During the American Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman — perhaps best-known for employing a scorched earth tactic in his eponymous marches to the sea — famously said that “war is hell.” Some historians think he made this remark while giving a speech to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy, warning the young men what they were in for on the battlefield.
War is hell for soldiers. But war is also hell for civilians, those who are collateral damage in conflicts between armies and governments. A mishnah on today’s daf focuses our attention on one high price paid by civilians:
A city that was conquered by siege, all the priestly women located in the city are unfit to remain married to a priest.
Why? Sexual violence is a common tactic of urban warfare. It is assumed that these women were raped during the attack. And, as we have already learned, the rabbis do not permit a rape survivor who is married to a priest to remain married to her husband after the assault. Consequently, all these women must be divorced. The mishnah then concludes by reminding us that:
A person is not deemed credible to establish his status by his own testimony.
In other words: Even if she testifies that she wasn’t assaulted, the court does not accept her testimony. Only if someone else can testify that she was never assaulted is she able to remain married.
Well, that’s horrific. But wait! This isn’t one of those cases where we modern readers are horrified but everyone in the ancient world would have thought it was normal. Indeed, in the rest of today’s daf, we see that the rabbis of the Gemara too look for ways to negate this teaching.
Rav Idi bar Avin said that Rabbi Yitzhak bar Ashyan said: If there is a single hideaway there, it saves all the priestly women.
If there is even one place that women could have hidden in the entire city (a basement, a cave, a secret room), says Rabbi Yitzhak bar Ashyan, then every woman is presumed to have gone there, and so all are permitted to remain married to their husbands.
The Talmud then follows up with a question of space. Rabbi Yirmiyah asks:
If the hideaway holds only one woman, what is the ruling? Do we say that each woman is the one who hid there? Or, perhaps we do not?
The Gemara tries to answer this question by looking at a parallel case, where there were two roads, one of which had a corpse buried in it, and one of which didn’t, and someone didn’t remember which of the two paths they had walked (and therefore, whether they have contracted corpse impurity). But that case is rejected as irrelevant — because in that case, we know that a corpse is buried on one of the two paths, and in the case of war, we don’t actually know if any of the women were assaulted. But they conclude that even in the case of a single tiny hiding spot in a city full of priestly women, all can remain married to their husbands.
What we have here is a case of double uncertainty: uncertainty about whether sexual assault took place, and uncertainty about who exactly (if anyone) was able to hide. In the face of this double uncertainty, and knowing that war is hell, the rabbis rule that these women can stay married to their husbands. War may be hell, but the rabbis here are committed to supporting those who survive it.
Read all of Ketubot 27 on Sefaria.