Friends, havrutas, countrymen: We’ve made it! Mazel tov! It’s been a challenging four months, but today we are completing our journey through Tractate Yevamot.
And what a journey it’s been. We started out with the intricacies of which kinds of women obligate a dead man’s brother to perform the mitzvah of yibbum, moved into even more complicated discussions about which brother is obligated to marry the yevama in cases of complex family configurations, discussed how one can marry a yevama (or how she can perform halitzah), and finally what happens when we just aren’t sure if a woman’s husband is dead. Along the way, we discussed issues of consent, women’s autonomy, child marriage, prophets and rabbinic nuances of gender and sex.
For many of us, this tractate was intellectually and emotionally difficult. But what we’ve learned lays the groundwork for the coming discussions of marriage and divorce. After all, yibbum isn’t a practice that most of us experience today, but diving into rabbinic approaches to sex, gender and marriage through the lens of something a little foreign to us is a great way to develop the understanding necessary to next discuss things that hit a little closer to home.
While yibbum may not be relevant to most of us (and probably wasn’t relevant to most people even in the time of the Talmud), today’s daf imagines a world where yibbum is relevant not only to human beings, but even to the demons that the rabbis think share our world. Beit Hillel teaches that a woman is understood to be a widow if someone hears a disembodied voice stating that her husband is dead. The Gemara asks: Really?!
Perhaps it was a demon. Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: They saw that he had the form of a person. The Gemara asks: They (i.e., demons) also appear similar.
Apparently demons can take the forms of human beings, so even if something looks humanoid, there are no guarantees. The Gemara then tries to figure out how to visually distinguish a demon from a human:
They saw that he had a shadow. But they also have a shadow. They saw that he had a shadow of a shadow. But perhaps they also have a shadow of a shadow? Rabbi Hanina said: Yonatan the demon said to me: They have a shadow, they do not have a shadow of a shadow.
To resolve the issue, the rabbis turn to someone who is clearly an expert on demons — a demon himself! Yonatan the demon teaches that demons have shadows but not shadows of shadows. But as Rosencrantz tells us in Hamlet, a shadow of a shadow is of “so airy and light a quality” that it’s basically nothing. For the rabbis here, there really aren’t that many differences between humans and demons — and both are seemingly invested in identifying when women are widows and are thus obligated to perform yibbum or halitzah.
But while the Talmud seems to think that everyone, human and supernatural, cares deeply about yibbum, many people today probably aren’t so sure. After all, why bother spending four months learning something that isn’t actually relevant to most of us? The tractate ends with an important reminder of the importance of learning Torah for Torah’s sake:
Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Hanina said: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as it is stated: “And all your children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children” (Isaiah 54:13).
There’s a clever play on words happening in Rabbi Hanina’s teaching. The Hebrew word for “your children” in the verse from Isaiah is banayikh, from the same Hebrew root as the word for insight or understanding: binah. And the Hebrew word for who has insight or understanding of you (i.e. God) is — wait for it —bonayikh. And the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Talmud don’t have vowels. So Rabbi Hanina is actually reading Isaiah 54:13 as saying that all those who seek insight into God bring peace to the world as a whole. And as the next verse in Isaiah promises: “You shall be established through righteousness. You shall be safe from oppression, And shall have no fear; From ruin, and it shall not come near you.”
Hadran Alakh Massekhet Yevamot. We will return to you, Tractate Yevamot. But for now, onward to Ketubot!
Read all of Yevamot 122 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 7th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.