Masechet Yevamot 2a-7b

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03 May 2007

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, the Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan


Yevamot 2a-b

The basic concept of yibum (levirate marriage), in which the wife of a man who dies without offspring marries one of his brothers, is presented in a short set of pesukim in Sefer Devarim (25:5-10). The very essence of this mitzvah is unusual. Generally speaking, a man is forbidden from marrying his brother’s wife, a prohibition listed among the sexual relationships that are forbidden by Torah Law that carry with them the severe punishment of karet. In this specific case, the Torah is clear: the commandment to perform yibum eliminates the prohibition to marry one’s sister-in-law. Is that true even if the relationship is forbidden for other reasons, as well?

The tradition that the Sages present in the Mishna is clear. Only the prohibition to marry one’s brother’s wife is removed; all other existing prohibitions remain in place and will keep the mitzvah of yibum from being fulfilled.

Masechet Yevamot opens on our daf with a list of 15 women who will not “fall” to yibum because of their relationship with the surviving brother (examples are when the widow is his daughter, niece, or mother-in-law). The Mishnah teaches that this is true not only of these women, but also of their fellow wives (referred to in the Mishnah as tzarot) in the event that the husband who passed away was married to more than one woman.  It is important to remember that polygamy is permitted by the Torah and is not practiced today largely because of a tradition dating from the eleventh century.

One of the questions dealt with by the rishonim is why Yevamot was chosen to be the first Mishnayot in Seder Nashim (the “Order of Women”), when it appears to deal with a relatively obscure case of marriage. Either Masechet Ketubot or Masechet Kiddushin, which deal with basic issues of marriage, would seem to be a more logical choice. The Rambam suggests that most cases of marriage are voluntary, while yibum is a positive commandment fulfilled by the yavam, so it was deemed appropriate to be placed first. The Rosh offers two reasons. First of all, a careful examination of the laws of yibum also offers a clarification of forbidden sexual relationships. These rules logically precede the laws of marriage. Also, according to the Rosh’s order of the Mishnah, the last set of Mishnayot in Seder Mo’ed was Masechet Mo’ed Katan, which closed with the laws of mourning. Those laws naturally flow into a discussion of yibum, which occurs when a tragic death strikes a family.

Yevamot 3a-b

Today’s Daf Yomi is dedicated in honor of the yahrzeit of Fanny Scheikowitz (18 Iyar)

As is clear from the Mishna (2a), even though the commandment of yibum (levirate marriage) overrides the prohibition of a man marrying his sister-in-law, it would not permit him to marry her if she is an immediate relative who he cannot marry (e.g. his daughter, niece or mother-in-law). In searching for a source for this halakha, the Gemara quotes a baraita that highlights the word aleha – “upon her” – which appears in both the list of forbidden relatives (Vayikra 18:18) and the commandment of yibum (Devarim 25:5). The Torah‘s use of the same word in both places is understood to teach that even in the presence of a potential mitzvah, the prohibition remains in place.

It is interesting to note that the Rambam suggests an alternative source for this rule. He points to the first pasuk that discusses the mitzvah of yibum (Devarim 25:5), which concludes by saying that the surviving brother should take the widow as his wife, thus fulfilling the commandment of yibum. The Rambam understands this to mean that the only time a person can perform yibum is if, theoretically, there was a possibility of his taking her for a wife independently. Therefore, an immediate relative who the yavam could not possibly marry cannot become his wife through yibum.

The commentaries have noted that when the Rambam offers textual sources that differ from those presented by the Gemara, it is not because he disagrees with the Gemara’s source; rather it is because he believes that the alternative pesukim are simpler to understand. The Maharshal discusses this point at some length in his famous work of halakhah called Yam shel Shlomo.  There, he points out that in this case the Gemara later on in the perek (see 6a) appears to reject our Gemara’s source with the argument that there is no real need for a source to prove that a yavam cannot marry an immediate relative who is forbidden to him.

Yevamot 4a-b

The mitzvah of yibum (levirate marriage) is an example of the classic rule aseh dokheh lo ta’aseh – that performance of a positive commandment can push aside a negative commandment. Our Gemara discusses other such cases and their sources. One example is that of tzitzit, which, according to the Biblical commandment that is rarely kept in our day-and-age, requires fringes that are colored tekhelet. While a typical beged (article of clothing) discussed in the Torah is made of either wool or linen, according to the Gemara, tekhelet is wool. Thus, we find ourselves in a situation where the mitzvah will be fulfilled by attaching wool fringes to a linen garment, a mixture that is ordinarily forbidden by the Torah (see Vayikra 19:19 and Devarim 22:11).

The Torah mentions the color tekhelet on many occasions, but it is not really a shade of color; rather it is the dye from which this color is made. Various discussions in the Gemara make it clear that the blue dye of the tekhelet was taken from a living creature called a chilazon. Because of the many Gemarot that describe the chilazon, it is difficult to identify one particular animal that meets all of the criteria, and there are many different opinions regarding its classification.  The consensus of most opinions is that the chilazon is the snail “Murex trunculus” that is found on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the north of Israel. This creature has a unique liquid dye (that is not the animal’s blood), which, when mixed with other materials, produces the blue tekhelet color described in the Torah. Already during Talmudic times the use of tekhelet became a rarity, and within a short time its true source was forgotten.

While the Torah does not state this clearly, it appears that the dyes of tekhelet, argaman and tola’at shani were all used with woolen cloth specifically, and it is possible that these unique dyes simply could not be absorbed properly in linen threads.

Yevamot 5a-b

As we noted on yesterday’s daf, the mitzvah of yibum (levirate marriage) is an example of the classic rule aseh dokheh lo ta’aseh – that performance of a positive commandment can push aside a negative commandment. Our Gemara continues its discussion of other such cases and their sources.

Someone suffering from tzara’at – Biblical leprosy – is obligated to remove himself from the community until he recovers. Once his lesions are declared to be non-leprous, he undergoes a ritual purification ceremony as preparation for his return to the community, which involves shaving off all of the hair on his body (see Vayikra 14:1-9). This commandment stands in apparent contradiction to the prohibition forbidding shaving one’s peyot (see Vayikra 19:27), yet is expressly permitted by the Torah – another case of aseh dokheh lo ta’aseh.

The prohibition against cutting off peyot is understood by the Mishna in Kiddushin to apply only to men and not to women, since the Torah places this negative commandment in the same context as the prohibition against “destroying” one’s beard (which is understood as forbidding shaving with a razor), something that does not apply to women. According to the Torah, one is not obligated to leave the area of the peyot untouched, but rather a person is not allowed to have his hair cut in such a way that the hair of his temples would be even with the hair behind his ears.

The Rambam suggests that these prohibitions stem from a connection with avodah zara – idol worship – and that these types of haircuts were part of idolatrous practice, as the priests would cut their hair in this fashion (see the Rambam in Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 12:1,7). Others simply say that this law is a gezeirat ha-katuv – a rule in the Torah whose explanation we cannot fully understand.

Yevamot 6a-b

The previous dapim in Masechet Yevamot discuss the classic rule of aseh dokheh lo ta’aseh – that performance of a positive commandment can push aside a negative commandment – of which the mitzvah of yibum (levirate marriage) is an example. Our Gemara discusses cases that appear to be exceptions to that rule.

The commandment of honoring one’s mother and father is one of the most basic mitzvot in the Torah, one that appears in the Ten Commandments (see Shmot 20:11). What if a father or mother commands their child to perform an act forbidden by the Torah? Would the child be obligated to perform the forbidden act because of aseh dokheh lo ta’aseh – that the positive commandment obligating a child to listen to his or her parent overrides the negative commandment?

To this question the Gemara responds that the child cannot listen to his father or mother. The source for this is the passage in Vayikra (19:3), where we find that the commandment to be in awe of one’s parents – ish imo ve-aviv tira’u – is followed immediately by the commandment to keep the Shabbatve-et Shabtotai tishmoru. The juxtaposition of these two ideals is understood by the Gemara to teach kulkhem hayyavim bi-khevodi – that in a situation where the parent is obligated to show his awe of God by keeping a mitzvah, he cannot order his child to transgress that mitzvah.

The Gemara’s explanation appears to be logical and straightforward. Since the parent is not allowed to make this demand, it cannot possibly obligate the child. The Me’iri argues that the case must be one where the request that is made is something that the parent needs, because if the parent demands that his child transgress a commandment for no reason, he falls into the category of a rasha – an evil person – for whom there is no mitzvah of kibbud (honor). The Hagahot Maimoniyot, one of the commentaries on the Rambam, reaches the opposite conclusion: that the case is one where the parent demands that the child transgress for no reason. Nevertheless, a simple oral statement does not make a person a rasha. Therefore the child remains obligated to listen to his father and mother in this case, were it not for the Gemara’s argument that kulkhem chayavim bi-khevodi.

Yevamot 7a-b

We have seen that the Gemara has been discussing at some length the classic rule of aseh dokheh lo ta’aseh – that performance of a positive commandment can push aside a negative commandment – of which the mitzvah of yibum (levirate marriage) is an example. One of the issues that comes under investigation is whether we treat all prohibitions as being the same, or, perhaps, we differentiate between ordinary prohibitions (those whose punishment is malkot – 39 lashes) and those whose punishment is more severe (i.e. death penalties like karet or mitat bet din). The Gemara concludes that the rule of aseh dokheh lo ta’aseh applies only to ordinary prohibitions and not to more severe prohibitions.

In the course of the discussion it becomes clear that the Gemara perceives the rule of aseh dokheh lo ta’aseh as being a hidush – a new or unexpected idea – since transgressing negative commandments is seen as being more severe than transgressing positive commandments. Rashi explains this assumption by pointing to the punishments meted out for each transgression. Whereas a person who performs a forbidden act will receive punishment (most often, malkot), someone who misses out on the opportunity to perform a positive commandment is not punished at all. A question raised in response to this argument is that we find, on occasion, forbidden acts that are so severe that the transgressor does not receive malkot because it is not enough of a punishment to offer atonement for such an act. Some point to the levels of atonement (hilukei kaparah) that are needed for different types of transgressions as the source for this idea. The Rambam (see Hilkhot Teshuva 1:4) teaches that someone who transgressed a positive commandment and repents is forgiven immediately, whereas transgressing a negative commandment demands not only repentance but also the power of Yom Kippur for atonement. The Arukh la-Ner suggests that we distinguish between positive and negative commandments not because of the punishment, but rather as a result of the severity of the action. Someone who misses fulfilling a positive commandment has not actually performed a negative act, while someone who has transgressed a negative commandment has done something significant.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.