As we have seen many times, rabbis in the Talmud often read biblical verses very differently, with important legal implications. On today’s daf we see the two different ways that Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov and the rabbis interpret the biblical laws concerning a husband’s claim that his wife was not a virgin on their wedding night.
Deuteronomy 22 describes a situation where a man marries a woman and then claims that “when I approached her, I found that she was not a virgin.” In such a case, the woman’s parents can bring evidence of their daughter’s virginity to the court. The text says they shall “spread the garment,” presumably a blood-stained sheet. The man now established to have made false claims against his wife is flogged, fined, and required to stay married to the woman as long as they both live.
According to Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, the man is flogged and fined only if he has already had intercourse with his wife. He bases this on the verse in Deuteronomy 22:13, which states that the man in question “goes in unto her,” which is a biblical expression for sexual intercourse. He further assumes that the Bible’s statement that he “found that she was not a virgin” means that he found no evidence of a hymen while engaged in his first intercourse with her.
But according to the rabbis, the man is flogged and fined regardless of whether he had intercourse with his wife. The rabbis read the biblical language of “going in unto her” to mean coming at her with false accusations. But if a man can be found guilty even if he hasn’t had sex, what then does the Torah mean when it says he “found that she was not a virgin”?
The rabbis explain that this means he found she had no “fitness of virginity,” which the medieval commentator Rashi suggests means that he has found no witnesses who can testify that the woman is in fact a virgin. If that’s the case, what kind of evidence can the parents bring that she is? After all, if there has been no sexual intercourse, there is no bloody sheet (though it’s worth noting that many people with hymens don’t actually bleed upon first intercourse). And what do the rabbis do with the whole “spread the garment” bit if there is no garment to spread?
Rabbi Abbahu offers a clever play on words:
They shall interpret that which he placed against her.
Rabbi Abbahu reads the phrase “spread the garment” — farshu hasimlah in Hebrew — as parshu ha-sam la. They shall investigate what he has placed against her.
Let’s be honest, while the rabbis’ reading of the biblical text is more creative, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov is more closely aligned with the simple meaning of the verses. And yet, where Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov limits the scenarios in which a man can make such a claim and his in-laws can have recourse to the court, the rabbis’ interpretation (which ultimately becomes the law) expands the scenarios not only to cases where they have already had sex, but even to cases where the man is verbally abusive before intercourse. Even in these cases, the man can be taken to court and punished with flogging, fines, and being forced to stay married to the woman he hates forever.
While realistically, most women probably wouldn’t want to stay married to a man who would do that kind of thing, the threat of being financially and physically responsible for a woman you hate with no option of divorce would hopefully have served as a powerful deterrent against making false claims like this to begin with.
Read all of Ketubot 46 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 21st, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.