Yevamot 117

The difficult mother-in-law.

On today’s daf, the rabbis continue a conversation that began with a mishnah on Yevamot 114b that tried to assess the internal motivations of a woman who testified that a man (her own husband or another’s) was dead.

On yesterday’s daf, we see the rabbis try to ascertain a woman’s motives based on her public display of grief. Rabbi Yehuda suggested that we can rely on a woman’s outward expression of sadness. But the rabbis demur, saying that grief (and deception) can look many ways. 

On today’s daf, the rabbis continue to try to ascertain if a woman’s testimony is credible. But this time, instead of focusing on her outward expression, they are examining her relative placement in the constellation of a family system. They look for motivations a woman might have to lie and say that a man has died. 

And where do they start? Naturally, it’s in-laws and steps. A mishnah states:

All are deemed credible when they come to give testimony with regard to the death of a woman’s husband, apart from her mother-in-law, the daughter of her mother-in-law, her rival wife, the wife of her yavam, and her husband’s daughter (i.e. her stepdaughter).

The rabbis predict that women in these close and complicated relationships may have ulterior motives for testifying that a woman’s husband has died, since their testimony would essentially serve to cut the woman off from the family.

The Gemara sees an interesting omission: Why is the testimony of the daughter of the woman’s mother-in-law omitted but not the testimony of the daughter of her father-in-law? 

The reason that the daughter of her mother-in-law is suspected of lying is because she has a mother who hates her daughter-in-law, and therefore the daughter also hates her. 

If Cinderella’s stepmother (or, in this scenario, mother-in-law) hates her, it’s likely that Drizella and Anastasia do as well. So the rabbis will not accept testimony from either one. But a daughter of a father-in-law might also have a difficult relationship with her.

So, then why is the father-in-law’s daughter not a credible witness?

If there is no mother-in-law to direct hatred at the woman, the rabbis reason, then the daughter of a father-in-law should not be suspected of also hating the woman. They seem to have viewed these familial hatreds as passing through women.

But the daughter of the father-in-law is not off the hook. The Gemara now reasons that this woman might be jealous because:

She eats the food of my father’s house.

Essentially, the daughter of the mother in-law and/or the daughter of the father in-law might resent this woman’s claim to the food and other resources of the household. And that is enough of a conflict of interest to render their testimony unacceptable. 

In each of these cases, the rabbis detail rules that try to eliminate bias in testimony. We’ll see much more of this in the next order of the Talmud (Nezikin, literally: damages), which is primarily concerned with court procedure. The best witnesses are those who have no skin in the game. When ulterior motives are present, witnesses may not be as scrupulous with facts, and may even intentionally fib or outright lie in order to shift the family dynamic to get an unwanted woman booted from the family.

Read all of Yevamot 117 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 2nd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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