Masechet Yevamot 85a-91b

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26 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 85a-b

The Torah teaches that a kohen cannot marry a halalah – a woman who is the product of a forbidden sexual relationship or one who has engaged in a forbidden sexual relationship. The question with which our Gemara grapples is whether the daughter of a kohen has a similar prohibition from marrying a halal. We find that two young scholars – Rav Papa and Rav Huna, the son of Rav – were visiting their teacher, Rav Idi bar Abin, when they were discussing this issue. Rav Papa suggested that the answer can be learned from our Mishnah, where it lists which groups of people can marry one another. Since the Mishnah does not specifically permit this case, we can conclude that it is forbidden. Rav Huna disagreed, arguing that the Mishnah proves nothing, since it is only teaching about groups of people whose relationships will be the same no matter whether the man and woman are from one group or the other. Given the fact that a kohen cannot marry a halalah, even if the daughter of a kohen is allowed to marry a halal, it would not appear on this list.

Upon presenting their discussion to Rav Idi bar Abin, he looked at them and said “dardiki (youngsters), are you not familiar with the teaching of Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav that the daughter of a kohen is permitted to marry a halal?!”

Rav Idi bar Abin was a Babylonian amora of the third and fourth generation. The story is told about his father, Rav Abin Nagra, that he was extremely meticulous about the mitzvah of lighting candles for Shabbat, and Rav Huna told him that because of his diligence he would merit children who would become Sages. In fact we know of two of his children – Rav Chiya and Rav Idi – both of whom fulfilled that prophecy.

Rav Idi was a student of Rav Chisda, although we find that he quotes other Sages’ teachings, as well. We find him actively involved in discussions with his peers, and in particular with Abayye. He lived an extraordinarily long life, which is why we find him referring to his students Rav Papa and Rav Huna as dardiki – youngsters.

Yevamot 86a-b

As we have learned, a portion of the annual produce is set aside for the kohanim and is called terumah. Aside from the terumah, ten percent of the harvest is set aside for the levi’im, as ma’aser. Our Gemara quotes a baraita where we learn that this is only the opinion of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah rules that ma’aser need not be given only to a Levi, as it can also be given to a kohen, since the priestly families are all from the tribe of Levi.

This was not simply a theoretical discussion between the two Sages; the Gemara relates that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya – who, himself, was a kohen – regularly took ma’aser from a certain field. When Rabbi Akiva heard this, he arranged for the entrance to the field to be switched so that it opened onto a cemetery, which effectively barred Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya from benefiting from it (because of the prohibition for a kohen to come into contact with the dead). Finding himself cut off from a source of sustenance that he felt was rightfully his, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya is quoted as saying, “Akiva has his tarmil, but how will I survive?”

A tarmil is a leather bag in which things are carried or stored (according to Rav Hai Ga’on it was made to hold a measure of five kabin). A tarmil was used mainly by people who traveled over significant distances, like shepherds, who needed to carry food with them during their travels. The tarmil is also identified with converts who did not have a set ancestral home in which to live. Thus, there is a double meaning in identifying Rabbi Akiva – who was both a shepherd and a convert – with a tarmil.

There may be another reference here, as well. In the Gemara, the Sage Isi ben Yehudah compares Rabbi Akiva to a person who walks through his field gathering everything that he can find, and when he arrives at home, he empties the tarmil and organizes his belongings. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah may have been suggesting that Rabbi Akiva’s method of study was to collect teachings from many different sources, and only later did he sit down and organize them. This is in contrast to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s own background, in which he learned everything from his father and grandfather.

Yevamot 87a-b

We have learned that the mitzvah of yibum (levirate marriage) is for a surviving brother to marry his childless brother’s widow so that his brother’s name will be not be “blotted out.” That is to say, the idea is for the yavam to stand in his brother’s stead, and by having children, the family will continue. Thus, if a man dies and he has children, the mitzvah of yibum does not come into effect.

What will the halakha be if a man dies having fathered children, but subsequently those children die? Should we say that, in such a case, the mitzvah of yibum is revived in order to continue the family?

On this question the halakha is clear – such a situation does not call for a revival of yibum. Interestingly, the source for this that is brought by the Gemara is from Sefer Mishlei (3:17): derakheha darkhei no’am ve-khol netivoteha shalom – “the ways of the Torah are pleasant, and all of its paths are peaceful.” This is understood to mean that the Torah would not create a situation whereby a woman who is permitted to go and marry will then be called back to have halitzah (or even yibum!) with her late husband’s brother, which would create tensions in her new marriage since the implication is that the second marriage is questionable in some way.

The Ritva points out that the suggestion that even a woman with children would be required to undergo chalitzah when she is widowed since we are concerned that they may die in the future is not a viable option either. After all, in such a case, there is no obligation of yibum at the time that her first husband died, so chalitzah would have no meaning at that time.

Regarding the source that is brought for this halakhaderakheha darkhei no’am ve-khol netivoteha shalom – we cannot interpret it to mean that the Torah never presents us with a law that is difficult or unpleasant to fulfill. There are many potential situations for a yevamah that may very well be unpleasant. Rather the intention of this teaching is (as Tosafot teach on 2a) that the rules of yibum are equal for all, i.e. we do not find that one potential yevamah is free to marry anyone and another in the same setting may need to undergo chalitzah at a later date.

Yevamot 88a-b

Perek ha-Isha Rabbah, the tenth chapter of Masechet Yevamot, began on the previous daf. (It is called ha-Isha Rabbah because it is one of several chapters in Masechet Yevamot that begins with the word ha-Isha – “a woman” – and in order to distinguish it from the others, as the largest perek, or chapter, in the masechet, it is called rabbah – “the large one” or “great one.”) As opposed to the first perakim of the masechet, which all dealt with questions of yibum when we know that the husband had died, this perek focuses on questionable circumstances.

What if we get word that one spouse has died, but that testimony is later contradicted? Under such circumstances we may find that the alleged widow will marry, even as she is still a married woman. Similarly, the husband may find himself in a forbidden relationship with his wife’s sister, who he married while under the misimpression that his wife had passed away. Even though these marriages may have taken place with the permission of the Jewish courts, under most circumstances, a mistaken ruling by those batei din cannot permit this forbidden relationship.

One circumstance that can lead to this type of situation is when a single witness comes and testifies that the husband is dead and based on this testimony the courts permit the alleged widow to remarry. Ordinarily halakha demands that two witnesses testify in order to clarify a situation. Why is this case different?

Rabbi Zeira explains that mitokh homer she-hekmarta aleha be-sofah, hekaltah aleha ba-tehila – since the court leaves serious consequences if the testimony is found to be untrue, it is willing to be lenient in allowing her to marry. According to the Gemara, this concept is based on a more basic principle of mishum iguna akilu bah rabbanan – that out of concern for the “anchored woman” who is “chained” to a man who we believe to be dead, the Sages were willing to offer her whatever opportunity they could to allow her to resume a normal life.

Yevamot 89a-b

Do the Rabbinic Sages have the power to uproot a Torah law?

The Gemara on our daf suggests that we find a case of this in the first Mishnah of our perek. The Mishnah teaches that in a case where a man travels overseas and is reported dead, and the widow remarries based on the permission that she gets from the bet din, should the husband reappear, she is forbidden to them both, and both husbands must write her a get (a divorce). Furthermore, children that she has with either of these men will be considered mamzerim – children born from an adulterous relationship.

There are differences, however. It is clear that any child born from the second husband is a mamzer, since he was living with a married woman – albeit based on misinformation. Future children who are born from the first husband, however, should not be considered mamzerim – after all, the woman did not engage in forbidden relations on purpose. Thus, the ruling that these children are mamzerim is only rabbinic.

The Gemara on our daf argues that declaring someone to be a mamzer when this is not true on a Torah level is effectively giving the Sages power to uproot a Biblical law. This is because ruling that someone is a mamzer will prohibit them from marrying a member of the larger community, but will permit them to marry a mamzeret – a female mamzer – something that is really forbidden.

The Gemara responds that this does not prove the point since both Shmuel and Rabbi Yochanan understand the ruling in the Mishnah declaring him a mamzer to apply in a stringent fashion in all directions – i.e. to forbid him from marrying not only a woman from the larger community, but also a mamzeret, as well.

Although this answers the immediate question from our Mishnah, the larger question of whether the Rabbinic Sages have the power to uproot a Torah law is the topic of an extended discussion in our Gemara.

Yevamot 90a-b

As we learned on yesterday’s daf, our Gemara is concerned with the question of whether yesh koach be-yad chachamim la-akor davar min ha-Torah – do the Sages of the Talmud have the ability to uproot a Torah law? The discussion continues on our daf, with a series of examples presented.

One source that the Gemara brings in an attempt to prove that such power is in the hands of the Sages is from a story that appears in Sefer Melakhim (see I Melakhim chapter 18). There we find that the prophet Eliyahu brings a sacrifice on an altar outside of the Temple at a time when it was forbidden to do so. This sacrifice was permitted according to the Gemara based on the passage in Devarim (18:15) that says elav tishma’un – “you must listen to him (i.e. to the prophet)” – even if his instructions require you, on occasion, to transgress a Biblical commandment. The Gemara responds that the only reason that the prophet can be listened to in that situation is because of the unique command of elav tishma’un – a passage that applies specifically to a navi, and not to the Sages. To the suggestion that we should try to derive a more general application from that passage, the Gemara responds that it is limited to cases where the prophet can immediately limit the people from transgressing and cannot be applied to a general concern of the Sages about a given act.

A basic question is raised by the commentators – both rishonim and achronim – regarding this discussion. How can the Sages assume that a Biblical command that allows a prophet to transgress a commandment might be applied to the Sages themselves?

According to the Talmud Yerushalmi it appears that the suggestion is based on the Talmudic statement chacham adif mi-navi – a Sage is superior to a prophet (see Bava Batra 12a). This teaching implies that anything a navi can accomplish with his prophecy, the Sages can do through their methods of study and analysis. Furthermore, while a prophet is limited in his ability to establish halakhot beyond the immediate instance, the Sages have the ability to institute rules and regulations that will remain in effect for generations.

Yevamot 91a-b

One of the arguments that is made on behalf of a woman who received permission from the bet din to remarry, only to discover that her husband was still alive, is presented by Rav Sheshet. The argument is a simple one – mai havei lah le-me’evad?– what could she possibly have done to protect herself?

In an attempt to show that mai havei lah le-me’evad is not a sufficient argument to free the wife from her responsibility, Ulla brings another case where the woman finds herself in a similar predicament, through no fault of her own. If a woman receives a get – a divorce document – which had the date written incorrectly, i.e. it was dated based on a malkhut she-eina hogenet – according to the Median era, or according to the Greek era, according to the era of the building of the Temple, or the destruction of the Temple – the divorce is invalid; if the woman remarried based on that get, she will need to get divorced from both her original husband and her second husband.

The Gemara responds to Ulla’s argument by saying that in this case there was something she could have done – she should have arranged for the get to be examined by a competent person.

The concept of a malkhut she-eina hogenet – an “inappropriate kingdom” – is explained by Rashi as referring specifically to Rome, which was seen by the Sages as being an uncultured society, its strength and stature notwithstanding. The basic rule is that the date must match the requirements of the local government; thus, writing the date based on a different country – and certainly if it was based on an historical event or a government that no longer existed – would invalidate the document.

With regard to the rule that the date in a divorce document needs to be precise and recognized by the government, Tosafot explain that, given the importance of such a document, the civil authorities were exacting in the way it was written, which made the Sages insist on a valid date.

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.