The Talmud is a book about Jewish law, but it is not a law code. Codes are meant to make things clear. And while the Talmud does have its clarifying moments, they are not its bread and butter. Doubt, uncertainty, lack of clarity — these are the times when the Talmud earns its stripes.
A house fell on a certain man and on his brother’s daughter (to whom he was married) and it is unknown which of them died first.
In this case, the question is whether the co-wife of the deceased wife is obligated to do yibbum with her husband’s surviving brother. If the man died first and was childless, the co-wife is exempt from yibbum because she is the co-wife of the surviving brother’s daughter. Had she survived the collapse, the woman could not have performed yibbum herself with the surviving brother because he is her father. And we know from the first mishnah in the tractate that the co-wives of women exempted from yibbum are exempt as well. But if the woman died first, then at the time of her husband’s death he had only one wife (who was not the daughter of the surviving brother), so that woman would fall to the brother for levirate marriage. Because we have no way of knowing who died first, the path forward is uncertain.
In trying to figure it out, the Gemara explores other uncertain cases to see how they might help us resolve our dilemma. Let’s take a look at two of them.
In the first, a man throws a get, or religious bill of divorce, toward the wife he wishes to separate from and it lands midway between them. Jewish divorce becomes effective when a get is delivered to the woman. If a man throws the get at his wife, the Gemara says she is divorced if it covers more than half the distance between them. If it covers less, they are still married. But what if it lands right in the middle?
This case is similar to the one cited by Abaye — there’s uncertainty about whether a marriage has been terminated — but with a key difference. In the case of the collapsed house, we know the house fell but we are not sure who died first. In this case, we know what happened — we just have to figure out how to handle it. So perhaps this is not the best case for us to use.
The Gemara tries another, this one concerning a person prone to attacks of insanity who has sold some property. Jewish law dictates such a person has a dual status. When they are in control of their faculties, they are considered to be a fully functioning adult capable of entering into a sale. When they are experiencing an attack, they are not.
In this case, two witnesses come forward and say he was sane at the time of the sale and another set testify that he wasn’t. If the witness testimony was clear, we would know if the sale was valid. But in this case, the two sets of witnesses offer conflicting testimony, so the Gemara suggests the property return to its previous owner. If we can’t be sure what happened, we go back to the last thing we are sure about.
This could work in our case too — the last thing we are sure about was that the couple was married. So let’s assume they were married when they died. But not so fast. The uncertainty about the sale of the land is caused by conflicting testimony. We know the sale took place, but we are unsure about which witnesses to believe regarding the seller’s sanity. In the case of the fallen house, we have no eyewitness testimony about what happened under the rubble. Rather than dealing with conflicting accounts, we are facing a black box. So maybe this case isn’t a useful precedent either.
The Gemara continues to consider additional cases in search of a principle that might guide us in the case of the fallen house. The discussion is far more complex than what has been presented here, but it’s emblematic of how the Talmud does business. The point is less what the law is in the case under discussion — which, let’s be honest, is pretty far-fetched to begin with — but the methodology the rabbis employ in trying to find applicable precedents. This in turn helps us understand how to go about determining the law in other cases, especially where key details are unknown.