Ketubot 78

The lemonade stand of shame.

My kids run a lemonade stand, and they’re very good at it. On a baked summer afternoon, you’ll often find at least one of them sitting at a table on the side of the road, an inviting iced pitcher in front of them and a sign with the price. With the number of dog walkers in the neighborhood, it’s a rare day when they don’t make at least a few bucks, use a little math, and learn about customer interaction and the value of marketing.

What the children and their customers rarely acknowledge is that this is actually my lemonade stand: It is located on my property, uses my folding table and chairs, and runs on ingredients that I bought from the store. My kids can use the tables and chairs, but they can’t sell them; they can only sell lemonade because I said it was OK. If I shut down the business, nobody could stop me, and my children would have little recourse if I took all the money from their sales to pay for their school supplies (things might get a little dicey if they made more than a few bucks at a time). The lemonade stand exists because I don’t want to do these things and because doing them would make me look like a bad person. But I could, because ultimately it all belongs to me.

On today’s daf, we learn that, within a marriage, a woman’s property is in some sense nothing more than a child’s lemonade stand. Yes, it belongs to her, but her ability to transfer ownership is severely limited by her husband. None of the rabbis dispute this; instead, there is only disagreement about whether the husband’s veto power over his wife’s property applies equally to property gained before or during the marriage.

If you think there’s something infantilizing about the idea that a married woman cannot fully control her own property, you’re not alone.

Rabbi Yehuda said the sages said before Rabban Gamliel: Since he acquired the woman, (will he) not acquire the property? (Rabban Gamliel) said to them: With regard to the new (property), we are ashamed. And you also seek to impose upon us the old (property)?

In other words, it’s bad enough that we don’t give a woman full rights over the property she gained during the marriage. How dare you try to limit her rights on pre-marriage property as well?

Rabban Gamliel’s invocation of shame is interesting. It’s not often that the rabbis use such language to refer to their own rulings, which suggests a gap between their judgment as rabbis and their judgment as human beings who live by values. It’s especially interesting because, as the scholar Jonathan Crane notes in his essay on shame in rabbinic literature, shame is almost always about gaps in perception, where you suddenly become aware of yourself in a less flattering light.

Talmudic examples of shame abound. In Taanit 24, the wife of Rav Hanina would send smoke up her chimney before Shabbat so that her neighbors would not discover that she was too poor to afford bread, collapsing the gap between the way she wished to be perceived and the way that she understood herself. Similarly, taking off someone’s clothes in public collapses the gap between the public and private presentations of their body, and as a result is severely punished (Mishnah Bava Kamma 8:6).

In this particular case, there’s actually another word which does a better job of describing Rabban Gamliel: cringe. According to Melissa Dahl, “the moments that make us cringe are when we’re yanked out of our own perspective, and we can suddenly see ourselves from somebody else’s point of view.” 

This is honestly not that far from shame. In fact, the two are frequently synonyms, especially in the way that the rabbis use the term. Which leaves us to ask: What exactly is the perspective into which Rabban Gamliel has been yanked — and why do jurists get yanked there so rarely?

Read all of Ketubot 78 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 22nd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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