On today’s daf, we learn that just because an action is legal doesn’t mean that it is OK to do it.
We begin with this teaching from Rav Huna:
The mitzvah of levirate marriage is when a yavam betroths a yevama and afterwards engages her in intercourse.
The Gemara goes on to clarify that Rav Huna’s position is that even if a man did the reverse — had intercourse with the yevama and afterward betrothed her — the marriage is still valid. But immediately, the Gemara objects:
Isn’t it taught that a yavam who has intercourse with his yevama without levirate betrothal is flogged?
In other words, if a yavam is punished for an act of intimacy that is not preceded by a formal betrothal, shouldn’t it follow that the act does not effectively unite the couple in marriage?
Not so, responds the Gemara. Why? Because the lashes are not a consequence for violating the rules of levirate marriage, but are punishment for rebelliousness — that is, for violating the rabbinic mandate to act modestly. In the eyes of the rabbis, engaging in intercourse with a yevama without levirate betrothal is an immodest act.
Having brought up the subject of flogging for inappropriate behavior, the Gemara goes on to share a list of immodest behaviors for which Rav would impose flogging. In addition to flogging men who have intercourse without prior betrothal, Rav would also flog those who betroth women in other immodest ways, like in the marketplace (as opposed to a private setting) and those who do so without first securing a proper marriage agreement between the families.
Rav also flogs those who send divorce documents to their wives and then nullify them, leaving their wives to believe, after receiving the original documents, that they are divorced when they actually aren’t. He flogs those who act disrespectfully toward messengers sent by rabbinic sages, who he believed deserve the same respect as the sages they represent. He flogs those who had been subject to an excommunication order and failed to petition for the removal of the order, which suggests they have not acted to rectify their sin. And he flogs a man who resides in the house of his wife’s father, apparently because living in such close quarters might lead to illicit relations between the man and his mother-in-law.
From the length and breadth of this list, it appears that Rav was quite comfortable using the tools of rabbinic law enforcement to encourage people to avoid behaviors that, while technically permitted, might lead to sin or have some sort of negative social impact. Whether his threats of physical punishment were effective, we do not know.
What we do know is that, according to the Gemara, Rav’s predilection for flogging may have been greatly overestimated. Instead, he may have flogged only in the situation that prompted the Gemara to go off on this tangent in the first place: intercourse without proper betrothal.
Why this and not the others? Because in order for betrothal by intercourse to be effective, it must be witnessed. And inviting others to witness such an act is the height of immodesty.
The lesson here is that while laws tell us what is legally permissible, they do not necessarily note all the factors that indicate the proper course of action in all cases. For the rabbis, modesty is one of these factors.
So if you are thinking about doing something immodest, be forewarned: Going too far might just get you flogged.
Read all of Yevamot 52 on Sefaria.