Masechet Yevamot 78a-84b

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20 Jul 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 78a-b

Our Gemara relates that Rav Dimi returned to Bavel from a visit to Israel and he quoted a teaching in the name of Rabbi Yochanan. Upon hearing this, Abayye presented a question that stumped Rav Dimi, and he could offer no explanation. Abayye, upon reconsidering his question, suggested an approach that rang true to Rav Dimi who exclaimed karkapana, hazitay le-reisheikh beinei amudei ki amar Rabbi Yochanan le-ha shema’ata! Literally translated this means “You with the head. I saw your head between the pillars when Rabbi Yohanan taught this lesson.”

What did Rav Dimi mean with this comment?

The Arukh presents two possibilities to explain the first word – karkapana. One suggestion is that it means “you with the big head.” Alternatively it can be understood to mean “you are a very important person.”

Tosafot suggest that the reference to his “head” being between the pillars when the lesson was taught is a reference to Abayye’s teacher, Rabbah, who had traveled from Bavel to Israel to study with Rabbi Yochanan. Although Tosafot refer to Ketubot 111a, there is little evidence in the Talmud that indicates that Rabbah ever visited Israel. More likely Rav Dimi was using an expression, saying that Abayye successfully recreated Rabbi Yohanan’s thought process, as if he had been present at the lecture.

The reference to his being “between the pillars” is apparently a reference to the bet midrash in Tiberias where Rabbi Yochanan lectured. Archaeological excavations have shown that both the synagogue and the study hall that stood in Tiberias during the post-Mishnaic period were built in the style of a basilica – that is to say, that their roofs were supported by a series of columns. Thus Rav Dimi was describing the lecture hall where he had heard Rabbi Yochanan’s teaching that led to this conversation.

Yevamot 79a-b

If a man is a saris – a male eunuch who cannot have children – do the laws of yibum (levirate marriage) apply to him?

The Mishnah on our daf brings a statement made by Rabbi Yehoshua that addresses this question, but leaves us in a state of confusion. Rabbi Yehoshua teaches that he has one tradition that teaches that a saris will perform chalitzah (ceremony releasing him from yibum) and that the widow of a saris should receive chalitzah, and another that teaches that in neither of those cases will chalitzah be necessary.

Although Rabbi Yehoshua does not have an explanation for those contradictory statements, other tannaim in the Mishnah do. Rabbi Akiva suggests that we should distinguish between a saris adam – someone who developed his condition though an injury or other outside force – and a saris hamah­ – someone who had this condition developmentally. In the former case, since the person at one period could have had children, the rules of yibum and halitzah apply to him, while in the latter case, since he never could have children, these rules are not applicable. Rabbi Eliezer agrees that we must distinguish between these two cases, but he reaches the opposite conclusion. His reasoning is that a saris hamah may recover from his condition, so we should apply to him the rules of yibum, while a saris adam who has no chance of recovery cannot possibly have children, so yibum will not apply to him.

This dilemma is one that deals with one of the most basic questions about yibum. According to the Torah, the purpose of the mitzvah of yibum is lehakim zerah le-ahiv – for the surviving brother to have a child “on behalf” of the brother who has died. Nevertheless, we cannot possibly be certain that a married couple will succeed in having children together. Thus, all we can ascertain is that the possibility exists that a child can be born. The question that we are faced with in the case of a saris is, do we look at the likelihood of a future birth, or do we concern ourselves with making sure that the yavam is someone who, in his nature, was capable of fathering children.

Yevamot 80a-b

On yesterday’s daf we were introduced to the concept of a saris – a male eunuch who cannot have children. The Gemara on our daf defines this status as a man who reaches 20 years old and does not show indications of physical maturity. The Gemara lists a number of symptoms of this condition, among them a lack of pubic hair or body hair, a high pitched voice and unusual urine.

In truth, modern medicine recognizes that for both men and women physical maturity takes place later in some people than in others. These conditions are usually caused by a low level of male or female hormones, which will keep secondary sex characteristics from developing normally. Oftentimes, this condition is a temporary one, and after a time the hormonal level rises so that the boy or girl will reach full physical maturity. If this does not take place by a certain age – which doctors estimate as 19, the beginning of the 20th year – normal sexual development will not take place, and the young person will become a saris permanently.

As we have seen when the condition that causes a person to be a saris is natural, the Gemara refers to him as a saris hamah. This is apparently a general term for a number of different conditions, and the various symptoms described in the Gemara likely will not all occur in a single person, rather different people will experience different symptoms, depending on the underlying condition from which they suffer. One example would be hypogonadotropic eunuchoidism, where the glands that secrete male hormones do not develop, leading to saris. In such cases, the body and voice of the boy will appear to be feminine in form and sound. This condition can be caused by a number of different things, including problems during pregnancy. A different example would be Klinefelter’s syndrome, which is a situation where the child is born with an extra female gene (XXY). In such a case, aside from being a saris, the individual with this condition would likely also suffer from a number of other symptoms, including obesity, diabetes and other illnesses.

Yevamot 81a-b

Among the halakhot presented in our Mishnah, Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Shimon teach that a woman who marries an androgynous kohen will be permitted to eat terumah, i.e. that we view the marriage as a legitimate one, even though the status of an androgynous – who has both male and female sexual organs – as a man who can marry is questionable.

Given the questionable status of this marriage, the Gemara searches for an explanation of this ruling. One suggestion that is made is that we only permit her to eat terumah d’rabbanan – produce that is only considered terumah on a Rabbinic level – since terumah in our day-and-age is only a Rabbinic mitzvah.

The question as to whether terumah in the contemporary world is a Biblical obligation or only a Rabbinic one is an argument that dates back to the time of the Mishnah and continues through the time of the amoraim and the rishonim. According to some, the basis for the opinion that terumah today is only Rabbinic in nature stems from the position that there is no longer any holiness to the Land of Israel on a Biblical level, and that all mitzvot connected with the land are kept today only on a “voluntary” basis, i.e. based on the agreement of the Sages. In truth, this position depends less on the status of the Temple, and more on the question of whether rov Yisrael yoshvim al admatam – does the majority of the Jewish people dwell in the Land of Israel.

According to this approach, even during the period of the Second Temple, the returnees to Israel from the exile kept the mitzvot ha-teluyot ba-aretz – the agricultural commandments connected to the Land of Israel – only on a Rabbinic level. This, in fact, is the position of the Rambam. According to this, it was the Jewish people, upon their return to the land, who accepted these mitzvot on themselves voluntarily – see Nehemiah 9-10 for a picture of the situation at that time, and the people’s willingness to participate in these commandments.

Yevamot 82a-b

Our Gemara introduces us to a baraita that appears in Seder Olam that teaches that the passage in Sefer Devarim (30:5) asher yarshu avotekha ve-yerishtah indicates that there are only two times that the Land of Israel is sanctified in history. In other words, aside from the sanctification that took place when Yehoshua brought the children of Israel in from the desert, the only other sanctification that was necessary occurred when Ezra brought the Jews back from exile. That second sanctification lasts forever.

The question of the status of the Land of Israel after the destruction of the second Temple is one that both tanna’im and amoraim grapple with, and about which the rishonim do not come to a clear conclusion. Nevertheless, we can reach certain conclusions in specific areas of discussion.

It is clear that the basic sanctity of the Chosen Land lasts forever, and that no other country can replace it. The question is whether that basic level of sanctity is all that is necessary for the rules of the Holy Land to apply, or is there a need for other factors, as well. For example –

According to many opinions, the rules of shemitta – the Sabbatical year – have not operated on a biblical level since the exile of the ten tribes, while the first Temple was still standing, and even during the period of the second Temple, the rule of agricultural commandments were kept only a Rabbinic level.

Regarding terumot and maasrot (tithes), the Rambam views the obligation today – and even during the second Temple period – as being of rabbinic origin, while the Ra’avad believes that Ezra’s arrival gave sanctity to the Land that included an obligation in tithes, and that obligation remains to this day.

Yevamot 83a-b

The Gemara on our daf deals with two types of people whose sexual identity is questionable – an androgynous, who appears to have both male and female sexual organs, and a tumtum, who does not appear to be either male or female.

Rabbi Yossi suggests that an androgynous is a beryah bifnei atzmah – a unique creature who cannot be treated either as male or as female. The rishonim have different approaches to the definition of beryah bifnei atzmah. Tosafot understand the concept as a permanent situation of safek, of doubt, suggesting that since we cannot expect to ever ascertain whether the individual is male or female we refer to such a person as a unique creature. The Ramban, on the other hand, accepts the simple meaning of the expression, and rules that an androgynous is truly viewed by the halakhah as a creature that is neither male nor female.

Medicine recognizes two types of androgynous. A true androgynous has both male and female sexual glands, while a Pseudohermaphrodite has the appearance of both male and female sexual organs, although the individual actually has only one set of sexual glands.

The Gemara describes a tumtum as someone whose gender cannot be determined. Under certain circumstances, the physical covering that hid the sexual organ may be removed (in the language of the Gemara it is nikra, or “torn” off) and the individual can be identified as male or female. Nevertheless, the likelihood that a man whose testicles have developed within his body will be able to have children is slim at best. This is certainly the case in someone who was truly a tumtum, that is to say that their sexual organs did not develop because of a low level of hormones. In such a case, even if the person’s physical situation improves, he will not be able to father children.

Yevamot 84a-b

The ninth perek of Masechet Yevamot begins on today’s daf, and offers a list relationships, including women who are:

The Ritva points out that the idea that even people whose initial marriage was problematic – but valid – would still be obligated in the mitzvah of yibum (levirate marriage) comes as something of a surprise, since we could have argued that it was not a marriage that was meant to produce children. Still, the Mishnah teaches that even though the first husband was obligated to divorce his wife, nevertheless, since the marriage does have halakhic validity, yibum (or chalitzah) will be necessary should the first husband pass away.

Although the last clause of the Mishnah states that in “all other cases” women are permitted to both their husbands and to their yavam, the Talmud Yerushalmi points out that there are exceptions to this rule that are not enumerated in the Mishnah. Based on this observation, the Yerushalmi concludes that kelalav shel Rebbi einam kelalim – general principles presented by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who authored the Mishnah, cannot be relied upon as definitive – since there are invariably exceptions to the rule.

Tosafot explain that this perek synopsizes the relationships – both permitted and forbidden – that yevamot may find themselves involved with, since the continuation of Masechet Yevamot focuses on other issues that are connected with the mitzvah of yibum, but no longer with relationships.

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.