The bride says: I am mukat etz: ruptured by wood.
The groom says: No, you are drusat ish: trampled by a man.
Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Eliezer say: She is credible.
Rabbi Yehoshua says: It is not based on her mouth (i.e. statement) that we conduct our lives. Rather, she is assumed to have been trampled by a man, until she brings proof otherwise.
Once again, we are discussing a bride’s virginity. In this mishnah, she admits that she does not have the signs of virginity (most likely, that her hymen is not intact), asserting that this did not happen through penetrative intercourse with a man, but through contact with an inanimate object.
The violence of the language here is difficult to ignore. Either this woman is mukat etz — meaning, according to the various uses described in the Jastrow talmudic dictionary, her vagina was “beaten,” “crushed,” or “pounded” by a piece of wood — or she is a drusat ish, meaning she was “trod on,” “stamped,” or (more likely) muscularly “pressed” by a penis. (The verb is also used in the context of a knife pressed against the throat of an animal for the purpose of slaughter; see Chullin 20b.) As a result, she is, quite literally, damaged goods. For reasons that are not yet entirely clear, it is better for her if the vaginal damage came about through an inanimate object. The prospective husband is worried that she is lying about this for some advantage.
It’s difficult to say, based on this mishnah alone, exactly what the difference is, from a legal perspective, between a mukat etz and a drusat ish. My friend and colleague, Rebecca Kamholtz, who has written extensively about the rabbis’ conception of virginity, would caution us against bringing our own assumptions to this text. We might reflexively assume, based on popular contemporary notions of virginity, that it should only matter to the prospective groom whether or not she has had penetrative intercourse with another man. But, as the Gemara makes clear in the next few lines, that is not necessarily the case:
What are their respective financial claims?
Rabbi Yohanan said: 200 and 100 dinars.
Rabbi Elazar said: 100 dinars and nothing at all.
Rabbi Yohanan thinks that if a woman is penetrated by an inanimate object, even if it destroys her signs of virginity (by damaging her hymen), she should be accorded a full ketubah payment due to a virgin: 200 dinars. In other words, for the purposes of ketubah, a mukat etz is a virgin.
Rabbi Elazar, on the other hand, thinks that a woman who has lost her signs of virginity by either method is due only 100 dinars, the payment for a non-virgin. For him, a mukat etz is not a virgin. So, according to Rabbi Elazar, if the bride lied about why her signs of virginity are missing, then the husband can sue her for breach of contract and revoke her ketubah payment completely.
Obviously, the rabbis disagree about who counts as a virgin. Notice too that even Rabbi Elazar, who thinks both a mukat etz and a drusat ish are not virgins, concedes that there is some difference between them, with the former being more desirable. This is why the groom is allowed to sue for breach of contract.
Let’s also not lose sight of the more pronounced disagreement in the mishnah: whether or not we can trust her word. This is a regular struggle for the rabbis in this tractate. So much depends on things that have happened in private for which we must mostly rely on a not-disinterested person’s word. How do we know if we can trust them?
What struck me most in reading this mishnah was not that the rabbis disagreed about whether we can trust her, but which rabbi held which position. Rabbi Yehoshua, who is known for moderation and is frequently regarded as an exemplar of kindness (see Pirkei Avot 2:11) views the bride with suspicion. In the absence of external proof, he does not trust her word.
Rabban Gamliel, on the other hand, who is frequently portrayed as haughty and overbearing (see, for example, Berakhot 37), trusts her. Based on their personalities, one might have expected them to take different positions (though one would expect them to disagree, as they nearly always do). Perhaps this serves as a reminder that despite the talmudic tales that might encourage us to see many rabbis (particularly rabbis of this stature) otherwise, the rabbis were not caricatures, but complex human beings.
In the coming pages, the rabbis will continue to explore this vital question: When we have only someone’s word, how do we know if we can trust them?
Read all of Ketubot 13 on Sefaria.