Yevamot 42

Deformed like a sandal fish.

As we’ve seen, the rabbis hold that a woman whose husband died must wait three months before remarrying — in case she’s pregnant with her deceased husband’s child and doesn’t know it yet. The rabbis want no confusion over the paternity of any future children. Today’s page considers the case of a woman who knows she is pregnant by her first husband. Since there is no doubt about the paternity of the child, can she remarry immediately?

The Gemara brings a beraita (early rabbinic teaching) which unequivocally states that the pregnant and newly single woman must wait until her child is born — indeed, until her child is weaned — to remarry:

A man may not marry a woman who is pregnant with the child of another man, nor a woman who is nursing the child of another man; and if he transgressed and married her, he must divorce her and may never take her back.

Considering that marriage in antiquity was not only (or even primarily) contracted for love but out of financial necessity, this ruling seems harsh. Why would we prevent a pregnant or nursing mother from remarrying in order to secure herself and her child?

The Gemara’s first attempt to answer this question falls flat: The rabbis suggest that we are concerned the pregnant woman will conceive again (while pregnant!) and this second pregnancy will threaten the first fetus — so it will become “deformed like a sandal fish.” It is true that a second conception while pregnant (called superfetation) is possible, but it is exceptionally rare. But this is not really the point because there’s no reason to think a second husband makes superfetation more likely than a first husband would have. And in any case, says the Gemara, it can be prevented if the pregnant woman uses a contraceptive (for the rabbis, this was a resorbent).

So if we are not concerned about superfetation, why shouldn’t a pregnant woman marry? The Gemara raises a second concern: The pressure of vaginal intercourse with the woman’s new husband will damage the fetus. (Medicine debunked this myth long ago.) Of course, this concern is subject to the same objection: Had the woman remained married to the father of the fetus, he might — indeed, likely — would also have had intercourse with her. But the rabbis assert that if the husband knows he is the father, he will have sex gently to protect the fetus. The second husband, knowing he is not the father, cannot be trusted to do so. 

This is where the page takes a difficult turn. The idea that a husband would knowingly endanger a woman’s legitimate unborn child simply because the child is not his seems more like the stuff of a nature documentary than a healthy assessment of human relationships. Surely men are better than that?

Actually, according to the Gemara, they might be worse. Because, as we now learn, maybe the concern is that a woman who marries while pregnant will then become pregnant with the second husband’s child shortly after the birth of the first. This second pregnancy could cause her milk to dry up. (It is true that the hormones of pregnancy can reduce milk supply.) And this would threaten the life of the first child. 

Once again, we have the same rebuttal: Wouldn’t this also be the case for any two children conceived close together — including children of the same father? The Gemara responds:

For his own child, she will feed him with eggs and milk.

If the woman becomes pregnant again quickly, and her husband is the father of both children, he will provide her with eggs and milk to sustain the first child who no longer has adequate breast milk. But if he is not the father of the first child, we do not trust him to do this. The Gemara is explicit: He might let that first child starve to death.

You’re probably thinking many things, including: Even if the husband will not provide for this baby, surely the mother will find a way! Indeed, the Gemara points out, the woman can sue her first husband’s heirs to provide these funds if her husband refuses to do it. 

But even this is in doubt. Abaye worries that a woman would be embarrassed to come to court and, as a result, the child would starve. Far better, the rabbis conclude, not to allow a pregnant woman to remarry before the child is weaned. Because while this can often work out, there are unfortunately heartless people out there and laws must be designed to protect their children most of all.

Read all of Yevamot 42 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 18th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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