Yevamot 18

How substantial is a levirate bond?

There are three stages to levirate marriage: (1) The man dies and a levirate bond is formed between his widow and his brother. (2) The bond is formalized through a levirate betrothal. (3) The bond is secured through consummation and marriage. 

As we will see in more depth when we get to Tractate Kiddushin, the rabbis have clear legal understandings for what it means to be betrothed versus fully married. But what is the legal status of a levirate bond that has not yet been consummated (i.e. is still in stage one)? Is a levirate bond equivalent to any other marriage? An engagement? Is it something else entirely?

Today’s daf explores this question through a case in which the yevama dies before the betrothal is effected. Is the man considered to have been married to her, with all the legal implications thereof, or not? The reasoning takes a few lines of consideration, so bear with me.

The Gemara quotes Rav Yehuda, who states:

If his yevama dies, he is permitted to marry her sister.

With death, the levirate bond is considered broken and the man can marry her sister without fear that he would be accidentally married to two sisters at once, violating the Torah’s prohibition (co-wives may not be actual sisters, Leviticus 18:18 — don’t worry, we’ll address Rachel and Leah later). The Gemara asks if Rav Yehuda is specifying only the sister:

Her sister, yes; her mother, no?

One is never allowed to marry one’s mother-in-law — even if one’s wife is deceased. So if the initial levirate bond was equivalent to either a betrothal or a marriage, it would be forbidden to marry the yevama’s mother, even in the event of the yevama’s death.

But the anonymous voice of the Talmud rejects this possible interpretation: 

The same is true, that even her mother is permitted. 

The Gemara insists that in the event of his yevama’s death, the man is permitted to marry the yevama’s mother — which means that the initial levirate bond is not as substantial a legal state as either betrothal or marriage. 

This is not the final word. The Gemara now goes back and forth about this issue, using a variety of creative test cases to think through whether or not the levirate bond is considered legally substantial. The discussion finally ends with a statement by Rav Zevid of Nehardea, who says: 

We learn it explicitly: Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: In the case of a widow who died before formally marrying her yavam, he is prohibited from marrying her mother.

Shmuel holds that the levirate bond is substantial.And he is given the last word: A levirate bond is as legally substantial as a betrothal or a marriage, and even if it never moves to the next level, it disqualifies the man from marrying any of the women in the yevama’s immediate family. Indeed, in his sixteenth century Jewish law code the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Joseph Karo agrees with Shmuel, and states it as the accepted Jewish law. 

Does that mean a levirate bond is the same as a betrothal or a marriage? No. But today’s daf insists that it is a third kind of relationship which is legally equivalent, at least in some respects, to betrothal or marriage.

Read all of Yevamot 18 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 25th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More