I have always found the Jewish tradition of bedeken — lifting a bride’s veil just before the ceremony to confirm her identity — to be comical. The ritual, based on the biblical story in which Jacob is tricked into marrying Rachel’s sister Leah, is meant to ensure no Jewish groom goes home with the wrong bride ever again. But let’s be honest: It is difficult to imagine anyone could find himself waking up next to the wrong bride in real life.
My own wedding began when I privately veiled my sister (who happens to look a lot like me) and sent her out for the bedeken. In front of all our guests, my soon-to-be husband lifted the veil to check and, after a moment of confusion, everyone laughed. (Part of the joke, of course, was that my name is Rachel.)
So naturally I couldn’t help but chuckle as I began to read a mishnah at the bottom of today’s page:
In the case of two men who betrothed two women, and at the time that they entered the wedding canopy they switched this one with that one and that one with this one, then these two men are liable for engaging in forbidden sexual relations with a married woman.
Under the huppah at a double wedding, the mishnah imagines, two brides switch places. The new husbands go home, each with the other’s betrothed, and somehow don’t figure it out until morning.
Though I’m amused by this highly unlikely scenario, to the rabbis this is not funny because, aside from the emotional mess it would surely create, it results in a sexual transgression. Engagement, as we have seen, has legal force — once a woman becomes engaged, she is forbidden to other men. So when the men take home the wrong women, the result is adultery.
Turning the comedy up a notch, at least from my perspective, the mishnah now considers what happens if the men are brothers, in which case they have each additionally committed the transgression of sleeping with their brother’s wife. And, the mishnah continues, if the brides are sisters, then each man has slept with the sister of his bride — also verboten.
As long as we’re considering what else could go wrong in this already wildly improbable scenario, the mishnah points out that if the brides are menstruating, the sex is a transgression in yet another way — on the grounds of niddah (intercourse with a menstruant is forbidden).
What should these couples do? The mishnah explains that after the mistake is discovered, the mixed-up couples are separated for three months, long enough to know if a child has been conceived, because such a child would be a mamzer. At that point, the women can go back to their originally intended husbands.
I stopped smirking, though, when I came to the next scenario — one in which we know for sure there was no conception. This one is hard to read:
And if they were female minors and unable to bear children, then we immediately return them to their original husbands.
What had felt like fodder for a rabbinic twist on a made-for-TV romcom has now become simply disturbing, because now we are talking about marriages contracted and consummated with minors. If they were too young to menstruate, the mishnah clinically observes, we have no concern they might have conceived and so they can go right back to their original husbands — presumably now to be immediately bedded by a second man. It makes me queasy to type this.
The Gemara stays focused on the same legal problems:
And if this (the bride switch) had been done intentionally, would it be permitted (to return the brides)? This is not difficult. Even if the act was intentional, these women would be permitted to return to their husbands. This is because the seduction of a minor girl is considered rape, and after rape a woman is permitted to return to an Israelite husband.
There it is. The girl went home with the wrong man, who slept with her — an act which the Gemara itself characterizes as rape. The rabbis’ main concern, though, is whether the girl can be returned to her original husband. They decide that she can immediately for two reasons. First, we know she can’t be pregnant. And second, a wife that has been raped is not considered to have committed adultery. And that’s it.
This short sugya captures a piece of what makes reading Talmud today a wild ride. With no warning, and in the space of a few words, the discussion can go from funny (at least to me) to tragic (also to me). And the rabbis might see it completely differently. What I found funny, they may have found tragic. And what I find tragic, they might have found to be an interesting halakhic problem.
The earlier scenarios described in the mishnah are all obviously improbable situations invented to tease out laws about multiple transgressions (which has been a theme since yesterday). We can only hope that the last example, of the child bride shuffled between two grooms, was largely theoretical as well.