Ketubot 48

Social status after death.

We’ve spent a lot of time so far in Tractate Ketubot learning about the various obligations that a husband owes his wife during their life together — food, sex, clothing and more. Today, we ask: What does a husband owe his wife after her death? 

The mishnah on Ketubot 46 tells us that a husband is required to bury his wife — or more likely, pay for her burial — after her death. Rabbi Yehuda takes it one step further: 

Even the poorest of the Jewish people may not (provide) fewer than two flutes and a lamenting woman. 

In talmudic times, funerals often had professional mourners to add to the emotion and drama of the moment. Rabbi Yehuda requires those with limited resources to honor their dead spouse in this culturally appropriate but costly way. 

On today’s daf, the Gemara asks what exactly Rabbi Yehuda and the unnamed first opinion are disagreeing about. After all, everyone agrees that a man is obligated to treat his wife with respect. If her family was of a high enough social status to expect professional mourners, then clearly it would be unacceptably disrespectful not to have them at her funeral.  

The Gemara explains that the mishnah’s dispute is over a case where the husband comes from a wealthy family where professional mourners are commonly employed and the wife comes from a poorer family where they are not. The question is: Must the husband treat his wife according to his family’s elite custom after her death? 

According to the Gemara, the author of the first opinion in the mishnah, which required only that a husband bury his wife, believed he does not:

When we say (that a woman who marries a man) ascends with him and does not descend with him, this applies only when they are alive, but after death, not. 

A woman can gain elite social status from her husband, though interestingly if she comes from a high status family and marries a man of lower status, she does not lose her original higher social status. But after a woman who has gained social status from her husband dies, he is not obligated to maintain her that way. He can cheap out on her funeral and treat her as someone of the lower status she was born with. 

Rabbi Yehuda disagrees, insisting that even after death, she must be treated with the care and respect she enjoyed during her married life. But since his opinion notes that “even the poorest man” is required to hire professional mourners, the Gemara seems to be imagining someone who is of an elite status, but also impoverished. One can only imagine the pain of someone who has just lost their life partner and doesn’t have the funds to bury them in a manner appropriate to their social status. What is this man obligated to do? 

The discussion concludes that the law follows Rabbi Yehuda: The man must bury his wife in a fashion consistent with the social status she enjoyed when she was alive, even if he lacks the funds to pay for it. The Gemara leaves no room for doubt that a husband’s obligations of care and respect for his wife do not end with her death. Indeed, even if it causes him financial hardship, he is obligated to mourn her in ways that publicly communicate that care and respect. 

Read all of Ketubot 48 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 23rd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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