When I was young, my mother instituted a practice that was both ingenious and anxiety-producing: If there was a delicacy to be shared, one sibling split the treat, and the other chose the portion. This process meant that the splitter was as careful as she could be to make the two halves even so that each got the same amount.
A mishnah on today’s daf discusses how to divide assets between orphans. As we will see, this is not as simple as splitting a cookie in half, but the rabbis, like my mother, attempt to be as equitable as possible.
In the case of one who was married to two women and the women died, and subsequently he (the husband) died, and the orphans of one of the wives are now seeking to collect the payment specified in their mother’s ketubah, but there is only enough in the estate to pay the value of the two ketubahs, the sons distribute the estate equally.
In this case, a man dies leaving orphans from two marriages that all seek to collect their mothers’ ketubah payments, but the ketubahs are not of equal value. For the purposes of easy math, let’s assume that there are two sons from each marriage, and that the first wife’s ketubah was 200 dinars and the second wife’s ketubah was 100 dinars. The estate is worth 300 dinars, so there is enough to pay each set of orphans according to the ketubah stipulations of their own mothers.
However, the mishnah rules that in this case, they should not inherit according to the value of the ketubahs, but rather share in the total value of the estate. So instead of the sons from the first wife sharing 200 dinars and getting 100 dinars each, and the sons from the second wife sharing 100 dinars and getting 50 each, they would divide 300 equally, with each orphan getting 75 dinars.
This is great news for the sons of the second marriage, who now receive more than they would have from the ketubah alone, but bad news for the sons of the first marriage, who now receive less. The rabbis recognize that this might result in some shenanigans, which they address immediately. The mishnah continues:
If there was a surplus of a dinar left there, these sons collect their mother’s marriage contract and those sons collect their mother’s marriage contract. If they say: “We inflate the value of our father’s property by a dinar” so that they can collect their mother’s marriage contract, the court does not listen to them. Rather, the value of the property is appraised in court.
Here, we learn that if the value of the estate exceeds the value of the widows’ ketubahs, we revert to paying out those specific amounts and then divide the remainder of the estate evenly. This case benefits the sons of the first marriage in our scenario, who receive more, and is to the detriment of the sons of the second marriage, who receive less. Some unscrupulous older brothers, knowing this, might then attempt to inflate the value of the estate. But the rabbis are onto them and require the worth of the estate to be evaluated in court rather than relying on the testimony of the beneficiaries themselves.
The Gemara continues with several stories, including this one:
The properties of the house of Bar Tzartzur were few, (i.e., there was no surplus beyond the value of the two ketubahs) and they appreciated. The sons of the two wives came before Rav Amram to discuss the matter.
He said to (the sons of the wife who had the more valuable ketubah): “Go appease your brothers, (i.e., give them some of your share).”
They did not heed his advice. He said to them: “If you will not appease them, I will strike you with a thorn that does not draw blood (i.e., I will excommunicate you).” He sent them before Rav Nahman.
Rav Nahman said to them: “Just as the halakhah is that if the properties were abundant but depreciated the heirs acquired rights, so too, in a case where the properties were few and the value subsequently appreciated, the heirs have acquired rights. (That is, we value the estate at the time of death.)”
Here, at the time of Bar Tzartzur’s death, there was no “extra dinar” (in the language of the mishnah) and so the estate would have been divided evenly between the heirs. However, before that could happen, the property appreciated, and so now the brothers of the wife with the more valuable ketubah would inherit more money, and the others would inherit less.
In order to solve this dilemma, the brothers come before Rav Amram who counsels the brothers with more to share with their brothers who have less. They refuse, which might be their right according to the law, but it’s not nice. In fact, it’s seen as so awful that Rav Amram threatens to excommunicate them if they don’t cooperate. Rav Nahman then issues a ruling that the estate is to be divided according to the value it had at the time of the owner’s death. (This in fact does become the halakhah; see Mishneh Torah, Marriage 19:5 and Shulchan Arukh, Even HaEzer 111:5.)
The laws of inheritance are complicated, but the value of having care and concern for your siblings isn’t. Rav Amram, with his threat of excommunication, underscores that even if a sibling can get more, it’s better to share and share alike.
Read all of Ketubot 91 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 5th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.