As we have seen, the rabbis of the Talmud have an affinity for precision. On today’s daf, they bring that instinct to their discussion of the most intimate part of betrothal.
A dilemma was raised: Does the beginning of intercourse effect acquisition or does the end of intercourse effect acquisition?
When a couple is betrothed by something of value or a document, betrothal takes effect at the moment of transfer. But sexual intercourse is not instantaneous — it takes some time. And the rabbis want to know at what exact point of intercourse betrothal is effected, at the beginning or the end?
More interesting than the answer to this question is the discussion about why this matters at all. Are there really situations in which it would make a difference? Actually, says the Gemara, there are. Consider the case of the high priest, who is only permitted to marry virgins (Leviticus 21:13-14).
If betrothal takes place at the completion of sexual intercourse, then the high priest must avail himself of one of the other two methods. Why? Because his wife-to-be loses her virginity at the beginning of the act and thus would no longer be a virgin at the moment of betrothal. But if betrothal takes place at the start, it would coincide with her loss of virginity and the betrothal would be valid.
So in at least this one case of the high priest, the question matters. But this is a fairly limited circumstance and the high priest is already subject to several unique rules. In limiting his ability to betroth a woman with money or a document, the rabbis are merely adding one more. But this is actually not the only case where the issue arises:
The practical difference is where one engaged in only the initial stage of intercourse with her and she reached her hand out and accepted betrothal from another.
The situation the Gemara imagines is that while a couple is in the midst of sex for the purpose of betrothal, a rival suitor comes by and offers the woman an item of value or a document of betrothal and she reaches out her hand and accepts it. If betrothal takes place at the beginning of the act, she is betrothed to her sexual partner. But if it’s at the end, she is engaged to the rival suitor.
This case, while technically possible (and potentially comical — or tragic), is obviously not likely. For it to be plausible, the couple must either be having sex in a public enough space where someone might pass by, or the rival suitor barges into their private domain. In either situation, the woman must accept the competing betrothal offer while having sex with her initial suitor. None of that seems like it could actually occur. To be fair, not every sexual encounter ends in completion, so it’s possible that the original suitor failed to consummate their betrothal and the woman accepted an offer from a second suitor some time later. But while this reading might make for a less far-fetched scenario, the language of the Gemara seems to indicate the more dramatic and improbable scenario.
In both situations — the high priest and the interrupted couple — the pitfalls are avoided if the rabbis can conclude betrothal occurs at the beginning of the sexual act. But this is not so simple either. As Rava teaches:
Anyone who engages in sexual intercourse has the completion of intercourse in mind.
Rava asserts that the completion of the sexual act is its very point, and so betrothal does not come into effect until the act is finished. And this reasoning becomes codified into the law. But as we’ve seen, in all but two very specific and not-so-likely instances, this particular rabbinic decision doesn’t really matter one way or the other.
Read all of Kiddushin 10 on Sefaria.