If you watch any of the crime shows seemingly always on TV, you know that identifying a deceased person is as simple as getting a tiny bit of DNA, running it through a complicated-looking machine, and then using a computer to match the DNA to a photograph of the person (because apparently every person’s DNA and picture is kept in some large database). While actual forensic experts will tell you that it’s not that simple, it’s true that DNA evidence can be extremely useful in identifying someone who can’t, or won’t, speak for themselves.
DNA evidence was first used in identification in 1986, but human beings have needed to identify bodies for far longer than that. Today’s daf offers a snapshot of the kinds of evidence that the rabbis had to consider when trying to figure out who exactly a dead person was.
The mishnah on today’s daf opens with an opinion about what counts when identifying a deceased person:
One may testify (that a man died) only about the countenance of the face with the nose, although there are distinguishing marks on his body and his personal belongings. One may not testify until his soul departs. And even if one saw him cut open, or crucified, or with a wild animal eating parts of him. One may testify only up to three days.
According to this opinion, a dead person can only be identified from the moment they actually die (and not before!), only for the three days after they die (before decomposition sets in and distorts their features), and only if their face and nose are both visible.
Like any good forensic scientist, Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava then disagrees with the idea of creating this kind of general rule, because “not every person, nor every place, nor every hour is identical.” After all, decomposition happens differently in different kinds of environments.
The mishnah’s conversation is a serious one, reckoning with the realities of what it means to be a human being with a body made of flesh, vulnerable to violence, death and decomposition. The Gemara is going to continue this conversation, asking about particular kinds of clothing, facial features and moles as markers of who we are. But before it does, perhaps to break the tension of this difficult subject, the Gemara offers an amusing anecdote:
Abba bar Marta, who is Abba bar Minyumi, had been loaned money by the exilarch’s house. He brought wax, stuck it to worn-out fabric, and stuck that to his forehead. He passed before them and they did not recognize him.
The exilarch was the political leader of the Jews in Babylonia. He was known to be fabulously wealthy and had a house full of servants who did his bidding. At times, these minions were known to enact violence on the exilarch’s enemies.
Given the exilarch’s wealth, it makes sense that when Abba bar Marta needed money, he turned to this important leader. But he was unable or unwilling to pay the money back (the story doesn’t specify which). How can you avoid getting caught by the exilarch’s minions and beaten until you pay what you owe? Apparently, a clever disguise of wax and fabric distorting the shape of the forehead is all it takes.
Within the logic of this particular discussion, the story teaches us that the shape of the forehead is crucial in identifying someone. But within the broader flow of the Talmud, the story is also a reminder that when things get really heavy, and issues get painful, sometimes what you really need is a bit of a laugh to break the tension.
Read all of Yevamot 120 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 5th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.