Yevamot 41

Acts of God.

When a woman exits a marriage, either through the death of her husband or divorce, the mishnah on today’s daf stipulates that she cannot remarry for three months. This requirement aims to avoid confusion over paternity in case she turns out to be pregnant. During this time, the woman receives financial support from her late husband’s estate. After three months, she’s on her own. 

This rule also holds for a yevama. For three months, she is supported by her late husband’s estate. After that, we expect that she will marry her husband’s brother in levirate marriage and be supported by him going forward. But what happens if there’s a delay? In that case, the courts can step in and order the yavam to fulfill his levirate obligations. Should he ignore them, the court can assign financial responsibility to his estate. In theory, this offers yevamot protection when the consummation of levirate marriage is delayed.

That is, unless the woman fell to a yavam who is a minor. Because he is not old enough to consummate the marriage, the woman has to wait until he is, which could take years. While the husband’s estate is only responsible to provide three months of support, perhaps in this unique instance, it should sustain her while she waits for her yavam to mature. After all, it is the husband’s death and his lack of children that led to her being stuck with nowhere to go.

On this question, we encounter a dispute:

Rav Aha and Ravina disagree with regard to this matter: One said she does have rights to sustenance payments, and the other one said she does not have any rights. And the halakhah is that she does not have any rights to sustenance payments. 

While the matter is disputed, it is decided that the husband’s estate is exempt from supporting her. Why?

She was penalized by Heaven.

A yevama receives the same three months of financial support as any other woman. That some are stuck waiting longer to remarry, suggests the Gemara, is not the responsibility of the husband’s estate. Who is responsible? The Gemara points its finger upward, at God.

In our day, an act of God is an event caused by natural forces whose effects could not possibly be prevented by the exercise of reasonable care and foresight. For some, it’s theologically problematic to align divine will with natural disaster, while others are comfortable equating the two. Regardless, acts of God have legal force and can limit liability from contractual obligations.

The Talmud seems to suggest here that the woman’s situation, however unfortunate, was the result of an act of God. Several acts of God, in fact. It is God who is responsible for the death of her husband. It was God that left the man childless at the time of his death. It was God that decided that a man who died childless ought to have a son to carry on his name. And, it was God that created the framework for levirate marriage that overlooks the needs of yevamot in this particular situation. 

Some readers might say this woman is the victim of an unfortunate series of circumstances. But the rabbis have a different take — they see her stuckness as a punishment from God. And as such, the rabbis relieve themselves from the responsibility to ensure her care. 

But is that how it had to be? Could the rabbis not have taken another tack here? Could they not have found biblical verses that compel us to support the widow? Couldn’t they tell stories about a widowed woman who was taken in by a compassionate neighbor while she waited for her yavam to mature? Or imagine legends about God wailing in the heavens over the plight of yevamot or rejoicing when some rabbi taught a new midrash obliging community to provide a yevama-in-waiting with food, clothing and shelter? 

It may be that an act of God got this woman stuck. But aren’t we obligated to perform a God-like action to get her out? The Talmud has the capacity to make that happen. But it failed to do so here.

Read all of Yevamot 41 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 17th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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