“It’s within your right to marry me as Jacob’s brother.”
“I’m sorry, Bilhah but I don’t want to go through with it.”
“But it’s your duty as the surviving brother, Reuben.”
“Marriage ought to a choice not a duty.”
“Why are you refusing to marry me?”
“I’m not in love with you, Bilhah.”
“What does love have to do with it?”
“As far as I’m concerned it has everything to do with it.”
“So, you refuse to perform levirate marriage?”
“Yes. I want to perform halitzah.”
“Very well.” She pulled off his shoe and spat on the ground in front of him.
I think I should share a little background information about this fascinating Jewish custom. Levirate marriage is when a surviving brother marries the widow of his brother if the latter died without fathering any children. The idea was to have the surviving brother produce an heir to perpetuate the name of his dead brother, so that it would not “be blotted out of Israel.”
However, if the brother-in-law decided that he didn’t want to marry the childless widow, he could perform halitzah which is the “taking off the shoe”. The widow takes off his shoe in the presence of the elders. The taking off of the shoe is a symbol of mourning since the man failed to perform levirate marriage and this meant that his brother was now irrevocably dead.
After taking off the shoe, the childless widow spits on the ground in front of him as an act of contempt, declaring that “thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house” (Deuteronomy 25:9). From then on, she is free to marry whomever she chooses. I think the levirate marriage is less common now. Apparently, it became secondary in preference to halizah by some of the rabbis because of the brother-in-law’s questionable intentions.
Source: My Jewish Learning