Today we begin Chapter 9 of Tractate Ketubot, which starts with a discussion about a husband who relinquishes his claim to his wife’s property. We read in the mishnah:
One who writes for his wife: “I have no legal dealings or involvement with your property,” may nevertheless consume (the produce) of her property in her lifetime. And if she dies (before him), he inherits from her.
As we know, a husband normally has control over property his wife brings into the marriage, including the right to consume produce from any property she owns. The mishnah here is teaching that even if a husband relinquishes his claim to his wife’s property, he still has rights to its produce. And if his wife dies, the field reverts to his ownership.
The end of the mishnah discusses a husband who seeks to relinquish his right to inherit from his wife even after her death.
If he writes for her: “I have no legal dealings or involvement with your property or with its produce, or with the produce of its produce, in your lifetime and after your death,” he may not consume the produce in her lifetime. And if she dies, he does not inherit from her.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: If she dies, he does inherit from her, because he stipulates counter to that which is written in the Torah.
In this case, the mishnah rules that if the husband explicitly renounces his claim to the property even after his wife’s death, he does not inherit it. Not so fast, says Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel. A husband can’t promise not to inherit from his wife after she dies because his right to do so is written in the Torah.
The verse Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel has in mind is Numbers 27:11, which reads: “If his father had no brothers, you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own clan, who shall inherit it.”
This verse appears in the Torah portion that discusses the inheritance claims of the daughters of a man named Zelophehad, who died without any sons to inherit his property. The daughters bring their claim to Moses who, after consulting with God, rules in their favor: They can inherit it.
Even though the verse does not explicitly mention women, the context here is the ruling that daughters can inherit if there are no sons. But it says nothing about a husband inheriting his wife’s property. So how does Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel decide that it does?
To understand, we’ll look elsewhere in Talmud, to Tractate Bava Batra 111b, which explains:
As the sages taught: “his nearest relative” (Numbers 27:11). This is one’s wife.
The Talmud understands the verse’s reference to the “nearest relative” as referring to one’s wife. As a result, while a husband has the right to relinquish his right to his wife’s property, he cannot do so after she dies, because his right to inherit her property is enshrined in the Torah.
This ruling is good news for the husband, but why would a groom relinquish his right to his wife’s property, now and in the future, when they first get married? If this question puts you in mind of prenuptial agreements, you may be on the right track. According to Dr. Joshua Kulp in his Daf Shevui commentary on our mishnah: “The reality behind the scenarios mentioned in this mishnah is probably that the woman or her family would not agree to the marriage unless the husband renounced his rights to her property.”
In other words, perhaps a wealthy young woman is marrying a less wealthy young man and her parents want to make sure that her property remains in her family, even after marriage. While this is a permissible move while the wife is still alive, if she dies, the Torah demands that he inherit it.
Read all of Ketubot 83 on Sefaria.