Masechet Yevamot 57a-63b

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29 Jun 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 57a-b

Anyone who has been to a Jewish wedding has noticed that the bride and groom stand under a canopy – a chuppah – that symbolizes the home that the two of them will build together. In the time of the Talmud, the chuppah was a type of small room that was decorated in honor of the newly married couple, where they would have their first private moments together. It was closed off from others so that the husband and wife could be intimate with one another, which is the essence of marriage. In truth, there are several different opinions about what constitutes chuppah.

In later times, the purpose of the chuppah became more symbolic of the relationship than an actual opportunity for intimacy, a change that affected the way the chuppah is treated by the halakha (Jewish law). For example, in our Gemara, Rav and Shmuel disagree about the effect a symbolic chuppah will have on a woman who is not really allowed to marry the groom. For example, if a widow who is the daughter of a kohen enters a chuppah with a kohen gadol (high priest, who she cannot marry because she is a widow), will she lose the right to eat the tithes from her father’s house because she has entered a forbidden marital relationship? Or, perhaps, the chuppah is only symbolic and we know that no forbidden sexual relations have taken place, so she remains an upstanding member of her father’s house and can continue eating terumot? Rav believes that the chuppah is significant, while Shmuel does not.

One case where both agree is if the wife in this story is an underage child. In such a case, since there is no possibility of sexual relations having taken place, Shmuel argues that even Rav would agree with his reasoning.

Yevamot 58a-b

From our experiences with secular courts, we often mistakenly think that witnesses who come to testify in court must swear to tell the truth before offering their testimony. The Torah never requires witnesses to take an oath – the court either accepts the witness as being reliable, or else distrusts him based on his connection to the case or because of questions as to his reliability.

The Torah, does, however, occasionally require the defendant in a case to swear that the version of events he/she presents is true. One situation that is based entirely on the defendant swearing that she is telling the truth is the case of sotah – a woman whose husband suspects her of being unfaithful. In such a case – which is described in detail in Bamidbar 5:11-31 – if there are witnesses, then the woman would be tried as an unfaithful wife. It is only if there are no witnesses that the procedure described in the Torah is carried out, culminating with the shevu’ah – the oath – recited by the kohen and accepted by the woman with her statement of “amen, amen” (Bamidbar 5:22).

Our Gemara quotes a Mishnah that teaches how the woman’s oath that she did not commit adultery applies not only to suspicions raised following her marriage (nesu’in), but also after kiddushin (betrothal) and even during the period that she was a widow waiting for yibum (levirate marriage).

After a lengthy discussion of the mechanism that would allow the oath to cover all of these different periods, Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak suggests that it works through gilgul shevuah. The idea of gilgul shevuah is that once someone is obligated to swear on a given issue, we also require them to take a stand on other, connected questions, even though ordinarily they would not have required an oath. Gilgul shevu’ah is a concept that appears often in monetary matters, and Rashi on our daf suggests that it is the case of sotah that serves as the primary source for this idea.

Yevamot 59a-b

The Mishnah on our daf delineates the rules of a kohen gadol – the High Priest – who is limited by the Torah (see Vayikra 21:10-15) with regard to who he can marry, even more so than an ordinary kohen. While an ordinary kohen cannot marry a gerusha (divorcee), zonah (harlot) or chalalah (woman who was defiled by a forbidden sexual encounter), the kohen gadol also cannot marry an almanah (widow) and may only marry a betula (virgin).

The Gemara discusses the technical definition of these terms in some detail in order to clarify the rules of marriage for both an ordinary kohen and a kohen gadol. One ruling presented by Rav Shimi bar Chiya is that a woman who has had relations with an animal does not fall into any of the forbidden categories and a kohen would be permitted to marry her, even though she is liable to receive a death penalty for her actions (if she did it on purpose). The Gemara then goes on to relate that such a story actually took place. In the town of Hitlu, a young woman was innocently cleaning the house when she was raped by a dog (some manuscripts say it was a kof – a monkey). The case was brought before Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who ruled that she could marry a kohen. According to the Gemara, Shmuel added that she could even marry a kohen gadol.

In answer to the Gemara’s question “was there even a kohen gadol during that period?” the explanation is given that the ruling stated there was no question about her status, so theoretically she could even have married the kohen gadol.

The Arukh Laner points out that this question could be asked on many of the discussions in the Gemara, but it is not, for we are well aware that many Talmudic arguments are based on theoretical questions. Since in this instance the Gemara related a ruling that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi gave in a specific case, the assumption was that it must be a practical statement rather than a theoretical one.

Based on manuscripts, it appears that Hitlu, where the aforementioned incident took place, can be identified with the village of Aitlu, about five kilometers west of Nazareth in the Galilee. Aitlu was known as a village of kohanim, which helps to explain why it was so important to establish whether the young woman was still permitted to marry a kohen.

Yevamot 60a-b

Although it is not discussed in the Torah, the Sages work under the assumption that a woman who converts is not allowed to marry a kohen. Our Gemara quotes a baraita which teaches that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai permits a kohen to marry a giyoret (a woman who has converted) if she became Jewish when she was still a child under three years old. He bases himself on the passage (Bamidbar 31:1-20) which describes how, in the aftermath of the war of the Children of Israel against the Midianites, only the underage girls were permitted to live. (Moses was concerned that the earlier incident in which Canaanite women were used to entice the Israelite men to commit idol worship [see Bamidbar 25:1-9] would repeat itself – see Bamidbar 31:14-16.) Since we know that there were kohanim amongst the warriors, Rabbi Shimon concludes that they were allowed to marry these converts. The Chachamim disagree, arguing that the story of the war makes no reference whatsoever to marriage and that perhaps the children were kept alive as maidservants.

In truth, the main discussion of this halakha is in the last chapter of Masechet Kiddushin. There we find an argument among the rishonim. While Rashi and the Rambam appear to categorize a convert under the rubric of zonah (see Vayikra 21:10-15), many others disagree with this suggestion, arguing that even if the woman was considered to have had a “forbidden sexual encounter” prior to her conversion, the halakha generally treats a convert as a newborn.

The alternative suggestion raised by the Ra’avad and the Rashba is that the rule forbidding a kohen to marry a divorcee stems from a passage in Yechezkel (44:22) where the navi states that kohanim can marry only betulot mi-zera bet Yisrael – virgins from Jewish families. They explain that the Gemara in Kiddushin which quotes this passage apparently sees it not as a prophetic statement with no impact on the halakha, but rather as a clarification and support of the law taught in the Torah.

Yevamot 61a-b

We have already learned that the kohen gadol – the High Priest – is limited by the Torah (see Vayikra 21:10-15) with regard to who he can marry, even more so than an ordinary kohen. While an ordinary kohen cannot marry a gerusha (divorcee), zonah (harlot) or halalah (a woman who was defiled by a forbidden sexual encounter), the kohen gadol can also not marry an almana (widow). What if an ordinary kohen was betrothed to an almana and he receives an appointment to be the kohen gadol? Can he still marry his betrothed?

The Mishnah on our daf rules that he can marry the widow, and even describes such a case that happened: a prominent widow named Marta bat Baitus was engaged to Yehoshua ben Gamla, who was appointed to be kohen gadol, and he nevertheless married her.

The Gemara relates that Yehoshua ben Gamla was not appointed by his fellow kohanim, but by King Yannai, with Rav Assi going so far as to accuse Marta bat Baitus of bribing the king in order to secure the position for her soon-to-be husband.

Yehoshua ben Gamla is most likely one of the last kohanim gedolim of the second Temple period, who is mentioned in Josephus as Yehoshua ben Gamliel. If this identification is correct, he was appointed to this position by King Agrippas II (Tosafot point out that the “King Yannai” mentioned in the story cannot be the Hasmonean king by that name, since he had appointed himself to be the High Priest. The Sages used the name “King Yannai” to signify any one of a number of second Temple period kings when they wanted to express negative feelings about them. While Agrippas I was friendly with the Sages, his son, Agrippas II, was considered an enemy of tradition. Among his faults was his practice of selling the position of High Priest.)

The negative description in our Gemara notwithstanding, elsewhere Yehoshua ben Gamla is praised by the Sages for a number of things, among them donating golden plates for the Yom Kippur lottery, but chiefly for instituting a formal elementary school system in every city in Israel. This led the sages to say about him, “were it not for him, the Torah would have been totally forgotten.”

Yevamot 62a-b

Traditionally, the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot – the days of Sefirat ha-Omer – are kept as days of mourning. The likely source for this tradition appears on our daf, where the Gemara quotes Rabbi Akiva as teaching that even a person who studied Torah in his youth should continue to study Torah into his old age. Similarly, someone who teaches students as a young man should continue to do so even when he gets old.

To illustrate the importance of this teaching, the Gemara relates that this concept was crucial for Rabbi Akiva personally. Rabbi Akiva is said to have had 12,000 pairs of students across the land of Israel, and all of them died during the period between Pesach and Shavuot. The land was left desolate until Rabbi Akiva taught a new group of students – Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamu’a – who succeeded in reestablishing Torah study in Israel.

The simple reading of the Gemara makes it appear that Rabbi Akiva’s students died of a plague, and most of the rishonim accept that approach. In his historical letter, Rav Sherira Gaon offers a different explanation. He says that they died of shamda, which means a war or governmental decree. This is an apparent reference to the Bar Kokhba revolt, of which Rabbi Akiva was an enthusiastic supporter. It appears that Rabbi Akiva’s students volunteered for military service under Bar Kokhba’s leadership, and when the revolt was put down by the Romans with great severity, they were among the many who were killed. The Me’iri suggests that the source for the tradition of mourning during this period stems from this story. According to the geonim the students did not die on the 33rd day of Sefirat ha-Omer, which is why there is no mourning on that day.

Yevamot 63a-b

Our Gemara quotes a series of passages that appear in Sefer Ben-Sira on marriage and the need to be satisfied with your own lot (see Ben-Sira, Chapter 26, which includes such statements as “a virtuous woman is a great gift to her husband,” and chapter 9, where Ben-Sira teaches “Keep your eyes away from a beautiful woman [who is married to another] lest you fall into her snare; do not drink wine and beer with her husband because many have been destroyed by a beautiful woman.”)

Sefer Ben-Sira is one of the earliest books composed after the closing of the Biblical canon. It was authored by Shimon ben Yehoshua ben Sira, a native of Jerusalem, who was a younger contemporary of Shimon ha-Tzaddik, prior to the Hasmonean era. The book of Ben-Sira was held in great esteem, and after its translation into Greek by the author’s grandson (in the year 132 BCE in Alexandria) it because widely known even among those who were not familiar with the Hebrew language. Sefer Ben-Sira is included as a canonical work in the Septuagint (and therefore is considered as such in many other translations of the Bible), and although the Sages chose to view it as one of the sefarim chitzoni’im – books outside of the canon – they quote it in a respectful manner throughout the Talmud, sometimes even referring to it as Ketuvim. Still, because of confusion between this work and another one that was known as Alfa-Beta d’Ben-Sira, which was a popular – and problematic – work, we find statements in the Gemara forbidding the study of Sefer Ben-Sira.

For generations Sefer Ben-Sira was known only from its translations, but recently parts of it have been found in the original Hebrew (in Masada and elsewhere). Since it was not part of the official Biblical canon it appears that the copyists felt more freedom when working with it and we find several different versions of the same text. When it appears in the Talmud it seems likely that it is being quoted by heart by the Sages, rather than from a written text.

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.