Ketubot 88

A surprising win for the priests.

It’s well known that the rabbis had a fraught and contentious relationship with the priests. We have seen them vie for authority and exhibit different moral standards and understandings of Jewish responsibility to God and Israel. This has led to serious clashes (if only, at times, in writing) between rabbis and priests, both when the Temple stood and the priests held a place of prominence, and long after it was destroyed. And so we might expect that, for the rabbis, the opinions of the priests were a non-starter — especially when an authority better aligned with the rabbis said differently. 

But on today’s daf, something remarkable happens. First, we get a sneak preview of a mishnah that we won’t actually read in context for almost three weeks on Ketubot 104a. The mishnah is a bit elliptical, so let me expand the story a little, using the explanations of the medieval authority Rashi:

A man travels abroad, and his wife comes to the court claiming that her husband has not left her enough money to sustain herself, and asks the court to designate some of the money or property he left behind to be put towards her needs. At some later point, the wife learns that her husband has died and comes to the court again, now asking the court to oversee the payment of her ketubah as a widow. Does the court require the woman to take a formal oath that she has not taken more than she should?

Hanan (ben Avishalom) says: She takes an oath at the conclusionAnd she does not take an oath at the beginning. 

According to the Mishnah, Hanan ben Avishalom was a prominent judge in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period. He held that the widow was only required to take an oath the second time she came to court asking for money, not the first. Because of Hanan ben Avishalom’s stature, you might think that his opinion would stand, but: 

The sons of the high priests disagreed with him, and said: She takes an oath at the beginning, and at the conclusion.

Each time the woman comes before the court asking for funds, she must swear that she has not already been given (or taken!) the funds from her husband’s property. 

Given the fraught relationship between rabbis and the priestly establishment, and given that the sons of the high priests are almost certainly priests themselves, we might expect the rabbis to reject the opinion of the sons of the high priests, especially given that Hanan had stature as a judge and would have been more aligned with rabbinic ideas of Torah and law.

But the mishnah ends with the following statement: 

Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas said: The halakhah is in accordance with their statement.

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said that Hanan spoke well: She takes an oath only at the end. 

One prominent rabbi sides with the sons of the high priest, and another with Hanan ben Avishalom. Who wins? The mishnah doesn’t say. But on today’s daf we learn: 

Rabbi Shimon holds like Hanan. The rabbis, like the sons of the high priests.

Usually, when a single named rabbi disputes the rabbinic majority, the majority wins. Which means that, for today, the priests win.

Today, the rabbis mostly side with their chief rivals. Rather than say we disagree about major issues and so we disagree about everything, the rabbis reflect on the different arguments that Hanan and the sons of the high priest offer, and choose the one that makes the most sense within their halakhic framework, regardless of who offers it. Famously, the Talmud tells us that Beit Hillel used to state their rivals’ opinions before their own as a sign of respect. Clearly, their lesson had an impact, as generations later the rabbis continued to take the positions of their rivals seriously and were even, at times, convinced by them.

Read all of Ketubot 88 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 2nd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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