Yevamot 51

The nine-year-old levir.

Yesterday we encountered a lengthy mishnah in which Rabban Gamliel taught that a second bill of divorce is not effective after a first has been tendered, and likewise a second levirate betrothal has no efficacy after the first has taken place. As was explained on that page, this means that if a man is faced with several potential yevamot and betroths one of them, betrothing a second has no effect. Or if two brothers are both potential yevamim of a single widow, once the first has formally betrothed her the second cannot do so.

On today’s page, the Gemara explains that this teaching is evidence that Rabban Gamliel held that levirate betrothal is as binding as ordinary betrothal. (Today, we think of betrothal as a verbal declaration intent to marry, possibly accompanied by the gift of a sparkly ring. But for the rabbis, betrothal had legal force — a woman who was betrothed and then had intercourse with someone else had committed adultery. In contemporary Jewish practice, the betrothal takes place under the huppah mere minutes before the marriage is completed.)

Rabban Gamliel wasn’t the only one who held this view, as the Gemara explains:

Rabbi Yohanan said: Rabban Gamliel and Beit Shammai and Rabbi Shimon and ben Azzai and Rabbi Nehemya all hold that levirate betrothal acquires the yevama as a full-fledged acquisition.

The Gemara now explains how we know that each of these four sages holds that levirate betrothal has the same legal force as any other betrothal. In the case of Rabban Gamliel, it is because he holds that a second levirate betrothal has no effect. For Beit Shammai, we learn it from his opinion regarding three brothers, two of whom were married to sisters (remember that case?) and one of the married brothers died childless. There, Beit Shammai rules regarding a woman who has only been betrothed to her levir: “his wife remains with him.”

Shammai’s use of the word “his wife” to describe the widow who is only betrothed indicates that he believed levirate betrothal is like a marriage in its legal force.

Next up: Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai. Again, the Gemara presents a teaching from another context — one that we will encounter again, 45 pages hence:

As it is taught (in a beraita) that Rabbi Shimon said to the rabbis: If the intercourse of the first brother is considered effective intercourse, the intercourse of the second brother is not considered effective intercourse. If the intercourse of the first brother is not considered effective intercourse, the intercourse of the second brother is also not effective intercourse. 

And the sages considered the intercourse of a nine-year-old boy to be like levirate betrothal.

Rabbi Shimon says that the intercourse of the second boy is not considered intercourse.

If you’re feeling confused, remember that we’ve been plunked into a different conversation. It’s one that was likely familiar to the rabbis, which is why we don’t get a lot of context to explain it. 

The argument itself is not too complex. The sages are discussing a boundary case in which the yavam is nine years old and therefore has not yet reached sexual maturity but consummates the relationship anyway. According to the sages, this does not effect marriage (as intercourse with an adult brother would) but gets us halfway there — it is equivalent to levirate betrothal. When Rabbi Shimon says that a second brother sleeping with the yevama “is not considered intercourse” he signals that the first act of sex is the functional equivalent of betrothal, and therefore had the legal strength to render the second act of sex legally meaningless. Ergo, Rabbi Shimon believes levirate betrothal is legally strong.

The Gemara moves on to explaining how we know that Rabbi Nehemiah holds this way, but at this point the conversation spills over onto the next page, and so we will leave things here. This whole sugya is a helpful reminder of two key aspects of Gemara. First, the rabbis found boundary cases essential for understanding the law, but their penchant for them is one reason we often find ourselves contemplating things we’d rather not (like the woman who becomes a yevama twice over in a short span of time, or the nine-year-old boy who eagerly beds his brother’s widow). 

Second, for the rabbis, many of these teachings — originally oral traditions — are already known. It’s assumed that readers of this sugya are familiar with Beit Shammai’s identification of the betrothed yevama as “his wife” or Rabbi Shimon’s debate with the sages about the nine-year-old boy who jumped the gun with his yevama. For them, reading this text was a very different experience than it may be for us. This is one reason why we speak of Talmud as a sea, and promise at the end of each tractate to return again and again. In some ways, one is best prepared to read Talmud by, well, reading the whole Talmud.

Read all of Yevamot 51 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 27th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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