Talmud pages

Yevamot 3

Ulterior motives.

Yesterday’s head-spinning description of the 15 categories of women whose co-wives (and the co-wives of their co-wives) are exempt from the mitzvot of halitzah and yibbum made me reach for a hot cup of tea. If you are learning Yevamot for the first time, you too may want to stock up on your favorite relaxing beverage. (I find it’s also helpful to have a commentary with diagrams. My go-to is the ArtScroll Mishnah Series.)

Yibbum (or levirate marriage), as we saw yesterday, is the obligation of a brother to marry his deceased brother’s wife if no children were born of the union. Halitzah is the ritual performed if the brother refuses. After investigating the logic behind the 15 categories listed in the mishnah, the Gemara on today’s daf asks a seemingly prosaic question. 

And why does the mishnah specifically teach “exempt from halitzah and from yibbum”? Let it teach “from yibbum and from halitzah” instead!

This is a great talmudic question for several reasons. First, yibbum is the primary obligation, so it deserves first mention. Second, it appears first in the Torah (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10), so it makes sense for the mishnah to follow that order. And third, the Gemara will spend far more time discussing yibbum than halitzah, so it would seem fitting for it to have first mention in the opening mishnah.

The Gemara’s response?

This mishnah is in accordance with the opinion of Abba Shaul, who said: The mitzvah of halitzah takes precedence over the mitzvah of yibbum.

While the Torah provides halitzah as an option for a man who does not want to wed his brother’s widow, Abba Shaul believes that halitzah is actually the preferred option. Why? As we’ll learn on Yevamot 39 (spoiler alert):

Abba Shaul says: One who consummates a levirate marriage with his yevama for the sake of her beauty, or for the sake of marital relations, or for the sake of another matter, it is considered as though he encountered a forbidden relation, and I am inclined to view the offspring as a mamzer.

It’s generally understood that the purpose of yibbum is the continuation of a deceased brother’s family line. Abba Shaul suggests that if the brother pursues yibbum for ulterior motives, the resulting offspring are illegitimate. Since illegitimate children are no small matter — according to Jewish law a mamzer can marry only another mamzer — Abba Shaul considers halitzah the preferable option. And his thinking is reflected in our mishnah.

Over the next few months, we’ll take a deep dive into the particulars of the biblical mitzvah of levirate marriage. Keeping the details straight will be important to making sense of the text. So too will humanizing the people who find themselves in a position to make use of these rituals. Those to whom the mitzvot of halitzah and yibbum fall have suffered the loss of a husband or brother, one who died before he could have children of his own. It is astute of Abba Shaul to take human feelings and motivations into account when determining how to best put this into practice. Much of the time, Tractate Yevamot is deaf to the emotional dimension of these issues. And that too sends me running for a cup of tea.

Read all of Yevamot 3 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 10th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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