Ketubot 23

Working the system.

Yesterday we learned in a mishnah that a woman who reports she was taken captive, but was not raped while in captivity, is deemed credible and permitted to marry a priest. In the Talmud’s view, the woman’s credibility stems from the fact that she is the one who first reported her captivity. Since she is the one who calls her sexual purity into question in the first place, she is also the one with the power to remove said suspicion by claiming she was not raped. 

The Talmud sees this as an example of the principle that “the mouth that prohibits is the mouth that permits” — that is, the person whose testimony renders something prohibited is also the person whose testimony can render it permissible. In this case, since one of her statements potentially prohibits her from marrying a priest, a second statement can nullify the prohibition. Likewise, if other witnesses report that she was taken captive, the woman’s claim that she was not raped is insufficient to permit her to marry a priest. Since witnesses caused her to be prohibited to the priesthood, their testimony is also required for her to be released.

On today’s daf, the Gemara describes a specific incident in which these rules came into play:

The daughters of Master Shmuel were taken captive and brought to Israel. With their captors standing outside, the women entered the study hall of Rabbi Hanina. One daughter said: I was taken captive, and I am pure. And the other daughter said: I was taken captive, and I am pure. And the court permitted them to marry into the priesthood.

Having been taken by their captors to Israel for ransom, the daughters of Shmuel make two key moves to protect their status. First, by keeping their captors out of the study hall, they ensure that it is they — not their captors — who tell Rabbi Hanina that they were taken captive. Second, they formulate their testimony in the form of “the mouth that prohibits is the mouth that permits.” First they assert they were taken captive (the prohibition), and then they assert that they were not raped (the permission). Taken together, these actions ensure that their claim has legal standing and their ability to marry into the priesthood is not abrogated. 

That they acted with such precision does not go unnoticed, leading Rabbi Hanina to conclude: 

These are daughters of halakhic authorities.

The story turned out well for the daughters of Shmuel. But as the mishnah on yesterday’s daf makes clear, there is an assumption in the Talmud that women who are taken captive are likely to be raped. The Gemara’s discussion is largely concerned with the impact of such a rape on a woman’s ability to marry and the parameters that determine when the woman’s own testimony about her captivity has legal weight. 

Contemporary readers will notice that the rules do not give full voice to women, including those who are survivors of captivity and rape. At the same time, the case of Shmuel’s daughters demonstrates that knowing the law and how to navigate the legal system creates possibilities for those whom the system puts at a disadvantage. 

This lesson is as true in our day as it was in the days of Shmuel’s daughters. 

Read all of Ketubot 23 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 29th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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