus.”

The trouble began when Tehila Ben Hamo, 23, of Tekoa, whose husband died in an auto accident some two years ago, went to Jerusalem’s rabbinic court to set a date for the halitza. The clerk told her that because the ritual was rarely performed, yeshiva students would want to see it. “I realized I was dependent on the good will” of the court, “they could do whatever they wanted, as if I were a porn show," she said. "The clerk spoke loudly, dismissively, with no respect for my privacy.”

When a widow is left without children, her husband’s brother is obliged to marry her. If he’s already married, or not interested, the two take part in a halitza ceremony. The woman removes a sandal from the brother’s foot and spits in his face. Without the ceremony a woman is seen as “chained” and cannot remarry.

Ben Hamo said she was quizzed scornfully already on the first meeting at the rabbinic court, where the clerk asked why she and her husband had no children and made disparaging comments about her clothes. She said she felt humiliated.

She asked for Jerusalem council member Rahel Azaria’s help in holding the ceremony in private. She said on no occasion was she told what the ceremony meant and what it consisted of.

Thanks to her connections, she was referred to Rabbi Abergil who performed the ceremony to her satisfaction, she told Haaretz.

“I only learned later that I could decide who the other 10 rabbis who attended the rite would be and could bring rabbis from my own community,” she said.

Azaria said “It’s time the rabbinical courts understood women have rights as well as men. In this case they ignored all her rights.” The rabbinical courts management said it was impossible to check Ben Hamo’s complaints because she didn’t give the clerk’s name.

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