Yevamot 21


Leviticus 18 lists a number of sexual relationships that are expressly forbidden to men, including one’s daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughter, sister, half sister, sister-in-law, mother, stepmother, aunt, mother-in-law and aa wife’s daughter, mother or granddaughter. That’s five generations of close female relations that are forbidden to a man according to the Torah.

A beraita (early rabbinic teaching) on today’s daf lists what are called secondary forbidden relationships — those the rabbis forbade in order to prevent the transgression of the primary relationships forbidden by the Torah. Like those listed above, they are also familial:

The sages taught: What are the secondary forbidden relationships that were prohibited? His mother’s mother, and his father’s mother, and his father’s father’s wife, and his mother’s father’s wife, and the wife of his father’s maternal half brother, and the wife of his mother’s paternal half brother, and his son’s daughter-in-law, and his daughter’s daughter-in-law …

These secondary forbidden relationships are not mentioned on the list in the Torah and include, among others, grandmothers on both sides — by blood or marriage — and wives of half siblings. They sound like the sorts of things the Torah might have included, but did not state explicitly.

Now we get this surprising statement:

Rabbi Levi said: The punishment for using dishonest measures is more severe than the punishment for transgressing the prohibition on forbidden relationships, as with regard to forbidden relations it says only: “These (el),” (Leviticus 18:27) whereas with regard to dishonest measures it says: “These (eleh)” (Deuteronomy 25:16).

Both el and eleh mean “these” and both are used to recap previously mentioned sins. But, Rabbi Levi argues, because eleh is a longer word and contains an extra letter hey, it suggests a more serious punishment is invoked.

Given how wary the rabbis are of these forbidden sexual relationships (remember back on Chagigah 11 we learned that one could not even teach about them in public spaces), it may be surprising that the rabbis considered using dishonest measures — false weights that were used to cheat customers in the marketplace — to be a crime deserving of more significant punishment. The Gemara explains further:

In what way is deception in measurements more severe than forbidden relations? Those who engage in forbidden relations have the possibility of repentance. In the case of those who deceive the public with dishonest measures, it is not possible to repent.

When it comes to wrongdoing, teshuvah, repentance, is complicated. The Gemara notes that in the case of serial swindling, a public apology will not undo the financial wrong. If you have been using false weights for years in the marketplace, there is no way to identify all the victims of your theft and make proper retribution. However, in the case of forbidden sexual relationships, only two people are implicated. It is easier to assess the damage and figure out what will be needed to correct it — to effect teshuvah.

But I wonder if there isn’t a deeper lesson here for today’s world that applies to our largest problem in the realm of forbidden sexual relationships: predatory behavior. 

Powerful predators too often face no consequences. What would the world look like if we applied the lesson about false weights in today’s daf to their misdeeds? After all, such people have wronged many, and often cannot count their transgressions, or make it right with those they have wronged. And even if they could have a truly healing encounter with each individual they had harmed, can they really undo the havoc that they have wreaked on survivors’ families and wider communities? 

On today’s page, several rabbis seek the reason for the halakhah of secondary forbidden relationships. I’d like to draw our attention to one answer:

Rav Kahana said we learn it from here: “Therefore shall you protect My prized possession, that you do not do any of these abominable customs” (Leviticus 18:30). This means: Establish a safeguard for My prized possession.

Safeguards. For the rabbis, this means extending the circle of protection by forbidding relationships beyond those explicitly stated in the Torah. But in our world, when a much greater concern than incest is sexual predation, we should also think about widening the circle of protection. This means bringing on board community infrastructures like synagogues, schools, conferences, camps, Hillels and homes. It also means proactively educating children, parents and educators. And it means viewing these things as required of us by Jewish law.

And if these safeguards fail — as safeguards regrettably sometimes do — how do we treat those who have committed these crimes after the fact? Do we allow the weight of what they have done, particularly when so many have been affected, guide our management? And if not, are we sending a clear message that these types of acts and behaviors are not eleh, but only el?

Read all of Yevamot 21 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 28th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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