Yevamot 19

Three brothers.

On today’s page, the sages continue to wonder about the intensity of the levirate bond. In the absence of a consummated marriage, just how strong is it?

On the previous two pages, we considered this problem by examining the hypothetical case of a yevama who dies before the rituals of yibbum are complete. We saw on Yevamot 17 that Rav felt the levirate bond, in the absence of consummation, was not strong — meaning it is not like a marriage in terms of its legal status. On Yevamot 18, we saw that Shmuel believes that even without consummation it is legally strong, i.e. similar to a marriage.

Now we explore this problem through the lens of a new case: the untimely demise of the yavam. A mishnah on the second side of yesterday’s page offers a hypothetical scenario involving three brothers:

If there were two brothers, and one died, and the second entered into levirate marriage with his brother’s wife and subsequently a third brother was born to them, and the second brother then died, then the first woman is exempt due to the fact that she is the wife of a brother with whom the third brother did not coexist, and the second is exempt due to her co-wife.

The mishnah imagines that we start with two brothers — let’s call them Reuven and Shimon. They get married, Reuven to Rivka and Shimon to Shulamit. Reuven then dies without children, so Shimon and Rivka now become yavam and yevama. (The Gemara is uncertain whether they have completed the marriage or not, which will be a point of discussion, though in the mishnah it seems they are fully married.) Some time later, Shimon gets a new little brother: Levi. But tragedy seems to stalk this family and now Shimon dies before he is able to have children. The question: Is Levi now Rivka’s yavam?

The mishnah’s initial opinion is that Levi is not bonded to Rivka. The logic here may be that even though Rivka is now married to Shimon, the marriage was for the purpose of creating children in Reuven’s line. For this reason, she is still, in some respects, first and foremost the wife of Reuven — at least from Levi’s perspective. Reuven and Levi were never alive at the same time and the rabbis understand the Torah law (see Deuteronomy 25:5) not to obligate a brother in yibbum who was not even born at the time his married brother died. So this may be the reason that Levi does not enter levirate marriage with Rivka, according to the mishnah. And because she’s not available, she also exempts her co-wives (i.e., Shulamit).

The mishnah offers a contrasting opinion, this time in the name of Rabbi Shimon, who says that, actually, Levi is required to perform yibbum (or halitzah) with her (or one of her co-wives):

Rabbi Shimon says: The third brother either enters into levirate marriage with whichever one he wishes, or he performs halitzah with whichever one he wishes.

According to Rabbi Shimon, Rivka is married “enough” to brother Shimon that Levi can take her as his yevama.

Rabbi Shimon’s dissenting opinion sets the agenda for today’s page. What are the parameters of Rabbi Shimon’s dissenting opinion? Does it refer just to the case in this mishnah or to the mishnah that came before it as well? And in the mishnah’s scenario of three brothers, did Shimon actually marry Rivka? Did he only get engaged to her (ma’amar)? Or did he do nothing before he died? On our page, the rabbis go head to head trying to sort it out. In so doing, they evoke a bevy of other related scenarios, each more unlikely than the next.

As we have often seen, it is a feature of the Talmud that it purposefully identifies complicated hypothetical cases that help us understand the details of Jewish law. Yevamot is particularly rife with possibilities, because levirate marriage is a strange category — like other marriages in many respects, but not entirely. And when we allow for marriages that would surprise a modern reader (for instance, brothers marrying a grandmother and granddaughter — also an example from today’s page) the possibilities for unusual cases multiply. Such discussions leave us to wonder at the larger purpose of the exercise: Is it entirely academic — a way to delight in the complexities of the law and the virtuosity of rabbis who can invent and work through these scenarios? Or is it an earnest attempt to anticipate those unlikely boundary cases that inevitably crop up?

Read all of Yevamot 19 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 26th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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