Let’s jump straight in with a legal puzzle:
Rava raised a dilemma before Rav Nahman: In the case of a man who confers possession of a bill of divorce to his wife, when she has a (potential) yavam, what is the halakhah?
The terseness and word order of this teaching, which we’ve preserved in the translation, make it a little tricky to parse. Essentially, a man sends his wife a get (divorce document) by messenger and then dies. It’s unclear if he died before she received the get, so now we do not know if she’s a yevama or just a childless divorcee. Is she bonded to her brother-in-law or forbidden to him?
The best way to determine the answer to this question is to ask the woman to testify in court as to when she received the divorce document. But the rabbis are concerned that she might have motivation to fudge the answer:
If she hates her (potential) yavam, divorce is for her a benefit, and it is a principle that one may act in a person’s interest in his absence.
Or perhaps she loves her (potential) yavam, and this bill of divorce is to her disadvantage, and one may not act against a person’s interest in his absence.
On the one hand, if she hates her brother-in-law, she might say that the divorce document arrived before her husband died. This way, she is not bound to him. The rabbis seem OK with this, as it will presumably be to the yavam’s advantage since there is a general assumption that taking on one’s brother’s widow in levirate marriage is a burden. In this case, the woman acts both to her advantage and to his (in absentia), so we’re not concerned.
On the other hand, if she loves her yavam, she might say that the divorce document arrived late, after her husband had already passed away. This binds the yavam to her. But if he’s not interested in taking her on, then she has acted to his disadvantage and this is a problem.
So what should we do? Now that Rava has laid out the problem in full, his teacher replies with the answer:
Rav Nahman said to Rava: We have learned that we are concerned about her statement, and she must perform halitzah and she does not enter into levirate marriage.
Rav Nahman states that the court has reason to be suspicious about her statement either way, whether she gives testimony that would classify her as a divorcee and exempt her from levirate marriage and if her testimony would make her a yevama and bond her brother-in-law to her. To be on the safe side, the rabbis choose halitzah. This leaves the yavam with no obligation and leaves her unambiguously free to marry someone else.
As long as we’re on the subject of divorce papers delivered via messenger and speculating about people’s best interests, the rabbis now ask: In a quarreling couple, can the husband, in the absence of his wife, write a valid bill of divorce? Again, the rabbis utilize the principle that a person cannot act against another’s interest in their absence. Would this be to the wife’s advantage? Can we assume she would want the marriage to end?
The rabbis begin to think about all the things they know about married women and, in a litany of aphorisms on the subject, they come to the conclusion that women prefer to be married.
Reish Lakish says it’s about companionship:
It is better to sit as two than to sit lonely as a widow.
For Abaye it’s about status:
One whose husband is small as an ant, she places her seat among the noblewomen.
Rav Pappa concurs about status:
One whose husband is a wool comber (a lowly occupation) she calls him to sit with her at the entrance to the house (so they are seen publicly together).
But the most striking assertion comes from an anonymous sage:
And all of these commit adultery and attribute the children to their husbands.
Even a woman who quarrels with her husband, the rabbis speculate, prefers to stay married so that when she cheats and becomes pregnant by her lover she can pass the child off as his, so that it does not take on the status of mamzer.
In this short succession of maxims, the sages convince themselves that women prefer to be married — even if the relationship is stormy. The sages can thereby comfortably assure themselves that divorce is not considered in this woman’s interest. Therefore, if the man wishes to divorce the wife with whom he quarrels, he needs to do it in person.
I can’t say I agree with all of the sages’ assumptions about women, but the legal conclusion at least seems sound: People should break up face-to-face, especially in the heat of an argument.
Read all of Yevamot 118 on Sefaria.