The last chapter of Tractate Yevamot begins on today’s daf with yet another variation of a travel scenario first introduced back on Yevamot 87:
A woman whose husband and co-wife traveled to a country overseas and witnesses came and told her, “Your husband died,” she shall not marry. And she also shall not enter into levirate marriage until she knows whether she, her rival wife, is pregnant.
In this case, a woman’s husband has gone overseas with one of his other wives. Witnesses then report that he has died. The mishnah teaches that she should not marry another man because, if the husband was childless, she must marry her late husband’s brother. But she can’t do that just yet because if the co-wife turns out to be pregnant, the obligation of yibbum goes away. So the woman is in a bit of a bind until she can determine if her co-wife is pregnant or not.
At this point in our exploration of Tractate Yevamot, we are fully aware of the Gemara’s ability to introduce additional levels of complexity to what it finds in the Mishnah. We’ve had more than our share of “and what if this happens” scenarios that have stretched our imaginations and challenged us to use every ounce of logic our brains could muster. But on today’s daf, the Gemara goes no further. On the contrary, it puts on the brakes.
A careful read of the mishnah reveals an extra word in the final sentence: “she.” The text could have conveyed the same thing without that word, stating simply “until she knows whether her rival wife is pregnant.” But instead it includes an extra word, and by now we know what this means: The extra word must be here to teach us something. And what might that be?
The Gemara states:
It teaches us this: We are concerned (about a possible pregnancy of) this rival wife, but we are not concerned about another rival wife.
In other words, should you be thinking that we ought to be concerned not only with the possible pregnancy of the rival wife mentioned in the mishnah, but also the possibility that the husband met, married and impregnated a different woman while traveling overseas, you don’t have to worry. The additional word in the mishnah makes clear that our concern is only with the potential pregnancy of the co-wife who joined her now-deceased husband in travel.
While it has been a while, this isn’t the first time that we’ve seen the Talmud curtail a discussion to keep itself from going over the talmudic deep end. We learned back on Yoma 2 that while we designate a backup High Priest for the Yom Kippur ceremony in the Temple in case the original becomes impure, we do not have to designate a backup wife for the High Priest in case his wife dies suddenly (the High Priest has to be married to perform the ritual). And we learned on Pesachim 9 that once we’ve cleaned our house for Passover, we don’t worry that an animal dragged some hametz from a neighbor’s home into our own.
In both of these cases, the Talmud tells us that if we headed down those paths, there would be no end to the matter. Maybe the backup wife needs a backup too in case she dies. Maybe an animal carried hametz from another town. If we entertained all these possibilities, we’d never be able to move on.
At various points in our study of Yevamot, it seemed like the rabbis could have taken a similar tack and said we’ve gone far enough with this — and didn’t. Lucky for us, there was an extra word in the mishnah that triggered that response today.
Read all of Yevamot 119 on Sefaria.