Talmudic pages

Kiddushin 9

By the crown of the king.

Today’s daf includes the following anecdote:

A man was selling beads of glass. A woman came to him and said, “Give me one string.” He said to her, “If I give you one string, will you be betrothed to me?” She said, “Give, give.” Rav Chama said, “Any ‘give, give’ is nothing.”

We’re in the midst of a discussion examining many liminal cases of betrothal. In this case, Rav Chama thinks it’s clear that she wants the beads, not the betrothal. 

After two similar cases in which the woman gives similarly doubled responses (e.g. “throw, throw”), the rabbis conclude that none of these proposals succeeds. The Gemara then asks whether it is the apparently impatient repetition that indicates her refusal of the proposal and if a non-repetitive response (simply “give” or “throw”) would also constitute a refusal. Ravina thinks a one-word response indicates consent, while Rav Sama bar Rakta thinks it obviously does not:

By the king’s crown — she is not betrothed!

The king’s crown is not often evoked in disputes about the halakhah and it’s not entirely clear what this exclamation means. Rabbeinu Chananel, an early talmudic commentator, suggests that Rav Sama bar Rakta is saying: Even if the man offered her the equivalent of the king’s crown — i.e., something of immense value — she would not be betrothed. Rabbi Yehonatan haCohen of Lunel, another early talmudic commentator, suggests that Rav Sama bar Rakta is instead using the language of an oath, swearing by God’s crown. Other commentators similarly understand the language to be that of an oath, though the head being sworn upon is an earthly king. This last interpretation makes the language even stranger in a halakhic debate.

In fact, Rabbi Joseph Chaim ben Elijah al-Chacham, better known as the Ben Ish Chai, a 19th-century rabbi in Baghdad, references today’s daf when asked if one is allowed to swear falsely upon the head of the king. He writes: “Rav Sama bar Rakta said, ‘By the king’s crown — she is not betrothed!’ Rashi explains that he swore by the crown of the king. We find that they were accustomed to give such respect to the crown of the king, to the point that they had the custom to swear amongst themselves in the study hall; for it was certainly not said in jest, but in place of an oath, and the listener relied on this as with any other language of oath, even though in their day there was no king of Israel, but of other nations.” In other words, no, it is not acceptable to swear falsely by the crown of even a human king.

Ben Ish Chai points out that the one exception to this is when Joseph swears falsely by Pharaoh in Genesis 42:15–16. This happens during the famine when his brothers come to Egypt for food and do not recognize him. Joseph accuses them of spying and declares:

“By this you shall be put to the test: unless your youngest brother comes here, as Pharaoh lives, you shall not depart from this place! Let one of you go and bring your brother, while the rest of you remain confined, that your words may be put to the test whether there is truth in you. Else, as Pharaoh lives, you are nothing but spies!”

It’s a bluff, but, according to the Ben Ish Chai, because Pharaoh is an idol-worshiper who makes himself into a god, there is no problem with disparaging him with a false oath. 

Returning to the debate presented on our daf, the anonymous voice in the Gemara concludes that the halakhah is that even a woman who gives a one word answer asking for the item is not betrothed, in accordance with Rav Sama bar Rakta. However one interprets his strong remark, his interpretation of the law stands and the hasty (and, perhaps, manipulative) marketplace proposal is inadequate to effect betrothal. If Rav Sama bar Rakta is in fact using the language of an oath, his warning about careful and intentional use of language is emphasized even further.  

Read all of Kiddushin 9 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 22nd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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