"It shall be that the firstborn which she shall bear shall succeed to the name [in Hebrew, 'shem'] of his dead brother." (Deut. 25:6)

The word "shem" in this verse does not literally mean "name", in that that the child will bear the name of the deceased brother. Rather, the Torah speaks of the soul of the new infant which will replace that of the departed brother. The words, "so that his name will not be blotted out from the Jewish people" (ibid.) mean that if the deceased would not have a replacement on earth, his name would die out. When the Talmud (Yevamot 24) understands the words "the firstborn which she shall bear" to mean that the reference is to the firstborn son of the mother of these brothers, this is not the plain meaning of the verse. The Sages only use this sequence as implying that the oldest surviving brother is first in line to "marry" [through levirate marriage] the widow of the deceased brother. This is the reason the word "firstborn" appears in our verse.

The institution of the levirate marriage is of great value to the soul of the departed….

The institution of the levirate marriage is of great value to the soul of the departed. It is a known fact that a soul derives added enjoyment when it is allowed to re-incarnate as a member of the family it had once belonged to, seeing it already feels that it belongs. This is why the Torah writes in its introduction of this subject: "when brothers dwell together". (verse 4) Our Sages interpret these words as meaning that the rule of the levirate marriage applies only if both brothers lived on earth at one and the same time, however, briefly. (Yevamot 17) If the youngest brother had been born after the oldest had died (or any other brother had dies) then this mystical link does not exist between these brothers and the legislation does not apply to them.

The underlying reason for the removal of the shoe of the surviving brother who refuses to perform the levirate marriage with his sister-in-law, the widow of his brother, is that his refusal is considered an act of cruelty towards the soul of his deceased brother. The removal of his shoe is a symbolic act signifying severance of reciprocal feelings of brotherhood. The very expression "chalitza" [the term for this ritual], is similar to the verse, "G‑d withdrew from them [the Israelites who vainly tried to mollify Him with their sacrifices]" (Hosea 5:6) seeing they had betrayed G‑d. Also the expression "na'alo", normally translated as "his shoe", has a dual meaning: it is the same as the word "na'al", meaning "locked out," as in "locked the door", in the sense that the surviving brother has "locked out" the soul of his deceased brother.

The concept of transmigration of souls is an ancient tradition having its root already at the time of Moses. In Sefer HaBahir (#195) you find this expressed: "Why do we encounter the apparent paradox of the righteous experiencing a life of difficulties whereas the wicked appear to enjoy a life of ease? The reason is that the person whom we respect as a righteous individual was a wicked individual in his youth and is only now being punished for this."

But do we punish a person for what he did in a period of his life when he was still immature? Did not Rabbi Shimon say that the heavenly tribunal does not punish anyone under the age of 20? To this it was replied that he had not meant immaturity in his present life on earth, but sins committed when the soul of this individual now leading a blameless life had been in another body on a previous occasion.

[Selected with permission from the seven-volume English edition of "The Torah Commentary of Rebbeinu Bachya" by Eliyahu Munk.]