Talmud pages

Yevamot 36

Order of operations.

Reish Lakish is the hero on today’s page. Though remembered in the Talmud for his misspent youth as a lawless brigand, here he establishes himself as a firm believer in doing things in both the right sequence and the right time. On today’s daf, we see three cases in which people are eager to get a jump on an expected future. Each time, Reish Lakish insists that the parties exercise patience and reflect on the right order of operations. 

The first case is about a woman who is discovered to be pregnant by her recently deceased childless husband. Is she subject to levirate marriage? On the one hand, there is no child (yet). On the other hand, in a few months’ time there could be.

Reish Lakish says the widow should wait for the future to play out before she makes a move. Acting too soon — in any direction — can cause a problem. If she immediately enters a levirate marriage with her deceased husband’s brother but then gives birth to her first husband’s child, she will be transgressing the prohibition against engaging in relations with brothers, a law that is only suspended when the first brother does not produce an heir. If she performs halitzah to release herself from the levirate marriage with the brother, but later gives birth to her deceased husband’s child, she will have rendered herself ineligible to marry a priest for no reason (as she would only have to perform halitzah if her deceased husband was childless). And finally, if she marries someone else in the interim assuming she will soon be free to do so (if she delivers her deceased husband’s child) but subsequently miscarries, then she would now retroactively have a prior obligation to her deceased husband’s brother even though by that time she would be married to someone else. 

Better, Reish Lakish insists, to avoid all these pitfalls and potentially wrong assumptions by simply waiting to see how the future plays out. How long? Until the child “comes into the air of the world” — and we know for sure that her husband has an heir. 

And speaking of heirs, a second case: According to the rabbis, a father, while alive, may verbally determine the terms of inheritance for his children if he uses the term gift (matanah) to describe the inheritance. The question is asked if the father has to use the term gift in reference to each and every recipient, and Reish Lakish says:

The inheritors will only ever acquire their portions once he says: So-and-so and so-and-so shall inherit such and such a field and such and such a field that I have given to them as a gift, and they shall inherit them.

In other words, yes: A father must specifically state for each and every recipient that what is given to them is a gift (while he is alive) because it is precisely this language that transfers the ownership of the property. Otherwise, the default would be Torah-based procedures of inheritance which do not allow for amending amounts to inheritors.

The third case also has to do with the transfer of property to sons. Does a son who is set to inherit have the right to pre-sell the property he is due to receive? 

Reish Lakish insists that while the son may technically take ownership of the property at the time of the setting of the inheritance (because of the language of gifting discussed in the previous case) he can only do what he wants with it once the father in fact dies. Essentially, he may now own the land but he is allowing use to his father until the father’s death. 

To support this point, the Gemara brings a beraita that relates a case in which a son pre-sold the land he was due to inherit and then the son actually predeceased the father! Where does that leave the third person who paid for the land? 

Rabbi Yohanan, Reish Lakish’s frequent intellectual sparring partner, says that the third person has zero claim to the land, reasoning that the ownership never transferred to the son because he predeceased the father.

However, Reish Lakish disagrees. He allows that the son had a right to sell the land, but rules that it would only transfer to the third party when the father eventually dies (which is when the son would have inherited it). At that time, the person who bought the land from the son can finally take full ownership.

Reish Lakish reminds us that actions are only right if you do them in the right order — and at the right time. Sometimes, you just have to be patient.

Read all of Yevamot 36 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 12th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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