Talmud pages

Ketubot 54

Hometown customs.

In a mishnah on Ketubot 52 we learned that in both the Galilee and Jerusalem marriage agreements were written to allow a widow to be supported by her deceased husband’s estate for the rest of her life if she so chooses. But in Judea, they stipulated that the husband’s heirs could choose to meet their obligation to support her by paying her the price of her marriage contract and sending her on her way.

On today’s daf, we learn that this dispute continued into the amoraic period:

Rav said that the halakhah is in accordance with the custom of the residents of Judea, and Shmuel said that the halakhah is in accordance with the custom of the residents of the Galilee and Jerusalem.

The talmudic historical narrative tells us that Rav and Shmuel were both students of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who is credited for overseeing the project through which the Mishnah came into its final form. In Babylonia, Rav and Shmuel established talmudic academies to study the Mishnah and the conversations that occurred therein became the core of the Babylonian Talmud.

Like their predecessors, Rav and Shmuel did not always agree about matters of Jewish law and each developed their own sphere of influence. As the Gemara notes:

Babylonia, and all of its surrounding towns, act in accordance with the opinion of Rav; Neharde’a, and all of its towns, act in accordance with the opinion of Shmuel.

Shmuel’s area of influence was Neharde’a, where his academy stood, while the rest of the Babylonian Jewish community followed Rav. And what delineated the border between the two? The Gemara tells us:

And until where is the boundary of Neharde’a? Up to any place where the kav measurement of Neharde’a is used.

Just as there were regional differences about Jewish law, so too were there differences in weights and measures. The places that used units belonging to Neharde’a followed Shmuel and the rest followed Rav.

Some commentators suggest that by delineating their areas of influence, the Gemara is telling us that, when they have a dispute, the law should follow Rav as his decisions were accepted widely while Shmuel’s were limited to a specific locale. But, as the majority of commentators point out, this is not the case, as the legal consensus regarding disputes between Rav and Shmuel is that the law follows Shmuel.

In the particular case of the widow that is discussed on today’s daf, however, it’s not solely a matter of choosing between Rav and Shmuel:

There was a certain woman of Mehoza who was married to a man from Neharde’a. They came before Rav Nahman to discuss her marriage contract. He heard from her voice that she was from Mehoza. Rav Nahman said to them: Babylonia and all of its towns act in accordance with the opinion of Rav. 

A widow comes before Rav Nahman pressing for her rights to stay in her deceased husband’s home after his death. Hearing her accent, Rav Nahman rules according to Rav, whose opinion was authoritative in Mehoza, her hometown. Unfortunately for her, this means he rules against her, giving decision making power to the inheritors of her deceased husband’s estate. But the story continues:

They said to him: But she is marrying a resident of Neharde’a. 

He said to them: If so, Neharde’a and all of its towns act in accordance with the opinion of Shmuel.

Informed by those present that the husband is from Neharde’a, Rav Nahman reverses his decision and rules according to Shmuel, granting the widow the right to remain in her husband’s home.

What’s interesting here is that Rav Nahman does not rule based on the academy in which he himself trained or the locale of the court in which he presided. Rather, his verdict was based on the custom in the places the couple hail from. This seems to indicate that both Rav and Shmuel have valid positions, and the case should be decided based on the jurisdiction in which the widow lives. 

The medieval codes conclude that the law favors Shmuel in this matter, following the general rule that his view carries the day in disputes with Rav. Yet, sprinkled throughout the legal literature are echoes of Rav Nahman’s approach which supports the legitimacy of both positions. These voices state that where there is a local custom, it should be followed; and when there is not one, then the law follows Shmuel.

Read all of Ketubot 54 on Sefaria.

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

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