Gittin 35

Widows cry out for justice.

At the bottom of yesterday’s daf, we read the following mishnah:

A widow can collect her ketubah payment (owed to her when her marriage ends, by death or divorce) from the property of orphans only by means of an oath (that she did not receive any payment of the marriage contract during her husband’s lifetime). But the courts refrained from administering an oath to her (leaving the widow unable to collect payment of her marriage contract). 

Therefore, Rabban Gamliel the Elder instituted that she should take, for the benefit of the orphans, any vow that the orphans wished to administer to her (e.g., that all produce will become prohibited to her if she received any payment of her marriage contract). And after stating this vow, she collects payment of her marriage contract.

This mishnah relates that at some point in Jewish history, courts refused to allow widowed women to take the prescribed oath that they had drawn nothing from their husbands’ estates while they were living, with the result that they could not take their ketubah payments from children’s inheritance. The courts’ refusal created dire circumstances of impoverishment for these women. This, in turn, led Rabban Gamliel to circumvent the oath protocol altogether. He allowed a widow to vow out of court that she had taken nothing from the estate, on pain of forfeiting whatever her children deemed appropriate, should she be found to have lied. Such an extraordinary vow made room for the widow to collect her ketubah payment. But why wouldn’t the courts simply allow the widow to make an oath in court that she hadn’t received her ketubah payment? Gittin 35a presents us with a potential explanation:

There was an incident involving a person during years of famine who deposited a gold dinar with a widow, and she placed the gold dinar in a jug of flour and unwittingly baked it in a loaf of bread, and she gave the bread to a poor man. After a period of time, the owner of the dinar came and said to her: “Give me my dinar.”

She said to him: “May poison benefit (i.e. take effect on) one of the children of that woman (i.e. my children) if I derived any benefit from your dinar.”

It was said that not even a few days passed until one of her children died, and when the sages heard of this matter, they said: “If one who takes an oath truthfully is punished in this way for sin, one who takes an oath falsely, all the more so.”

This terrifying story, which has a parallel in Leviticus Rabbah 6:3, seems to be an extreme expression of the sages’ reticence regarding making vows and taking oaths (something we explored in Tractate Nedarim). The Gemara then follows up with the explanation that, in contrast to divorcees who were administered the oath in court, widows were deemed untrustworthy. As single-parent caretakers, they might rationalize that whatever money they had drawn from their orphaned children’s estate was paid back in full by the work they did for their children. Thus, they would swear or vow falsely about not having been paid from their ketubot.

As I wrote above, the courts’ refusal to administer this required oath to widows seeking ketubah payments created the profound risk of impoverishment for them. The Gemara points out that Babylonian rabbinic courts refused to even use Rabban Gamliel’s system of allowing the orphans to administer a vow. Instead, they followed the ruling of Rav, the third century Babylonian authority, who simply did not allow widows to collect ketubah payments from estates inherited by orphans.

Rav’s ruling was followed faithfully by his students, who refused to allow widows to collect their ketubah payments — with terrible consequences. 

Our daf records two unnamed women who come to Rav Huna and Rabbah bar Rav Huna, his son, seeking to take their oaths or vows so they can receive their ketubah payments out of their children’s estates. Each sage tells the hapless widow:

What can I do for you? Rav does not collect payment of a marriage contract for a widow.

Rabbah bar Rav Huna even refuses to provide the second woman — who was possibly literally starving — with mezonot, food provisions, out of the estate, because of his fidelity to his father’s tradition.

Both women respond forcefully. The first simply makes a public vow that she had not yet drawn anything from her ketubah, forcing Rav Huna to accept the vow, de facto. The second brings this story cycle full circle by cursing Rabbah for refusing to help her:

The widow said to Rabba bar Rav Huna: “May his chair be overturned (i.e., he should fall from his position of power)” …(Since Rabba bar Rav Huna was concerned about her curse) he overturned his chair (in order to fulfill the curse literally) and then stood it up. Even so, he was not saved from the weakness that resulted from her curse.

I read this account as, among other things, a critique of Rabbah bar Rav Huna’s propensity to apply a rigid and literal interpretation of the law. Even in the face of a starving widow, he doesn’t attempt to deviate an inch from Rav’s ruling. And he seems to expect that knocking over a chair will forestall her curse, which is obviously not literally about his physical seat. We’ve spent enough time studying Talmud that we might expect the rabbis to be critical of this kind of literalist legal thinking, and indeed this story could be read as a warning of its dangers.

The Talmud does not often give women voices of empowering self-advocacy. Here, in response to the skittishness of male authorities who appear to care more about preserving legal restrictions and tradition than about the desperate plight of each woman, they are given powerful voices. Through their stories, the Gemara demands to know: Why are these rabbis deaf to their cries? And why do they ignore the legal creativity innovated by Rabban Gamliel in the interest of tikkun olam, legal repair of societal injustice?

Read all of Gittin 35 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 20th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Gittin 48

Irrational actors.

Gittin 7

Head to head.