On today’s daf, we find this teaching from Reish Lakish:
(A woman) prefers to dwell as two than to dwell a widow.
Socially and economically, Reish Lakish’s statement makes sense for his time. As we’ve learned, in talmudic times girls were cared for in the households of their fathers and, when they reached adulthood, became dependents of their husbands. A widow, who is both fatherless and husbandless, is therefore in a precarious position. Unless she has access to wealth of her own, she may be destined for a life of poverty. Thus, Reish Lakish suggests she prefers remarrying to living alone.
The Gemara then proceeds to share the sayings of other rabbis that basically make the same point:
Abaye said (that women say): One whose husband is like an ant nevertheless places her seat among the noblewomen.
Rav Pappa said: One whose husband is a wool comber calls him to sit with her at the entrance to the house.
Rav Ashi said: One whose husband is lowly does not require lentils for her pot.
It is better to be married, these rabbis maintain, even to an undesirable husband than not to be married at all. A woman whose husband is small as an ant is still married. One who has an undistinguished job can keep his wife company on the porch. And even a husband of limited means can still provide his wife with food.
This discussion challenges us to contextualize the rabbinic — that is, male — perspective reflected in the Talmud. It’s natural to wonder: If the women of the talmudic era were given a voice, would they echo these sentiments? Would they agree that any marriage, no matter how dismal or destitute, is better than being alone? Or would they express a yearning for new models for what the institution of marriage could be?
As is usually the case, we don’t get to hear from them. But the Gemara does follow this up with a statement that suggests some women were not fully satisfied in unhappy marriages:
And all of these commit adultery and (attribute their children) to their husbands.
This teaching seems to ascribe agency to these women, stuck in marriages lacking in significant ways, who have found a way to live a life of their choosing. But it’s also possible to read this line as suggesting that women stay in such marriages because they provide cover for their lifestyle and support for any children that it might bear. Is the Gemara suggesting that all women have an inner licentiousness that might attract them to adultery? Or that licentiousness should only be attributed to those who are found in marriages that are difficult to explain?
If only we could hear from the women themselves. Then we could put aside the speculating and learn directly from them about what their lives, and marriages, were like.
Read all of Ketubot 75 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 19th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.