Talmud

Kiddushin 13

Purloined pearls.

Yesterday, we learned about all sorts of things with which a man might betroth a woman, including a blue marble, a woven mat or even a bundle of rags. So long as the item was worth a perutah (a small coin), the betrothal was valid. Today, the Gemara discusses whether it matters whether the item was stolen. 

A certain woman was selling belts. A certain man came and snatched the belt from her. She said to him: Give it to me. He said to her: If I give it to you, will you be betrothed to me? She took it and was silent. 

In this scenario, a couple is in the marketplace. The woman is a merchant and the man comes to her stall with marriage on his mind. He grabs a belt (other commentators say it was a silk ribbon, scarf or pearls), and the woman asks for it back. The man replies that he will return it on condition that the woman agrees to marry. The woman takes the item, but doesn’t say yes or no. Is this a valid betrothal or not?

Unsurprisingly, the rabbis disagree.

Rav Nahman said: She could say: Yes, I took it, but I took my property. 

Likely speaking for most of us considering this scenario, Rav Nahman rules that the couple is not betrothed. A shopkeeper taking back her own property without comment should not be construed as accepting a marriage proposal. But Rava disagrees.

Rava raised an objection to Rav Nahman: If (a man) betrothed with (goods obtained by) robbery, extortion or stealth, or if he grabbed a sela from her hand and betrothed her with it, she is betrothed. 

Rava challenges Rav Nahman with a teaching from a beraita (early rabbinic text) that seems to hold that it is perfectly fine to betroth a woman with stolen goods, even if they were stolen from the woman herself. But Rav Nahman isn’t having it. 

Rav Nahman answered: There he arranged to marry her.

Rav Nahman posits that the beraita is referring to a case where the couple had a prior arrangement. In the first case, where no such commitment existed, betrothing her with stolen goods isn’t valid. But if the couple had previously arranged to be married, then taking the item he offered without saying anything, even if the item was hers to begin with, would (according to Rav Nahman) constitute her assent to the betrothal. 

The Gemara continues:

As it is taught, (a man who) said: Take this sela that I owe you, and he went back and said to her: Be betrothed to me with it. (If he said this) at the time the money was given and she wanted it, she is betrothed; if she did not want it, she is not betrothed. 

From our previous studies, we know that a woman can refuse a betrothal. So the key question in assessing the validity of a proposal with an item that does not belong to the man is the woman’s intent. If she desired the betrothal, then she is betrothed. And if she didn’t, she isn’t. If there’s a prior agreement to marry, then we can especially presume her silence indicates consent. If there was no prior arrangement and the woman did not want the marriage, she must make that known. Rav Nahman underscores this point: 

What is the meaning of: She wanted, and what is the meaning of: She did not want? If we say that: “She wanted” means that she said yes, and “She did not want” means that she explicitly said no, it can be inferred that if she was silent it is a valid betrothal. 

Today, marriage proposals are seldom a complete surprise, particularly in traditional circles. Most couples have already decided to get married by the time one partner gets down on the proverbial bended knee to ask the other for their hand. But in the time of the Talmud, marriage wasn’t such a well-planned affair, and so clear consent — whether verbal or not — was required. Whether the item used is a pilfered pearl, a stolen scarf or something more conventional, all agree on one thing: Betrothal isn’t valid if the answer to the proposal is “no.”

Read all of Kiddushin 13 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 26th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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