The 20th chapter of Leviticus lays out a litany of forbidden acts that are deemed seriously unacceptable. From insulting one’s parents to adultery to intercourse with certain partners, the Torah lays out severe consequences for each of these actions. Today’s daf explores two of these verses and shows us how even a slight difference in wording can have significant implications. Let’s take a look at these verses.
Leviticus 20:20 states: “If a man lies with his uncle’s wife, it is his uncle’s nakedness that he has uncovered. They shall bear their guilt: they shall die childless.”
Leviticus 20:21 reads: “If a man takes the wife of his brother, it is indecency. It is the nakedness of his brother that he has uncovered; they shall remain childless.”
These two verses are similar, and wind up in the same place: The offending couple will have no kids. But they’re not quite the same either. The Gemara explores the difference between “die childless” and “remain childless” and wants to know what the distinction might be:
It is necessary for that which Rabba said, as Rabba raised a contradiction: It is written: “They shall be childless.” (Leviticus 20:22) And it also states: “They shall die childless.” (Leviticus 20:21) How so? If he already has children, he will eventually bury them; if he does not have children, he will go childless.
According to the Gemara, the first verse refers to a person who has no kids. In such a case, the offending couple will never have them. The second verse refers to someone that has children. In that case, the children will die before their parents. So far, so good (well, not good in the result, but understood).
The Gemara now turns to why we need these verses in the first place. After all, the punishment for forbidden intercourse is karet, or being “cut off” from the Jewish people, a consequence of which is the death of one’s children. Why does the Torah then need to specify that the couple will have no children?
The Gemara answers:
And it is necessary to state: They shall be childless, and it is also necessary to state: They shall die childless. As, if the Merciful One had written only: They shall be childless, I would have said that only those children he had before his sin will die, but those born to him from the time of his sin and on, no, they will not die. The Torah therefore states: They shall die childless. And if the Merciful One had written only: They shall die childless, I would have said that this is referring to children born from the time of his sin and on, but those born from the beginning, before he sinned, no.
In other words, the text is covering its bases. Dying childless implies the death of children who come afterthe illegal union, while beingchildless implies the death of children who came beforehand. While there’s some confusion around the precise implications of karet, mentioning both removes any doubt about what’s going to happen: No kids. All in all, pretty grim stuff.
Sometimes, the wording of the Torah can be unclear or seem superfluous. Today’s daf shows us how the early rabbis responded to both of those challenges and offered helpful interpretations to resolve difficulties.
Read all of Yevamot 55 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 1st, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.