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Yevamot 13

One verse, two laws.

The diversity of Jewish life is downright amazing. Jews have lived all over the world for thousands of years and have adapted and changed in response to those varied influences in beautiful ways. But on today’s daf, the Talmud asks how much difference is too much when internal disagreements threaten to undermine the unity of the Jewish people.

The discussion begins with a consideration of Deuteronomy 14:1: “You are children of your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead.” The biblical commentators saw this verse as a response to the practices of the Amorites, one of the peoples that lived in ancient Israel, who engaged in such practices. But the rabbis of the Talmud were particularly interested in the Hebrew phrase lo titgodedu, meaning “you will not cut yourselves.” 

Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yohanan: I should read here the verse: “You shall not cut yourselves [titgodedu],” which is interpreted as meaning: Do not become numerous factions (agudot). The Gemara asks: This verse: “You shall not cut yourselves,” is required for the matter itself, as the Merciful One is saying: Do not cut yourselves over the dead. 

Reish Lakish is having a bit of fun with the words here: He connects lo titgodedu (do not cut) to agudot (factions), arguing that the verse is commanding the Jewish people not to separate themselves into factions. The Gemara sounds concerned, though, because this verse’s plain meaning — not to engage in self-cutting to mourn someone who has died — is essential to ground that more explicit commandment. Are we allowed to learn two completely different lessons from this one phrase?

The Gemara answers: If so let the verse state only: You shall not cut. What is the meaning of: “You shall not cut yourselves”? Learn from this that it comes for this (to teach the prohibition against splitting into factions). The Gemara asks: But in that case, one can say that the entire verse comes for this purpose. The Gemara answers: If so, let the verse state: Lo tagodu (rather than lo titgodedu). What is the meaning of: “lo titgodedu”? Conclude from it: (Both the simple prohibition against making cuts for the dead and the matter of dividing into factions.)

The Gemara says it’s OK to draw both conclusions from this single phrase. What makes this acceptable? The reasoning isn’t totally clear from the text itself, but Rabbi Shlomo ben Avraham, a 13th-century French talmudist known by the acronym Rashba, hashes it out for us. He notes that the phrases lo tagodu and lo titgodedu have the same meaning — do not cut yourselves — but it’s the latter construction that appears in Deuteronomy 14:1. What do the two additional letters — in Hebrew, a tav and a dalet — signify? The Rashba posits that they indicate that two conclusions can be drawn from this one verse. We saw a similar discussion — and a similar rationale — way back on Rosh Hashanah 6

With Reish Lakish affirmed, the conversation continues to examine situations of divergent Jewish custom and tradition in an attempt to suss out what constitutes improper splitting into factions. After reviewing disparate practices around the timing for reading Megillat Esther and pre-Passover work restrictions, the rabbis ultimately conclude that different customs across communities generally aren’t a problem. The prohibition against factionalism is violated only when a single court alternates between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel’s legal conclusions instead of picking one line of thought and sticking with it.

This comes as a relief. Diversity is part of what makes the Jewish tradition vibrant and dynamic, and the thought of differences being unacceptable strikes me as inherently problematic. Fortunately, so long as we have a degree of consistency in our approaches and thinking, it’s all good with our daf.

Read all of Yevamot 13 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 20th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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