Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Rav Sheila Allows Wife to Remarry After Husband Seen Falling Into Lake.
One might imagine this headline running in The Talmudic Times in the wake of an incident described on today’s daf, in which witnesses reported that a man was seen falling into a lake in Samkei but no one saw him come out. Based on their testimony, Rav Sheila declares the man legally dead and allows his wife to remarry. But that decision prompts scathing criticism from Rav Sheila’s colleagues — and a screaming headline in our mythical talmudic newspaper.
The reason for the controversy is this beraita (early rabbinic teaching), also relayed on today’s daf:
(If a man) fell into the water, whether it has an end or does not have an end, his wife is prohibited (from marrying); this is the statement of Rabbi Meir. And the rabbis say: with an end, his wife is permitted, but with no end, his wife is prohibited.
According to Rabbi Meir, witness testimony about a man who fell into a body of water and did not surface is not sufficient to allow his wife to remarry. The logic here is that just because witnesses saw him fall in, that does not prove that he died as he may have emerged elsewhere unseen. The majority opinion differentiates between a body of water that has a visible end, which Abaye defines as a body of water where one can stand in one place and see the shore on all sides, and one that does not. If a man fell into the former and is not seen climbing out, we can assume he died and his wife can remarry. If he fell into the latter, the rabbis agree with Rabbi Meir that he may have emerged from the water alive (but unseen), and she cannot remarry.
The lake in Samkei has no visible end, and Rav Sheila’s colleagues are outraged that his ruling goes against the majority opinion. Rav calls for his excommunication, but Shmuel, taking a more cautious approach, declares: “Let us first send him a message and clarify whether he had a sufficient reason to issue this ruling.”
So they do. First they inquire if Rav Sheila understands the rule about whether a wife is allowed to remarry if her husband disappears into a body of water with no visible end. Rav Sheila responds that he does know the rule — the wife is forbidden. Then they inquire if the lake in Samkei has a visible end or not, to which Rav Sheila replies that it does not. Given all that, they then ask why Rav Sheila permitted the woman to remarry, to which he responds:
I erred in my reasoning. I thought: Since the waters are gathered and stagnant, they are considered as a body of water with an end. But that is not so. Since there are waves, say that the waves carried him.
Rav Sheila’s initial ruling was based upon his assumption that the waters of Samkei were still and incapable of transporting the missing man to unseen parts of the lake. Therefore, the lake could be treated like one with a visible end. Having learned that the water was in motion, he acknowledges his mistake.
Upon hearing the results of the inquiry, Shmuel quotes Proverbs 12:21: “No mischief shall befall the righteous,” praising Rav for delaying the excommunication until after the results of inquiry were made public and saving Rav Sheila from undue trouble. In response, Rav recites Proverbs 11:14: “But salvation lies in much counsel,” giving credit to Shmuel who advised him to do so.
While Rav and Shmuel are busy exchanging words of flattery, the woman waits at home, unsure of the fate of her husband and her status as wife or widow. The Gemara does not explore her situation and what may be done to help her move forward, but it might make for a great story in the Talmudic Times.
Read all of Yevamot 121 on Sefaria.