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The seven tractates of Nashim, the third order of the Mishnah, examine and categorize intimate human commitments, including the bonds of marriage and the special categories created by the taking of vows. It presents discussion of religious law, social custom, historical circumstances, and both directly and tangentially related commentary and narrative. Nashim offers intricate reflection on the rabbinic attempt to create communal standards suitable for the intersection of its members’ public and private life.
A Blueprint for an Ideal Society
Nashim deconstructs the core values, rituals, and functions of human bonds and obligations. As a guidebook for the social categories and personal decisions bound to affect most members of the community, the text formulates a blueprint for relationships in the Mishnah’s ideal society.
While Nashim presents values contemporary Jews may find sexist and unjust–particularly with regard to the role of women–an overview of the text suggests that its primary concern is ensuring social systems that protect the people participating in them.
Yevamot (Levirate Marriages)
Yibbum (pl. yevamot) is levirate marriage, necessitated by the plight of a woman whose husband dies without leaving a son as heir. Deuteronomy 25: 5-10 and Ruth 4 provide biblical examples of the conditions requiring yibbum and possible implementation of halitzah, a ritual whereby a brother of the deceased husband cancels his obligation to wed the widow and is shamed publicly for this decision. While the obligation of a surviving brother-in-law to marry his dead brother’s wife ostensibly serves the family of the deceased, allowing them to maintain his property and perpetuate his name, it also serves the widow directly.
The world in which the rabbis of the Mishnah live offers few options to the unmarried, mature woman. That a widow must be provided with a useful alternative after she is left without the validation of either partner or son (female children do not fulfill familial obligations in this period) speaks to the recurring theme of protection of the weak in Nashim. Those within the larger circle of the communal crisis of a widow are commanded to aid her cause: “If he would leave his decision undecided…they do not listen to him but they say to him, ‘The duty falls on thee…'” (Yevamot 4: 6).
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