Back in Tractate Gittin, we encountered a case in which a slave is jointly owned by two people, one of whom emancipates their share, resulting in a situation where someone is half-enslaved. Today, we address another case of someone with half-status.
Rava says: (If a man says to a woman): “Be betrothed to half of me,” — she is betrothed. “Half of you is betrothed to me,” — she is not betrothed.
According to Rava, a man can be half-betrothed to a woman, but a woman cannot be half-betrothed to a man. The Gemara offers two challenges to Rava’s opinion, one textual and one practical. Here’s the first:
Abaye said to Rava: What is different that (if he says): “Half of you is betrothed to me,” she is not betrothed? The Merciful One states: “When a man takes a woman, and marries her” (Deuteronomy 24:1) — “a woman,” and not half a woman. So too, the Merciful One states: “A man,” and not half a man.
Abaye notes that the Torah verses that form the basis of the rabbinic laws of marriage refer to a man and a woman, which he takes to mean that both men and women need to enter into marriage fully, meaning with their whole bodies. But Rava dismisses this challenge.
There, a woman is not eligible for two. But isn’t a man eligible to two? And this is what he is saying to her: If I wish to marry another, I will marry.
According to Rava, the fact that men can marry more than one woman means that a man might choose to reserve half of himself for a second wife later on. But since one woman cannot marry more than one man at a time in the rabbinic system, a man cannot leave half of a woman for some other man. That is impossible and so the betrothal never takes effect.
The Gemara is going to assume that Rava is correct that a man can betroth half of himself. Abaye’s statement, while trying to apply the same interpretive principle to both parts of a verse, just doesn’t match the lived experience of rabbinic marriage.
So the Gemara’s next challenge is a practical one: In a world in which women cannot marry more than one man, what would it look like to betroth half a woman? How could that even work, practically? After all – which half is it?
Mar Zutra, son of Rav Mari, said to Ravina: But let the betrothal spread through all of her. Isn’t it taught that if one says: The leg of this (animal) is a burnt-offering, all of it is a burnt-offering?
Perhaps a woman is like an animal designated for sacrifice, and designating a part of her as betrothed is really a means of designating the whole? The Gemara rejects the parallel between human women and other non-human animals:
Is it comparable? There, an animal. Here, another mind.
Rabbinic law treats women as legal actors whose capacity to agree or disagree has legal force. But when it comes to non-human animals, the rabbis don’t take issues of capacity and consent into account. So presumably (and unlike with animal sacrifice), if a woman agrees to be half-betrothed, then the betrothal wouldn’t “spread” to her entire body if that isn’t what she had been intending all along.
Ultimately, the Gemara concludes that Rava is correct: A man can be half-betrothed, but a woman cannot. But hey, at least she’s human?
Read all of Kiddushin 7 on Sefaria.