Dorothea “Dragon” Dix

In my lectures on יחוד mentioned in the previous post, I touched briefly on the question of whether the age and attractiveness of a woman are relevant factors in determining whether a particular scenario of seclusion is permissible or not. I noted that several years ago, on a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, I was struck by Dorothea Dix’s (whose identity I did not recall correctly) standards for the nurses under her superintendency:

In 1861, Dorothea Dix was appointed superintendent of women nurses in Washington, D.C., a title she would hold without salary for the next five years. On the brink of sixty, dour in temperament, and disciplined in her work, Dix was totally dedicated to her task. The qualifications she set were harsh even by the standards of her day: “All nurses are required to be plain looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, no jewelry, and no hoop-skirts.” And she would consider no woman under age thirty. Dix worked throughout her life to improve conditions for the mentally ill. Her pioneering efforts established many institutions, such as St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, D.C., the hospital that commissioned this portrait.

I have been unable to locate a primary source of the above citation of Dix’s qualifications; her widely cited “Circular No. 8” actually sets the minimum age at thirty-five, not thirty:

No candidate for service in the Women’s Department for nursing in the Military Hospitals of the United States, will be received below the age of thirty-five years, nor above fifty.

Only women of strong health, not subjects of chronic disease, nor liable to sudden illnesses, need apply. The duties of the station make large and continued demands on strength.

Matronly persons of experience, good conduct, or superior education and serious disposition, will always have preference; habits of neatness, order, sobriety, and industry, are prerequisites.

All applicants must present certificates of qualification and good character from at least two persons of trust, testifying to morality, integrity, seriousness, and capacity for care of the sick.

Obedience to rules of the service, and conformity to special regulations, will be required and enforced.

Compensation, as regulated by act of Congress, forty cents a day and subsistence. Transportation furnished to and from the place of service.

Amount of luggage limited within small compass.

Dress plain, (colors brown, grey, or black,) and while connected with the service without ornaments of any sort.

No applicants accepted for less than three months service; those for longer periods always have preference.

The Portrait Gallery’s text does appear in contemporary, secondhand sources. Here is Mary A. Gardner Holland’s account of her initial encounter with Dix, from her book Our Army Nurses:

Later, I procured one of Miss Dix’s circulars, and read it again and again. It appeared to me a queer demand. It read like this: “No woman under thirty years need apply to serve in government hospitals. All nurses are required to be very plain-looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, or jewelry, and no hoop-skirts.”

It was fashionable at that time to wear immense hoops. I had worn one for some time, and really felt it a sacrifice to leave it off. Other requirements were agreeable, but I felt I could not walk without a hoop. I said, “Well, if I can’t walk without it, I will crawl; for I must go, and I will do the best I can.”

Soon after this, I took up a morning paper and read that the wounded were being brought into Washington so fast that more help was needed at once. I wrote immediately to Miss Dix, saying: “I am in possession of one your circulars, and will comply with all your requirements. I am plain-looking enough to suit you, and old enough. I have no near relative in the war, no lover there. I never had a husband, and am not looking for one. Will you take me?” In a few days, her answer was came: “Report at once at my house, corner of 14th Street and New York Avenue, Washington.”1

Gardner may have been paraphrasing Circular No. 8 and misremembering its precise details, or she may have been citing a different circular. Indeed, another noted contemporary figure, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, also recorded the same text as Gardner verbatim in his book Cheerful Yesterdays:

… Miss Dorothea L. Dix, the national superintendent of nurses, a lady who had something of the habitual despotism of the saints, and who had somewhat exasperated the soldiers by making anything like youth or good looks an absolute bar to hospital employment; the soldiers naturally reasoning that it assisted recovery to have pleasant faces to look upon. One of Miss Dix’s circulars read thus: “No woman under thirty years need apply to serve in government hospitals. All nurses are required to be very plain-looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls or jewelry, and no hoop-skirts.2

The earliest halachic suggestion that the laws of יחוד may be relaxed for “unattractive” women is by Rav David ibn Zimra (Radvaz), concerning female (Jewish) garment workers who were working extended shifts on the premises of their gentile employers. Despite his strong disapproval of the practice, which he considers “enormous licentiousness” (although he notes that some of the women had no alternative, due to their dire poverty), he justifies it as technically permitted on numerous grounds, including the fact that at least some of the women were “elderly, such that no man desires them”:

שאלת ממני על מה שנהגו במצרים שהולכות הנשים לעשות מלאכה בבית העכו”ם ועומדות שם ג’ או ד’ ימים ולילות ולפעמים יש בהן נשי כהנים אם יש חשש איסור או לא:

תשובה יש במעשה זה פריצות גדול לא ישוער וכבר נעשו הסכמות מידי הנגידים על זה ומקצתם פירשו ונמנעו ומקצתם לא יכלו לעמוד כי הן עניות ובעליהן עניים ולא יתנו להן לא לבוש ולא כסות (בקרה?) ולא לבניהן והן צריכות לבקש מחייתן והולכות ברשות בעליהן ומה שיכולנו לתקן הוא שלא ישבו על שלחן אחד לעשות מלאכת הרקום אנשים ונשים כאשר היה בתחלה אלא שהאנשים לעצמן והנשים לעצמן ועוד שלא תלכנה אלא הזקנות ממ’ שנה ומעלה.

ומכל מקום לענין הדין אין כאן חשש איסור לאסור אותה על בעלה. [ועיין שם שהביא כמה צדדי היתר, ובתוכם כתב:] ותו כיון שהן זקנות שאין אדם מתאוה להן הוו שומר להנך דמסתפו מינייהו דילמא מגלו. …3

In a similar vein, Rav Yaakov Pardo allowed a widower to employ an unmarried female housekeeper as long as the woman is elderly, but not if the man and woman are young:

והנה הבית שמואל הביא בשם מהריק”ו4 והבאר היטב בשם מהר”י ווייל [סימן נ”ה] דמי שאין לו אשה לא ישכור משרתת אלמנה אפילו אם יש לה בן עמה דלאו כל שעתא יהיה בנה בבית ובאים לידי ייחוד והיינו אם הוא לבדו בבית ע”ש.

ופשוט דלא כל האנשים ולא כל הנשים שוו בשיעוריהן דאם הוא אדם צנוע והיא גם כן צנועה ובעלת זקנה והאיש לבדו בבית שמתה אשתו מה יעשה האם יקבר עצמו בחייו הואיל ולא שריא ליה לקחת משרתת בבית עד יזמינו לו מן השמים צוותין בסימא.5

ודאי שאם היא בחורה בשנים וגם הוא בחור או איש רע מעללים לא שריא ליה. אבל במקום שאי אפשר בעניין אחר והם צנועים במעשיהם ובכל כה”ג אין לדיין אלא מה שעיניו רואות לפי הזמן ולפי הנושא:6

Rav Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg vehemently rejects R. Pardo’s stance, arguing that it plays fast and loose with the laws of יחוד without any clear justification, and he downplays the significance and applicability of Radvaz’s ruling:

והדברים מתמיהים ומרפסין איגרא דאיך אפשר לנו לבדות מלבנו סברות להקל בדבר שאסרוהו במשנה וגמרא בפשיטות …

וכמו כן אין גם כל מקום לחלק בזה בין היכא שהיא צעירה לבין היכא שהיא בעלת זקנה … דחכמינו ז”ל לא נתנו שום שיעור וקיצבה לכך ואיסורם בזה ברור הן בבחורה הן בילדה מבת ג’ שנים ויום אחד, והן בזקנה, …

והן אמנם דמצינו בשו”ת רדב”ז … אבל המדובר שם כשהיחוד הוא לא עם אחת בלבד, וגם בתוך דבריו כשמדבר מצידוד ההיתר של זקנות הוא כותב בלשון “ותו כיון שהן זקנות שאין אדם מתאוה להן הוו שומר להנך דמסתפי מהנהו דילמא מגלו”, ובזה כשהייחוד הוא עם יותר מאשה אחת הרי כבר הבאנו בפרק ב’ דעת כמה מהפוסקים שבכה”ג איסור הייחוד בכלל רק מדרבנן, וייחוד לדעת הרבה פוסקים עם פנויה על פי רוב הוו מדאורייתא דהמה בנדתן. וגם זאת אפילו בגוונא דא שהייחוד הוא עם יותר מאחת כותב הרדב”ז שם ומדגיש בדבריו שכותב זאת רק כסניף ליתר צדדי ההיתר שכותב שם בדבריו לצדד שאופן נידונו לא מיקרי בכלל ייחוד עיי”ש.

ואחרי כל זאת עיין בספר שו”ת נשמת כל חי … וגם הרדב”ז בעצמו כותב בדבריו שיש במעשה זה פריצות גדולה אלא שבוחר שם הרעבמיעוטו ע”ש. ואם כן ברור שאין כל מקום להביא סייעתא מדברי רדב”ז אלה לסברת האפי זוטרי, ברור הדבר שבכגון איסור יחוד ברור כזה כפי נידונו של האפי זוטרי כולי עלמא מודים דאפילו בבעלת זקנה אסור דאין אפוטרפוס לעריות. …7

  1. Mary A. Gardner Holland, Our Army Nurses. Interesting Sketches, Addresses, and Photographs Of nearly One Hundred of the Noble Women who Served in Hospitals and on Battlefields during Our Civil War, pp. 19-20. Cf. Busting Myths Series: “Circular No. 8” by Dorthea Dix ; Dorothea Dix (at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine). []
  2. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Cheerful Yesterdays, pp. 264-65. []
  3. שו”ת רדב”ז חלק ג’ סימן תתקי”ט (תפ”א) []
  4. לכאורה הכוונה לכסץ משנה הלכות תלמוד תורה ב:ד []
  5. כנראה שהכוונה לסוכה נב., אבל איני מבין הכוונה בדיוק.‏ []
  6. אפי זוטרי, סוף סימן כ”ב סוף ס”ק ל”ב []
  7. שו”ת ציץ אליעזר חלק ו’ סימן מ’ פרק י”ג אות ז’ []

אפשר לתקן

There are opinions among Hazal that Yosef nearly sinned with Potiphar’s wife before ultimately resisting the temptation:

אמר רב חנא בר ביזנא א”ר שמעון חסידא יוסף שקידש שם שמים בסתר הוסיפו עליו אות אחת משמו של הקב”ה …

Rav Ḥana bar Bizna says that Rabbi Shimon Ḥasida says: Joseph, who sanctified the name of Heaven in private, had one letter of the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, the letter heh, added to his name. …

יוסף מאי היא דכתיב (בראשית לט, יא) ויהי כהיום הזה ויבא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו א”ר יוחנן מלמד ששניהם לדבר עבירה נתכוונו

The Gemara explains: What is the situation where Joseph sanctified G-d’s name in private? As it is written: “And it came to pass on a certain day, when he went into the house to do his work” (Genesis 39:11). Rabbi Yoḥanan says: This teaches that both Joseph and Potiphar’s wife stayed in the house, as they intended to perform a matter of sin.

ויבא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו רב ושמואל חד אמר לעשות מלאכתו ממש וחד אמר לעשות צרכיו נכנס

With regard to the phrase “when he went into the house to do his work,” Rav and Shmuel engage in a dispute with regard to its meaning. One says: It means that he went into the house to do his work, literally. And one says: He entered the house in order to fulfill his sexual needs with her.1

Rav Levi ibn Habib (Maharalbah) and Rav Zvi Hirsch Hajes explain that Hazal were not denigrating Yosef by acknowledging the strength of his temptation, but on the contrary, praising him for having ultimately triumphed over it:

מהרלב”ח

עוד אני אומר שדרשה כזאת איננה כנגד מעלת הצדיק כיון שהוא דבר במחשבה ולא יצא לפועל אף על פי שתהיה לאיזו סבה שתהיה. ויש לנו דמחשבה רעה אינו הקדוש ברוך הוא מצרפה למעשה בישראל זולתי בעבודה זרה. ולכן אין זה חסרון בצדיק. דכל הגדול מחבירו יצרו גדול ממנו. אדרבה הוא לו מעלה כיון שלבסוף ניצול מהעבירה. ואין כוונת הפסוק להודיענו מחשבת אלו הצדיקים. אבל הכונה להודיענו שנצולו ושהקב”ה הרחיק מהם העבירה ההיא.2

מהר”ץ חיות

והנה הרב הרלב”ח כתב … וכן ביוסף כבר היתה מחשבתו לרעה, ובא לעשות מלאכתו ממש3 ובכל זאת כבש את יצרו, ולא חטא וזה מעלה יותר עצומה, דאם לא התעורר אצלו היצר מפני שינוי מצבם, ועבד שפל אינו נותן עיניו באשת אדוניו, אזי לא היתה פעולתו של יוסף ראוי להתפארות כל כך, אבל עתה דכבר התגבר עליו היצר, ובכל זאת היה אדון ושליט על מעשיו, וזה דבר גדול אשר בחרו חז”ל לשבח מעשה יוסף הצדיק, כי כבר היה הכל מוכן לרעה, וכמה גדול כחו על ידי יגיעותיו אשר טרח לכבוש את יצרו, דהרי כבר היה כאן מחשבה רעה, רק אצל ישראל אין מצטרפין מחשבה רעה למעשה, … והיא ספור נפלא להגדיל מעלתן של צדיקים, כי לא יאונה להם כל עון, …4

In a famous and provocative passage in his autobiography, Rav Yaakov Emden relates that he personally experienced “a miracle similar to that of Joseph the righteous and (even) slightly more so”:

A miracle also occurred to me, especially relevant to matters spiritual. (It was) a miracle similar to that of Joseph the righteous and (even) slightly more so. I was a young man, tender in years, in the full strength of my passion. I had been separated from my wife for a long time and greatly desired a woman. A very pretty unmarried young girl who was my cousin happened to meet me there and was alone with me. She brazenly demonstrated great love to me, came close to me and almost kissed me. Even when I was lying in my bed, she came to cover me well on the couch, in a close loving manner. Truthfully, had I hearkened to the advice of my instinct she would not have denied my desire at all. Several times it (indeed) almost happened, as a fire (consumes) the chaff. Frequently there was no one in the house with me but her. They (i.e. the members of her family) were also not accustomed to come for they stayed in the store on the marketplace, occupied with their livelihood all day. Had G-d not given me great strength, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power (Gen. 49:3), to overcome my fiery instinct which once almost forced me to do its bidding, (and) were it not for the grace of G-d which was great upon me, (I would have been unable) to withstand this very powerful temptation, greater than all temptations. I was a man at the prime of my strength and passion. There was a very pleasant beautiful woman before me who demonstrated for me all manner of love and closeness many times. She was related to me, unmarried, a tender child and recently widowed. She may have been ritually pure or would have ritually purified herself had I requested it. If I had wanted to fulfill my passionate desire for her, I was absolutely certain that she would not reveal my secret. I controlled my instinct, conquered my passion and determined to kill it. My heart was hollow and I did not … Blessed be the L-rd who gives strength to the weary for I was saved from this flaming fire.5

It is difficult to understand R. Emden’s apparent utter flouting of the laws of יחוד – which exist precisely to forestall the sin that he acknowledges “almost happened”. Indeed, Yosef as well seems to have engaged in יחוד, a problem raised by Rav Moshe Sofer (Hasam Sofer), who suggests that it was indeed this infraction that led Potiphar to believe his wife’s calumniation of the man whom he had erstwhile believed to be of impeccable character:

תמיה רבה על אותו הצדיק איך נכנס ביחוד עם אשה בשעה שאין אנשי הבית שם וכמדומה לי שאלולי כן לא האמין פוטיפר לאשתו על יוסף המוחזק בעיניו לצדיק, אלא שראה מבגדו שבידה שעל כל פנים נתיחד עמה שלא כדת, ועל כן האמין עליו גם הכל, ומכל מקום צ”ע עליו.6

I discussed these sources in a talk I gave several days ago on repentance and the struggle against temptation, and previously in my parashah lectures for this past פרשת וישב, on the topic of יחוד. The cognate column:

In parashas Vayeishev, the Torah relates: “Then there was an opportune day when he [Joseph] entered the house to do his work – no man of the household staff being there in the house – that she [Potiphar’s wife] caught hold of him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” Some of our Sages maintain that Joseph actually came dangerously close to sinning, and only vanquished his evil inclination at the very last moment. (Sotah 36b, Bereishis Rabah 87:7) The Biblical text seems to emphasize that the confrontation was triggered by the fact that they were completely alone, and the halachah indeed prohibits such seclusion (yichud), for precisely this reason. The Chasam Sofer actually raises the question of how the righteous Joseph could have violated the prohibition of yichud, and he goes so far as to suggest that this apparent infraction was what allowed Potiphar to believe his wife’s accusation of Joseph, whose reputation had been heretofore impeccable. Potiphar saw that Joseph had at the very least improperly secluded himself with his wife, and he therefore believed the full accusation against him. (Drashos Chasam Sofer, Chanukah [5]564. His justification of Joseph’s conduct is beyond the scope of this column.)

Since the prohibition of yichud is motivated by a concern for improper interaction between the secluded individuals, there are a variety of leniencies in circumstances where they are unlikely to act improperly, particularly where they are afraid of being interrupted and discovered. A comprehensive discussion of these exceptions and their precise scope and details is beyond the scope of this column, but a couple of basic examples follow:

  • A married woman whose husband is in the same city as her is beyond suspicion, since she is presumptively afraid of her husband. Many authorities understand this to mean that she is afraid of his discovery of her infidelity. (Shulchan Aruch EH 22:8; Pischei Teshuvah ibid. s.k. 7; Shut. Igros Moshe EH 4:65:7; Shut. Tzitz Eliezer 6:40:4-6)
  • Yichud does not apply in a house whose door is open to a public domain. (SA ibid. 9, PT ibid. 8, TE ibid. 11-12, IM ibid. 2,4-5,9)

In my talk on resisting temptation, I also discussed the tale of the portrait of Moshe Rabbeinu (which I have previously discussed in a lecture for פרשת בהעלותך, on the character of the master of all prophets):

[A] delightful account that I once saw in writing. When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the nations heard, they trembled, etc. (Exodus 15:14). They were particularly curious about Moses, the man through whom all these marvelous deeds had transpired. So much so, that an Arabian king sent a gifted artist to the Israelite encampment with orders to paint a portrait of the Israelite leader, and to return with it to Arabia. The artist went, painted the portrait, and brought it to the king. The king then sent to his physiognomists, and ordered them to prepare an analysis of Moses’ character, virtues, and strengths based upon his facial features as reflected in the portrait. The physiognomists complied with the king’s order and reported as follows: “If we are to render judgment solely on the basis of the facial features in the portrait, we must report, O King, that, – despite his distinguished reputation – he is entirely wicked, arrogant, greedy, capricious, indeed suffused with every known vice. Upon hearing the analysis, the king was livid. “You are sporting with me,” he cried out. “From every corner of the globe I have heard just the opposite regarding this great man.” The physiognomists and the artist were seized with fright; they responded to the king pusillanimously, each accusing the other of incompetence. The artist claimed that the portrait was executed with precision; it was the physiognomists who had erred in their interpretation of the portrait. The physiognomists, in turn, blamed the artist, claiming that the portrait of Moses was obviously inaccurate. The king, determined to resolve the matter, set out in his chariot on a state visit – accompanied by his troops – to the Israelite camp. Upon sighting Moses, the man of G-d, from the distance, he took out the portrait, gazed at it and Moses, and knew at once that the artist’s depiction had been executed with precision. The king was astounded. He entered the tent of Moses, bowed down before him, and related the entire story to him. He concluded his remarks as follows: “Before I gazed upon your face, O man of G-d, I suspected that the artist had been incompetent, for my physiognomists are without peer. Now that I have established that the portrait is accurate, I can only conclude that the physiognomists are at fault; they have deceived me. Their wisdom comes to naught. I have been supporting them even as they misled me with their nonsense.”

Moses, the man of G-d, replied: “Not so. Indeed, the artist and the physiognomists are exceedingly competent and wise. Know that if I were naturally virtuous, I would be no more deserving of praise than is a block of wood. For it too has no human faults. I am not ashamed to admit, however, that I am naturally inclined to all the vices listed by the physiognomists, and then some. With great effort and determination, I overcame my inclinations until their very opposites became second nature to me. This is how I earned the glory that I now enjoy in heaven above and on earth below.”7

  1. סוטה לו: []
  2. שו”ת מהרלב”ח סימן קכ”ו ד”ה עוד אני אומר []
  3. רש”י בסוטה פירש ד “מלאכ[תו] ממש” היינו מלאכתו, ולא תשמיש. אולם בבראשית רבה אמר ר”ש בר נחמן “לעשות מלאכתו ודאי”, ומבואר שכוונתו לתשמיש.‏ []
  4. מבוא התלמוד, פרק כ’ ד”ה והנה הרב רלב”ח []
  5. Megilas Sefer, translation of R. Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, cited by Dr. Marc B. Shapiro, R. Yair Hayyim Bachrach as a Writer of Romance?, A Non-Jewish Song Made Holy, Love (and More) Before and After Marriage, and Memoirs that Maybe Tell Too Much, the Seforim blog, Fri., May 27, 2016. The original Hebrew text (along with a censored version) are available there as well, as well as here. []
  6. דרשות חת”ם סופר [כרך א’] חנוכה תקס”ד. ועיין שם מה שתירץ, ועיין שו”ת ציץ אליעזר חלק ח’ סימן י”ד אות ז’ וחלק י”ב סימן ס”ז אות ב’. ובעצם קושית החת”ם סופר, עיין ר’ מנשה ישראל רייזמן, שיעורים בפרשת השבוע, יום ו’ פרשת וישב כ’ כסלו תשע”ה, עמודים יב-יג.‏ []
  7. תפארת ישראל סוף מסכת קידושין, תורגם ב Shnayer Z. Leiman, R. Israel Lipschutz: The Portrait of Moses, in Tradition, 24(4), Summer 1989. []

Marrying For Looks and Money

Almost a decade ago, we noted that at least a couple of the רודפי הפשט take for granted that Jacob fell in love with Rachel due to her beauty. I recently discovered that this assumption appears in the halachic literature as well: Rav Yaakov Reischer invokes it to infer that marrying for looks or money is okay, as long as one is also motivated by loftier intentions:

דאף אבא שאול [שסובר ש “הכונס את יבמתו לשם נוי ולשום אישות ולשום דבר אחר כאילו פוגע בערוה”] לא קאמר אלא היכי דאין כוונתו רק לשם נוי או לשם ממון אבל אם כוונתו גם לשם מצוה ומזה אל תנוח ידו אין קפידא

וראיה ברורה לזה דכה”ג אמרינן כל הנושא אשה לשם ממון או לנוי ה”ל בנים שאינם מהוגנים ואם כן קשה אתה מוציא לעז חס ושלום על יוסף ובנימין שאבינו יעקב נשא אותה בשביל שהיתה יפת תואר ויפה מראה כאשר מוכיח המקראות על זה ויעקב איך עשה כן וכן כל העולם נכשלו בזה כי כולם בני אדם הם נושאים נשים המוצאים חן בעיניהם ונותנין גם כן עיניהם בממון ולא ימצא כלל בנים מהוגנים

אלא ודאי עיקר כמו שכתבנו דבשיתוף אין קפידא …1

I came across this passage in the course of preparing for my weekly parashah lectures for this past פרשת כי תצא; they are available, with accompanying handout, at the Internet Archive, and here is my halachah column for that parashah:

Parashas Ki-Seitzei (25:5) contains the commandment of levirate marriage (yibum): “When brothers dwell together and one of them dies, and he has no child, the wife of the deceased shall not marry outside to a strange man; her brother-in-law shall come to her and take her to himself as a wife, and perform levirate marriage.” If the brother does not wish to do so, the Torah prescribes the chalitzah (removal of the shoe) ceremony instead.

The mishnah explains that originally, when people performed yibum for the sake of the mitzvah, yibum was preferable to chalitzah, but in contemporary times, when people’s intentions are not for the sake of the mitzvah, chalitzah is preferable (Bechoros 13a). The Talmud elaborates that this is the opinion of Abba Shaul, who maintains that yibum performed with base intentions verges on incest (since intimacy with a brother’s wife is normally considered incest, and the prohibition against such intimacy is only lifted in the context of yibum). Other sages, however, disagree, maintaining that yibum is always a mitzvah, regardless of intent (Yevamos 39b). There is considerable dispute among post-Talmudic authorities over which view is normative. In general, the Sephardic tradition allows and encourages yibum, while the Ashkenazic tradition discourages and even forbids it, except in extraordinary and exigent circumstances (see, e.g., Shut. Shevus Yaakov 3:135; Shut. Maharsham 2:109).

In the year 5710 (1950), the Israeli Chief Rabbinate issued an edict, signed by the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi R. Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi R. Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, prohibiting yibum in Israel, in order to promote “national unity” and “the ways of peace”. A year later, R. Ovadia Yosef – only thirty years old at the time – published an uncompromising rebuttal of the edict, arguing that since the Sephardic custom of encouraging yibum as a mitzvah had extensive support in the halachic tradition and was a long-standing, well established tradition, the Rabbinate had absolutely no authority to prohibit it (Shut. Yabia Omer 6:EH:14). In 5734 (1974), R. Ovadia reiterated his staunch rejection of the edict, and gave his imprimatur to a particular individual’s proposal to perform yibum – which, he records, he subsequently did (ibid. 8:EH:26).

  1. שו”ת שבות יעקב חלק ג’ סימן קל”ה []