Ketubot 80

Selling usufruct.

We have already learned that a husband has the right to the produce of his wife’s property. In English, this right is called usufruct — literally, the right to use the fruit. The right of usufruct takes effect at the time of marriage, unless it is specifically withheld in the ketubah

Today’s daf asks: Can the right of usufruct be transferred? 

A dilemma was raised: A husband who sold his wife’s land for produce (i.e. he sold the rights to the produce of the land, the usufruct), what the halakhah?

The basic question the rabbis are asking is whether such a sale is valid. But the deeper question is about the function of giving the husband the right to the produce of his wife’s field. Is it to give him more assets, or is it to directly benefit their household? 

The Gemara reports two different answers to this question, both attributed to Rava.

Yehuda Mar bar Mareimar said in the name of Rava: What he did is done

Rav Pappa said in the name of Rava: He did not do anything. 

Apparently, the rabbis had two different traditions about what Rava thought about this situation, traditions that actually contradict each other. The first opinion is that usufruct gives the man financial assets to use as he sees fit, and so the sale takes effect. The second opinion is that usufruct is designed to directly benefit the married household by providing it with fruit and so cannot be sold. Because the man did not have the right to sell his usufruct, the financial transaction is null and void. 

How did two rabbis have such different understandings of Rava’s position? Rav Pappa tells us that Yehuda bar Mareimar extrapolated Rava’s position (wrongly!) by watching Rava rule on a different case. 

A certain woman brought her husband two enslaved women (as part of her dowry). The man went and married another woman. He brought one of them in to her. 

In this case, a man’s first wife brought two enslaved women into her marriage, presumably to support her and their married life. The man then took a second wife and reassigned one of these enslaved women to his new wife. How did the first wife react?

She came before Rava and cried. Rava took no notice of her.

Leaving aside the irony of someone financially exploiting others being upset that she is now herself being financially exploited, this story demonstrates that Rava thought the man had the right to reassign one of his first wife’s enslaved women. But why? 

He [Yehuda bar Mareimar] who observed this incident thought it was because he holds that what he did is done. But that is not so. For the gain of the house, and here the house does gain.

The Gemara draws a parallel between land that produces fruit and enslaved people who produce labor. As abhorrent as this parallel is to modern readers, the Talmud sees both as assets that a (free) woman can bring into her marriage, and that her husband has certain rights to use. Yehuda bar Mareimar assumes that Rava was unsympathetic to the first wife because he believed that the husband has the right to sell the property. But Rav Pappa concludes that Rava’srefusal to intervene is a result of his belief that usufruct is meant to directly benefit the household. Through her service to the second wife, the enslaved woman does in fact directly benefit the household.

So a man can benefit from his wife’s (or wives’!) property, but only in order to directly enhance and support their household.  

Read all of Ketubot 80 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 24th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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