Today’s daf introduces us to a new category of woman: the aylonit.
Rav Asi said: The co-wife of an aylonit is forbidden. As it is stated: “The firstborn that she bears” (Deuteronomy 25:6), which comes to exclude an aylonit, who cannot give birth.
If a man dies and leaves behind no children but two widows, and one of the widows is an aylonit, then according to Rav Asi, yibbum is forbidden with both women. Why? Because the biblical command of yibbum insists that the point of levirate marriage is to have a biological child to carry on the dead man’s name, and an aylonit cannot get pregnant.
But what is an aylonit? Some have argued that it is a woman who does not develop secondary female sex characteristics. Professor Hillel Gray has suggested that this might refer to a woman who has XY chromosomes and female external genitalia, a phenomenon known today as partial androgen insensitivity syndrome. Though such a person looks like someone born biologically female, they have no uterus or ovaries, and so cannot actually get pregnant or give birth. But what we know for sure is that the aylonit is infertile.
In a world without chromosomal analysis, a woman and her potential husband might have had no idea of her aylonit status and marry assuming that they can have biological children together. But today’s daf notes that sometimes both parties were aware that the woman was an aylonit and chose to marry anyway. That awareness had important legal implications.
Today’s daf cites a mishnah which directly contradicts Rav Asi’s statement:
And with regard to all of these women with whom relations are forbidden, if they died, or they refused their husbands, or were divorced, or were found to be aylonit, their co-wives are permitted.
So while Rav Asi says that the co-wives of an aylonit are forbidden for yibbum, this mishnah clearly states that they are permitted. How do we resolve the contradiction? The Gemara explains:
It is not difficult. Here, Rav Asi is referring to a situation in which her husband knew that she was an aylonit. There, in the mishnah, it is referring to a case where he did not know.
Let’s unpack what the Gemara is saying. If a man does not know that the woman he wants to marry can never have biological children, it is possible that, had he known, he would have chosen to marry someone else. This possibility calls the marriage into legal question, and opens up space for the aylonit’s co-wives — the only “real” wives — to perform yibbum. However, if a man does know that the woman is an aylonit, and chooses to marry her anyway, there is no legal question that he had all the facts at the time of the marriage, so everyone agrees that the marriage is legal and exempts co-wives from yibbum.
At this point in our journey through Yevamot, we should not be surprised that the Gemara does not appear to be interested in the woman’s own discovery of her aylonit status, or in how she feels when her marriage is called into question. We should also not be surprised that the rabbis complicate ideas of gender and sex, and recognize that these binaries don’t actually reflect the complexities of human bodies and human experience.
But I think we can be surprised at the rabbinic recognition that a man might choose to marry an aylonit knowing that biological children are not in their future together. The whole premise of this tractate is that children are so essential to a marriage that if a man dies without having conceived any, his brother is required to step into that void and bed his widow — a law that creates a mountain of legal tangles (which we will continue to grapple with for more than 100 pages) not to mention untold emotional upheaval. But here we see an alternative framing of ordinary marriage: The rabbis recognize that marriage has many functions, not only procreation, and that if both parties enter into a marriage fully aware of each other’s biological realities, such a marriage is legal and just as sacred as any other marriage.
Read all of Yevamot 12 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 19th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.