There’s a shoe, recitation of verses, and of course, some spit.
Of the very many (74!) mitzvos in Parshas Ki Seitzei, Chalitzah stands out as one of the most unusual. When a man dies without children (Rachamana litzlan), it is the obligation of his brother to marry the widow and build up the name of the deceased. One who refuses to do so must participate in the Chalitzah ceremony, in which his sister-in-law takes him to beis din, removes his shoe, and spits on the floor. (No, she does not spit on him, and she does not spit inside the shoe.)
A strange ritual. Degrading, even.
At least that’s what the Russian government in the late 1800s believed. They organized a meeting of leading rabbanim from various communities and denominations to discuss abolishing this “archaic” practice. Many of the non-Orthodox rabbis readily agreed that, indeed, this mitzvah no longer fit with modern times and sensitivities; it was time for an update. Immediately, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz zt”l of Kovno (son of the great Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor) stood up and began gathering his belongings. “Where are you going?” his colleagues demanded. “We haven’t even voted yet.”
Rav Rabinowitz replied, “I am not sure what there is to vote on. In fact, I am not even sure why the government has gathered a group of clergy for this discussion. If they really wanted to do away with this practice, then they should have gathered a panel of expert physicians to recommend abolishing death itself – then there would certainly be no need for anyone to do chalitzah!”
The audience was stunned. The rav continued: “Much like a doctor, a rabbi’s expertise allows him to make decisions to help others – but only within the framework of nature. It is important to recognize that Hashem’s mitzvos are as much a part of nature as the rest of creation. We cannot vote to eliminate a mitzvah any more than we could vote to eliminate nature itself!”
Thousands of years before this incident, Chazal already identified Chalitzah as a chok that the nations of the world tend to ridicule (Yoma 67b). That word, chok, is typically translated as “a commandment whose reason we do not understand.” More precisely, however, it comes from the word chakikah, engraving, indicating that a mitzvah is embedded in the very fabric of creation itself (Rabbeinu Bachya, VaYikra 19:19). We may not understand or agree with certain mitzvos, but we remain bound by their influence – just like physics. Trying to abolish chalitzah due to social concerns is no less futile than attempting to do away with gravity because we would prefer to float.
With this perspective, we can improve our commitment to Hashem’s mitzvos. As Rav Rabinowitz explained at the Russian conference, these laws are universally and eternally binding, much like nature itself. They are certainly nothing to spit at!