Yevamot 37

One night only.

Today’s daf continues a conversation about questionable parentage in the case of a woman whose husband dies when she might be in the earliest stages of pregnancy. If she turns out to be pregnant, yibbum would be unnecessary since her husband did not, in fact, die childless.

On today’s daf, the Gemara brings a teaching about questionable parentage by Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov: 

A man should not marry a woman in this country and then go and marry another woman in a different country, lest (a son from one marriage and a daughter from the other, unaware that they are both children of the same father) unite with one another, and it could emerge that a brother marries his sister.

Here, the concern isn’t yibbum but the possibility that siblings might unknowingly marry one another, a biblically forbidden relationship that would render any children born of the union mamzerim

The Gemara continues with a curious story about two famous rabbis: Rav and Rav Nachman. These two rabbis were so well-known that their talks generated the type of excitement that rock stars do today. And like some rock stars, it seems that they were in search of one night stands. 

Didn’t Rav, when he happened to come to Dardeshir, make a public announcement saying: Which woman will be my wife for the day? And also Rav Nahman, when he happened to come to Shakhnetziv, made a public announcement saying: Which woman will be my wife for the day? 

The Gemara challenges Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov by relating that, in fact, Rav and Rav Nahman did seek out wives in other cities. But was this a true marriage or simply a device that might allow for a rock star rabbi to be sequestered with another woman? Let’s keep reading.

But didn’t Rava say: With regard to one who proposed marriage to a woman and she accepted, she is required to wait seven clean days. The Gemara answers: The sages would send messengers and they would inform (the women of the sage’s arrival).

In support of the idea that these rabbis really did engage in relations with women for one night only, the Gemara shares that emissaries would go ahead of time to inform the women Rav or Rav Nachman wished to marry and have them count seven clean (i.e. non-menstruating) days. This was to ensure that in case the prospect of being with a famous rabbi was so arousing their cycle began early, the women would still be ritually pure in time for the big night. Women’s cycles don’t actually work this way, of course. But the rabbis weren’t doctors and their behavior reflected (men’s) knowledge of their time. 

Then the Gemara brings the opposite view: 

And if you wish, say instead that these sages’ intentions were merely to be in seclusion. As the master said: There is no similarity between one who has bread in his basket and one who does not have bread in his basket.

In this view, these married rabbis didn’t actually seek to engage in sexual relations with women in various locations, but merely to be alone with them. And since sex was not on offer, the women presumably wouldn’t be so excited that their periods would suddenly arrive. 

So did these famous rabbis have one night stands, or were they just secluded in order to (ahem) learn Torah? We don’t know. But the law does seem to presume that famous rabbis could (and did) have wives in multiple locations. The Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 2:11) rules that a man should not marry a woman in one land and marry another woman in a different land unless, like Rav and Rav Nahman, they are famous. In that case, it would be permitted since there’s an assumption that the children would themselves be well-known and therefore not in danger of marrying their sibling. 

Read all of Yevamot 37 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 13th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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