Ketubot 70

The delinquent groom.

Today’s page brings us to chapter 7 of Tractate Ketubot, which opens with the following mishnah:

One who vows that his wife may not benefit from him: Up to 30 days, he must appoint a trustee to support her. More than this, he must divorce her and give her the payment of her ketubah.

From the mishnah’s perspective, every husband is required to support his wife. Therefore, if he tries to get around this obligation by taking a vow that she may not benefit from him or his property, the law puts other measures in place to protect her. If the vow is in effect for 30 days or fewer, he must arrange for someone else to support her that month. If the vow is of longer duration, he must set her loose and pay her ketubah. 

The Gemara asks an elemental question: 

Is it in his power to remove his obligation to her?

Given that a man is obligated to provide for his wife, how can he even make this vow in the first place? The Gemara’s problem is that the mishnah does not fit with the rabbinic understanding of marital requirements. To solve this problem, the Gemara now envisions a series of increasingly specific scenarios in which a husband might legally be able to make this vow. Here’s the first:

Since he is able to say to her: “Spend your earnings to sustain yourself” it is considered as though he were in fact saying to her: “Spend your earnings to sustain yourself.”

We learned previously that a married woman hands over her earnings to her husband, who in turn supports her. The Gemara here suggests that what the husband is really saying in the case in the mishnah is that the wife should keep her earnings and use them to support herself.

This solution fits poorly with the mishnah, however. If the husband expected his wife to support herself from her earnings, asks the Gemara, why does she need a trustee to support her? Again, the Gemara supplies an answer to its own question: This is in cases where she does not earn enough on her own to support her needs.

But now the Gemara has painted itself into a corner: If she does not earn enough to support herself, how can her husband vow not to support her? This would be a violation of his marital obligation.

The Gemara attempts other solutions until it arrives at this possibility:

If you wish, say he made this vow about her when she was still a betrothed woman.

If you think it’s slippery for the Gemara to transfigure “married woman” into “betrothed woman,” it’s helpful to remember that for the rabbis, betrothal is a lot like marriage — especially insofar as the woman is now prohibited sexually to other men. A primary difference between betrothal and marriage, however, is that the groom is not obligated to sustain his bride. That obligation begins the moment the two of them stand under the huppah. Of course, as the Gemara now notes, this would make his vow appear pointless. Why vow not to sustain someone you are not obligated to sustain?

So the Gemara qualifies once again:

The circumstance referred to is when the arranged time for the marriage had arrived and they had not yet gotten married.

In other words, the groom is dragging his feet on marriage and taken a vow to avoid taking on the responsibility of supporting his bride. At this point, the Gemara has solved the problem by taking what sounds like a fairly general ruling in the mishnah — a husband may not vow to refrain from sustaining his wife without making alternate arrangements — and identifying it with a highly specific scenario: a groom who has delayed his wedding and, in an attempt to continue shirking the obligations of marriage, has now taken an additional vow not to sustain his betrothed. This preserves the authority of the mishnah and creates a more consistent set of laws.

While that may have been the motivation for the exercise, the result turns out to be, in my view, actually useful. The rabbis provide a ruling that prevents a delinquent groom from using a sneaky work-around (a delayed marriage plus a vow not to support his future wife) to avoid supporting the woman who has pledged herself to him.

Read all of Ketubot 70 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 14th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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