Talmudic pages

Ketubot 22

The boyfriend excuse.

Ladies, have you ever been out at a social event and received unwanted male attention? Unfortunately, saying “I’m not interested” or just turning away isn’t always an adequate deterrent, and in any case women can be fearful of rejecting a stranger; there are far too many stories about rejected men turning violent. Enter: the boyfriend excuse. Many women find that those four little words — “I have a boyfriend” (whether or not it’s true) — effectively communicate that you aren’t available.  

Turns out, the boyfriend excuse is pretty ancient — and was used in talmudic times: 

There was also an incident involving an important woman who was outstanding in beauty, and men were clamoring to betroth her. She said to them: I am betrothed.

The verb the Talmud uses to describe what these men are doing, koftzim, literally means to jump at, or to get much closer to. It conjures an image of these men crowding around and demanding to marry her. So, she tells them that she’s already betrothed (spoiler alert: she isn’t). Not only that, but the verb she uses for betrothed, mekudeshet, is a passive verb: a man has betrothed her. When the men are “jumping at” her like she is a prize to be won, she accepts the premise of her own passivity but uses their assumptions against them. 

What happened when she met someone she wanted to marry?

Sometime later she arose and betrothed herself (to him).

The sages said to her: What did you see that led you to do so?

She said to them: Initially, when unscrupulous people approached me, I said, “I am betrothed.” Now that scrupulous people approached me, I arose and betrothed myself. 

This woman lied to the men she wasn’t interested in to get them to leave her alone. And then when she met the right kind of man, she went out and betrothed herself to him. And indeed, it’s worth noting that the active verb here refers to the woman herself. 

With the wrong men, this beautiful, wealthy (and, it has become clear, intelligent) woman used their assumptions against them, presenting herself as a passive actor or even object when it comes to marriage. In actuality, however, the woman isn’t passively taken in marriage, but betroths herself to the right man. 

One might reasonably ask: If the community and court already thinks she’s betrothed, how can she betroth herself to someone new? And isn’t lying wrong? The Gemara’s answer might surprise us: 

This halakhah was raised by Rav Aha Sar HaBira before the sages in Usha, and the sages said: If she provided a rationale for her statement, she is deemed credible.

The rabbis say that the woman’s actions are reasonable, given her experiences. The court therefore believes that she was not actually betrothed before, and deem her free to be betrothed now. 

Should we live in a world where it is safe to say that you just aren’t interested in someone, and expect them to believe you and respect your answer? Absolutely. But the rabbis understand that isn’t the world they (or, sadly, we) live in. Therefore, they permit this kind of fiction, what in their day might have been termed: the betrothed excuse.

Read all of Ketubot 22 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 28th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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