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Yevamot 53

Double condition.

Today’s daf opens in the midst of a debate regarding a man who declared his intention to perform levirate marriage after already releasing the woman through halitzah. Is the levirate betrothal effective, or has the levirate bond already been sufficiently broken that his words are ineffective? Several sages offer scenarios where the levirate marriage may be effective, even after halitzah has taken place. One suggestion is offered by Ravina:

Everyone agrees that a condition is effective with regard to halitzah, and here they disagree with regard to a double condition. One sage (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi) holds that we require a double condition, and one sage (the rabbis) holds that we do not require a double condition.

Levirate betrothal is entirely verbal. (The word for it, ma’amar, literally means “utterance.”) But levirate betrothal is a kind of verbal utterance that has legal force, that changes reality. It is, as British philosopher of language J.L. Austin would say, “a performative utterance.”

Perhaps for this reason, Ravina suggests that — for Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, at least — it has more force when using a formula the rabbis call “double condition.” In other words, there is a proper way to formulate a levirate betrothal, otherwise it doesn’t have legal force. 

The idea of a double condition comes from a story in Numbers 32. Poised to enter the promised land, the tribes of Gad and Reuven (and half of Menashe) declare that they will settle down on the bank of the Jordan River without crossing over. Moses is not happy about this: Not only will they effectively abandon the rest of the nation to fight a war God has commanded, but they will risk turning the hearts of the nation away from God’s will that they enter Israel, just as the spies did 40 years previously in the desert. On the eve of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would possess the promised land, a significant portion of the people are rejecting it. 

The tribes of Gad and Reuven promise Moses that they will indeed fight with the rest of the nation, only returning to the east bank of the Jordan once the rest of Israel is successfully settled on the far side. Moses assents, with the following words:

“If you do this, if you go to battle as shock-troops, at the instance of the Lord, and every shock-fighter among you crosses the Jordan, at the instance of the Lord, until He has dispossessed His enemies before Him, and the land has been subdued, at the instance of the Lord, and then you return — you shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel; and this land shall be your holding under the Lord. But if you do not do so, you will have sinned against the Lord; and know that your sin will overtake you. Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised.” (Numbers 32:20–24)

This linguistic formula — if you do this, then good, but if not, then bad — becomes known in rabbinic literature as a tennai b’nei Gad u’vnei Reuven, a condition of the people of Gad and Reuven, or a tennai kaful, a double condition. Halakhically, it must include four elements, derived from this text:

  1. The condition must be stated doubly (if x, then y; if not x, then not y),
  2. The positive must precede the negative,
  3. The condition must come before the act takes place, and
  4. The condition must be possible to perform.

Why are these the necessary elements of a condition? I would suggest that the formulation of a condition reflects important values about our speech and even how we make decisions, impacting our view of the world around us and our place in it.

  1. We must make sure we think through the entire situation: its alternatives and its potential consequences.
  2. We should think about the specifics of what we would like to happen, rather than simply a negation of something.
  3. A condition is only real if the outcome has not yet happened; in other words, we should make statements that matter and have the potential to affect our world.
  4. Finally, it is only a real condition if it can actually occur — otherwise it is simply a way of saying you don’t want something to happen; similar to the previous element, it is not a statement with potential to change anything.

The double condition formula reminds us to consider the power we have over situations through mere speech, and perhaps serves as a model for how we can all approach the world: thinking through what we want to see and how we want to see it done, using our skills to solve problems we encounter, and ensuring we do our best to have a meaningful impact.

Read all of Yevamot 53 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 29th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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