Today we continue our longstanding discussion of just how substantial a levirate bond really is. In non-yibbum marriage, there are two stages, betrothal and marriage, each of which comes with particular legal rights and responsibilities. Levirate marriages have an additional preliminary stage, the levirate bond, which occurs as soon as the yevama’s husband dies childless. Each stage progressively comes with more rights and responsibilities.
Today’s question: In the case of yibbum, how substantial is the bond when the surviving brother has gone ahead and betrothed his yevama? We’ve seen that the first stage — the levirate bond — is an important and legally binding state. But how about the second stage? What rights and responsibilities does the yevama have once the levirate bond and the betrothal have taken effect?
The mishnah starts the discussion with the following scenario: A family has three brothers. Two of the brothers marry two sisters, while the third brother remains unmarried. One of the two married brothers then dies childless, and the levirate bond falls to the unmarried brother (remember, the other surviving brother cannot perform it because then he’d be married to two sisters), who then betroths his yevama.
The other married brother then dies childless. Ordinarily, his wife would be required to perform yibbum with the lone surviving brother, but he is now betrothed to her sister. Is the betrothal considered as substantial as marriage, and so she is exempt? Or is it legally less substantial, which means that the man has an equal levirate bond with each sister, and so cannot actually perform yibbum with either of them?
The mishnah concludes:
Beit Shammai say: His wife remains with him. And this other woman leaves as the sister of a wife.
Beit Hillel say: He divorces his wife, with a bill of divorce and by halitzah. And, he sends away the wife of his second brother with halitzah.
Beit Shammai says that levirate betrothal has the same status as a marriage — even calling his betrothed yevama “his wife” — and so the second widow is exempt. Beit Hillel disagrees, stating that it has its own distinct status which is not the same as a marriage. According to Beit Hillel, the man is now theoretically required to perform yibbum with two sisters, but things have gotten confused with the betrothal. So instead, the man must perform halitzah with both women, and legally sever the betrothal with the first yevama through a bill of divorce.
The rest of today’s daf is going to explore these two positions in more depth, thinking through the implications of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai’s different understandings of just how substantial a levirate betrothal actually is. And Abaye notes that there are even more implications for this question than you might think. He quotes an earlier tradition attributed to Rabbi Hiyya:
One does not enter acute mourning for his betrothed, nor can he become ritually impure for her (if she dies and he is a priest). Similarly, she does not enter acute mourning for him and is not obligated to become ritually impure for him. If she dies, he does not inherit from her; if he dies, she collects the payment of her marriage contract.
If a spouse dies, their surviving spouse has particular rights (such as inheritance) and responsibilities (such as participating in the burial — which causes the surviving spouse to become impure). And if one member dies while they are betrothed, but not yet fully married, there are a different set of rights and responsibilities at play. So how about for a levirate betrothal?
Beit Hillel thinks it’s not as substantial as a regular betrothal, and that these rights and responsibilities don’t come into effect. But Beit Shammai? The Gemara concludes that according to Beit Shammai, levirate betrothal has the same status as a regular betrothal for these particular legal issues — with real financial and ritual implications.
Read all of Yevamot 29 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 5th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.