Welcome to Tractate Yevamot. If you’ve been following the Daf Yomi cycle for a while, you know that for the last two years we’ve been studying a cluster of tractates that form the second order of the Talmud, Seder Moed, which is all about holidays. Today, we leave that behind (Hadran alach: May we return to study it again!) and enter a new order: Nashim, women.
Since the Talmud is largely written from an ancient male perspective and concerned primarily with legal matters, the writings on women which will occupy us for the next year are, not surprisingly, focused on marriage. Do we then start with an introduction to the laws of betrothal (erusin) and marriage (nissuin)? Not at all. Instead, the Talmud throws us into the deep end with a 122-page tractate about an exceptional kind of marriage unfamiliar in modern times: levirate marriage (yibbum).
Levirate marriage is described in chapter 25 of the Book of Deuteronomy. When a man marries but then dies childless, his eldest living brother is obligated to step in and marry his widow (likewise, she is expected to marry him and no one else). The purpose is so the living brother can produce an heir on the dead brother’s behalf and the child will carry on the family legacy. This new family arrangement also protects the widow who, without husband or children, finds herself in a precarious position. Through levirate marriage, she is guaranteed support and social status.
If this all sounds like a recipe for soap opera-level drama, that’s because it is. In addition to outlining the laws of this marriage in Deuteronomy, the Bible contains two examples of how this actually unfolded: Tamar’s marriages to Judah’s sons (Genesis 38) and Ruth’s marriage to Boaz (Ruth 3–4). Both stories contain plenty of intrigue, but we’ll just briefly discuss the first. It begins when Tamar marries Judah’s eldest son, who subsequently dies, making her a yevama (a candidate for levirate marriage; the name of this tractate, Yevamot, is the plural of yevama). In accordance with the law of levirate marriage, Tamar marries Judah’s second son, Onan (the yavam). But Onan does not wish to conceive a child with Tamar, and instead “spills” his seed on the ground (giving us the English word onanism). This so greatly angers God that Onan is struck dead.
Judah, meanwhile, is down to only one son. Shelah is still a child, so his marriage to Tamar will have to wait. But when Shelah reaches maturity, Judah regrets promising him to Tamar and goes off to shear sheep (likely an occasion to seek out a different wife for Shelah). Now a longtime double widow, Tamar takes matters into her own hands, dressing as a heavily veiled prostitute and covertly sleeping with Judah on his way to the festivities. In this way, she becomes pregnant (finally!) with Judah’s child without the latter learning her identity.
For those keeping track at home, the father of Tamar’s baby is not the brother of her two dead husbands, as levirate law would require, but in fact her father-in-law — who has no idea. Months later, when the pregnancy begins to show, Tamar is accused of adultery because she’s still promised to Shelah. As she is dragged off to be executed for this hideous crime, she dramatically reveals that Judah is the father of her child. Judah repents — not for sleeping with her, but for failing to give her his final son in marriage. In one final soapy plot twist, we learn that they have produced not one child but two: twin brothers (one of whom is the ancestor of King David).
This story reveals just how complicated, both legally and emotionally, levirate marriage could be. Perhaps for this reason, the Bible offers a release through a ceremony called halitzah. This ritual relieves both widow and brother from the obligation. (It also plays a critical role in the story of Ruth.)
On today’s page, we jump right into the legal complications that the institution of levirate marriage raises. In particular, in a world where families and communities are intermarried in complicated ways, and many sexual relationships are forbidden (for example, parent-child), but many others that seem strange to us are permitted (uncle-niece, for instance), and where polygamy is practiced, what happens when the yevama and the yavam are forbidden to one another because of their relationship? Suppose, for instance, that they are father and daughter? In that case, the obligation of levirate marriage is not only revoked, but the marriage is forbidden — and not just between the yavam and the yevama, but between the yavam and other wives (co-wives) of the deceased. This is where the mishnah that opens our tractate begins:
Fifteen categories of women exempt their co-wives and the co-wives of their co-wives from halitzah and from levirate marriage forever, and these women are:
- His daughter
- The daughter of his daughter
- The daughter of his son
- The daughter of his wife
- The daughter of the son of his wife
- The daughter of his wife’s daughter
- His mother-in-law
- His mother-in-law’s mother
- His father-in-law’s mother
- His maternal half sister
- The sister of his mother
- His wife’s sister
- The wife of his maternal half brother
- The wife of a brother with whom he did not coexist (i.e., the wife of a man who died before his brother was born)
- One who had previously been his daughter-in-law
You might recognize that last scenario — it’s exactly the situation of Judah and Tamar.
There’s a lot to talk about here, so buckle up, folks, this will be quite a ride.
Read all of Yevamot 2 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 9th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.