Ketubot 108

Because I am male, must I lose out?

“Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had this biblical verse on display in her office — an important reminder that the law can be a powerful instrument of justice. But justice and the law are not synonymous — sometimes laws actually promulgate or codify injustice. And this phenomenon is apparent not only in modern civil law, but as we see in today’s daf, it is also addressed in rabbinic law.

First, some context. Numbers 27:8–11 lays out a chain of inheritance when a man dies. In a discussion of inheriting land, God tells Moses that “If a man dies and leaves no son, give his inheritance to his daughter.” Sons apparently have priority when it comes to inheriting land. The rabbis are concerned that such a move will leave (unmarried) daughters without financial support, so the mishnah on today’s daf teaches:

One who died and left sons and daughters, when the estate is large the sons inherit the property and the daughters are provided with sustenance.

The inheritors are required to support their sisters until their marriages with money from the estate. 

That’s fine when the estate is large enough to support everyone, but what if it isn’t? The mishnah continues:

And with regard to a small estatethe daughters are provided with sustenance and the sons go round at the doors.

The anonymous voice of the Mishnah states that if there are limited resources, the inheritors must support their sisters from the estate, and go out begging to support themselves. But wait! 

Admon says: Because I am a male, must I lose out? 

We met Admon recently (Ketubot 105a), where we learned that he was one of three judges in Jerusalem who decided cases involving gezel (robbery). He’s not just some complainer, he’s an expert in financial law. Here, he points out that there is something fundamentally unfair about sons (who, the Gemara is going to point out, have biblical priority!) having to give their entire inheritance to their sisters and go begging, just because they are male. Though his version of justice would leave sisters unsupported, it’s an important shift to the first person — an abstract law is challenged by someone’s personal concerns and experiences. 

And this isn’t just a lone statement that no one paid attention to. The mishnah concludes with a statement by Rabban Gamaliel (arguably the preeminent rabbi of his generation!) who is recorded as having said, “I acknowledge the statement of Admon.”

We’re going to discuss inheritance law in more depth when we get to tractate Bava Batra. But to jump ahead for a moment, it’s worth noting that both the Sefer Mitzvot Gedolot, the 13th century codification of the 613 commandments by Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, and the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century law code by Rabbi Joseph Karo, rule according to the anonymous first opinion — in the case of limited inheritance, the sons are required to use their inheritance to support their sisters, even to the point of begging for their own sustenance if they need to.

But the mishnah retains Admon’s countervoice, a voice pointing out that something is profoundly unfair. He reminds us that abstract laws and first-person experiences are not always in line with each other. And that tension requires thoughtful care and empathy to make sure that law and justice are both enacted.

Read all of Ketubot 108 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 23rd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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