Towards the end of Parashat Ki-Teitzei, the Torah presents the mitzva of yibum, requiring the brother of a childless husband who dies to marry the widow, or, if he refuses, to perform the special chalitza ceremony, after which the widow may then marry whomever she wishes (25:5-10).
The Gemara in Masekhet Makkot (23a) notes that this command appears immediately following a totally unrelated law – the prohibition against muzzling an ox on the threshing floor. The Torah commands allowing the ox to eat grain as it threshes the unprocessed kernels, rather than cause it distress by seeing food which is cannot eat. To explain the connection between this law and yibum, the Gemara comments, “A sister-in-law who came before a man smitten with boils [for levirate marriage] – we do not muzzle her.” This means that when the widow legitimately finds her brother-in-law, who is required to marry her, detestable, her complaints must not be ignored. Rather than demand that she remain silent, we must heed her concerns. As a practical matter, this refers to the law codified in the Shulchan Arukh (E.H. 165:4) that if the brother-in-law has unseemly features that the widow finds intolerable, she can demand chalitza in place of marriage, and she does not forfeit her ketuba payment. The deceased’s brother, who – since the deceased had no children – inherits his estate, cannot absolve himself of paying the woman the amount promised to her in the marriage contract, with the claim that he was prepared to marry her and she refused. Since the woman has legitimate reasons to refuse the marriage, she is entitled to her full ketuba payment. (The Rama adds, however, that it became accepted for the widow and brother-in-law to divide the deceased’s assets evenly when chalitza is performed.)
In light of the Gemara’s formulation of this law – “ein chosmin otah” (“wo do not muzzle her”), we might suggest that it reflects the broader message of empathy and sensitivity. When somebody confronts a difficult situation, we must not “muzzle” the person and insist that he or she keep silent. People facing hardship are entitled, and to be encouraged, to express their pain and anguish. The Gemara compares silencing a person in distress to muzzling an animal on the threshing floor, because both express a lack of sensitivity to a natural, instinctive need. We are to allow people experiencing pain and anxiety to speak about their problems, and should not insist that they remain silent about them.