Yevamot 45

Dancing camels.

Today’s daf continues a conversation raised in yesterday’s mishnah about mamzerim, the children of forbidden sexual unions that the Torah bars from marrying other Jews. 

On yesterday’s daf, we were told that “all agree” that the child of a Jewish woman and an idolator or slave is a mamzer. But if you’re like me, and took SAT prep classes in which the term “all” was deemed immediately suspect, this might sound a little curious. The Gemara thinks so too, and it sets about making several suggestions about who exactly agrees with this ruling. 

Turns out, there are dissenters, as we learn in a story on today’s daf.

A certain individual came before Rav and said to him: With regard to the offspring of a gentile or a slave who engaged in intercourse with a Jewish woman, what is its status?

Rav said to him: The offspring is unflawed.

He said to Rav: If so, give me your daughter in marriage.

He said to him: I will not give her to you.

In this story, the person asking Rav about the status of a person born of a Jewish woman and a slave or an idolator was himself such a person. Rav’s answer would have long-lasting consequences for his questioner. If Rav rules that the man is a mamzer, then he can only marry another mamzer. If the answer is that he is not a mamzer, then he can marry anyone he wants. 

The good news is that Rav rules in the man’s favor — he is not a mamzer. But when the man then asks to marry Rav’s daughter, Rav says no. 

At this point, Rav’s grandson calls Rav’s bluff. 

Shimi bar Hiyya, Rav’s grandson, said to Rav: People say that a camel in Medes can dance upon a kav (a measure of produce). However, this is a space that holds a kav, and this is a camel, and this is Medes, and yet the camel is not dancing.

Shimi bar Hiyya tells his grandfather that, despite what people say about camels in Medes dancing upon tiny amounts of produce, if you put that proposition to the test, you’ll see it’s not true. In other words: Put your money where your mouth is. If the guy’s not a mamzer, why are you resisting the match? It must be because you’re really not confident of your own ruling. 

Rav’s response is telling. 

He said to him: Even if he were as great as Joshua, son of Nun, I would not give him my daughter. 

Rav’s reply is, essentially, it doesn’t matter. The man is already tainted, and therefore he is not worthy of becoming my son-in-law, even if he were as great as Joshua. And because of Rav’s example, no one else would allow him to betroth their daughter either.

In the end, we are told:

That individual would not go from standing before Rav and continued to plead with him. Rav placed his eyes upon him, and he died. 

The conclusion suggests that the man died of a broken heart after realizing that even though he was ruled not to be a mamzer, no one would approve of a marriage to him. 

While this story sets us up to learn a matter of Jewish law —  whether the child of a Jewish woman and an idolater or an enslaved person is a mamzer or not — it actually teaches something else, too. Halakhic rulings are of critical importance, but the law alone does not determine the outcome. Rumors that the man would make an unfit spouse actually determine what happens in the end. And perhaps it’s this recognition, that rumors and status can change a person’s life just as significantly as the law, that explains why the Talmud records not only Rav’s halakhic ruling, but the criticism raised by Rav’s grandson as well.  

Read all of Yevamot 45 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 21th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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