In one of the classic scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a plague victim is being loaded onto a cart of corpses. In spite of the insistence of the person carrying him, the ailing individual repeatedly calls out that he’s not dead yet.
The difference between a dead plague victim and one who is only possibly so plays a big role on today’s daf. The context is a discussion of when we believe a wife’s testimony that her husband has died. According to the mishnah, a court accepts the testimony of a woman that her husband died while the couple was on a trip overseas if both their relationship and the state of the world were peaceful on their departure. But if there was a war raging when they left, more evidence of his demise is required.
Rava then offers an explanation for why war renders her testimony inadequate: During wartime, she might mistakenly conclude that the violence led to his death without actually seeing him die. The Gemara further notes that sometimes those wounded in battle can recuperate from an injury that initially seemed fatal, further complicating the question of death during wartime.
The daf then considers a number of circumstances that may or may not be like war, starting with famine.
Rava thought to say that famine is not like war, as she will not say what she imagines to be the case. Rava then retracted and said: Famine is like war, because a certain woman came before Rava and said to him: My husband died in a famine.
Rava said to her: Did you do well to save yourself? Did it enter your mind that with that small amount of sifted flour that you left him he could have survived?
She said to him: The Master also knows that in a case like this he could not survive.
Rava initially says that famine is not comparable to war since a woman in that situation will not report simply what she imagines to be her husband’s fate. A woman then comes and reports that her husband died in a famine, but on cross-examination it emerges that she in fact didn’t see her husband die — only that he was weak with hunger. This causes Rava to change his mind and say famine is just like war, where circumstantial evidence may point to death but it’s not conclusive. But Rava isn’t done.
Rava then retracted again and said: Famine is worse than war. As in wartime, it is only if she said: My husband died in the war, that she is not deemed credible. (If in a time of war she says): He died upon his bed, she is deemed credible, whereas with regard to a famine she is deemed credible only if she says: He died and I buried him.
In other words, the wife’s testimony during wartime is only deemed unreliable if she testifies generally that he died in the war. But if she attests that the husband died under circumstances unrelated to war (“on his bed”), she is believed. In the case of famine, she’s only believed if she both witnessed him die and buried him, which is why Rava says famine is “worse” than war.
The Gemara then goes on to consider four other situations: rockslides, snakes, scorpions and plague. For the first three, the Gemara rules that they are like war: The situation is confusing, and we do not rely on the woman to have thoroughly examined the facts to see if her husband might have survived. But for plagues, there’s less consensus. Some say that it’s like war, but others rely on what was apparently a common expression in talmudic times: “For seven years there was pestilence and not a person left (i.e. died) before his time.” That is to say, in situations of plague, many people survive, so if a woman testified about her husband’s death she must have actually witnessed it.
Indeed, even at the time of the Shulchan Arukh a millennium later, Rabbi Joseph Caro holds: “If there was plague in the world and she said, ‘My husband died,’ she is believed.” But Rabbi Moshe Isserles comments, “And there are those that say that she is not believed.” So there we are.
Under each of these unfortunate circumstances, the rabbis consider whether an assertion of death is credible. In doing so, their focus is primarily on one thing: the woman’s certainty of her husband’s death. If they believe her in that regard, they’re inclined to accept her testimony that her husband is — completely — dead.
Read all of Yevamot 114 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 29th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.