Today’s daf quotes a mishnah in Tractate Nedarim that discusses categories of women whose husbands are required by the courts to divorce them, but who still receive the full payment promised by their marriage contract. One of these categories of women is: She who says I am withdrawn from the Jews.
In this case, the woman is stating that she is not sexually available to Jews. And that’s a problem for the rabbis, because the woman is married – to a Jew! When the possibility of sex is foreclosed, the rabbis propose to force the husband to divorce his wife but to still require him to pay her marriage price.
Why would a woman make such a vow in the first place? After all, if she is Jewish, and is married to a Jewish man, then doesn’t she know that such a vow would essentially destine her to be alone for the rest of her life? The medieval commentator Rashi thinks that this is exactly the woman’s aim. He writes, “from the fact that she forbade herself from everyone, we learn that sexual intercourse is difficult for her, and it is forced upon her, therefore she takes her marriage price.”
According to one study, perhaps as many as 75% of women experience pain during sex at some point during their lives, because of any number of gynecological conditions or sometimes for reasons unknown. In a world where effective gynecological treatments did not exist for these conditions, we can assume that marriage — with the rabbis’ assumption that it came with consent to sex — would be profoundly painful and even traumatic for those experiencing this kind of pain. This pain might even lead someone to prefer a life of being alone, despite the additional physical and financial precarity that this would have meant for some women. And Rashi knows that.
But before we applaud the rabbis’ profound empathy for women’s intimate experiences, we need to read the rest of the discussion. The mishnah goes on to state that the rabbis got worried that women might use this tactic and force a divorce in order to marry someone else, while still receiving the money she was promised in their marriage contracts. It therefore continues by offering an alternative solution:
“I am withdrawn from the Jews,” — her husband must nullify his part, and she may have relations with him. But she is withdrawn from all other Jews.
According to the mishnah, the woman’s initial statement that she withdraws from the Jews (sexually) has the force of a vow. And as Numbers 30:14 states about a married woman’s vows, “Every vow and every sworn obligation of self-denial may be upheld by her husband or annulled by her husband.”
So here, the mishnah tells the husband to annul the part of the vow that relates to him, and not to divorce her at all. Once he does this, her vow applies to all Jewish men except him. The result of this rule, which is meant to avoid the situation where a woman uses this vow to force a paid divorce and move onto the next man, is that a woman who is attempting to avoid painful physical intimacy through a legal vow can be required to remain married to her husband, with all that this marriage entails, “forced upon her” (at least according to Rashi). Only if he dies or wants to divorce her can this woman be free from the pressures of remarriage.
And what of Rashi, who was so sensitive to this woman’s experience in his explanation of the statement? He is silent on this part of the discussion.
Read all of Yevamot 112 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 27th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.