In 1980, American Express came up with a tagline that became iconic: “Membership has its privileges.” But, of course, there’s nothing new in that concept — in biblical society, too, elite status afforded perks.
Membership in the priestly class (kohanim), for example, gave the priest and his family the right to partake in eating ritually consecrated food known as terumah. Each Israelite was required to separate a portion of their crop and dedicate it as an offering, which then members of the priesthood would eat. I like to think of this as an elite dining club.
Today’s daf asks when exactly a priest’s wife can partake of the terumah, and when she can not (for instance, if her husband died). This matters particularly for a yevama when she is between husbands, even if both are priests. What if she is only bound by a levirate bond? What if she is only betrothed?
Analogies to other scenarios are brought to clarify this issue. The sages consider the case of a betrothal between the daughter of an Israelite and a mentally competent priest who subsequently became mentally incompetent (thereby disqualifying him from the priesthood) before he could marry her. In this case, the sages teach, she may not partake of terumahbecause her husband never served as a priest while they were married, so she was never the wife of a qualified priest. But they add that:
If a son was born to her from this priest, she may partake of terumah on account of her son.
Though her husband was disqualified from service as a priest, his son was still of priestly descent and, presumably, qualified. It is on the son’s merit that this woman eats terumah.
So what happens to her dining privileges if her son dies? The sages disagree:
Rabbi Natan says she may continue to partake of terumah, and the rabbis say she may not continue to partake of terumah.
Rabbi Natan suggests that having mothered a priest affords her the rights to eat in the club even if she outlives her son. But the rabbis say her membership is only active during her son’s lifetime.
The Gemara now delves into the reasoning behind the opinions. Rabba says that Rabbi Natan’s reason is that the terumah dining club offers a lifetime membership:
Since she has already partaken of terumah in a permitted manner, she may continue.
But the rabbis note that this is not really the case, as terumah eating privileges can be revoked in other cases. For example, Abaye points out, the childless wife of a priest who has passed away is not allowed to eat terumah because:
His priestly sanctity has left her.
Therefore, Abaye says, it only follows that naturally, in this case too, since the son has passed away, his priestly sanctity has left her.
Perhaps there is another reason why Rabbi Natan would still afford her the right to eat terumah after her son passes away? Enter Rav Yosef who cites a different case about an Israelite woman who betrothed a priest who subsequently became deaf-mute (also a disqualifying condition):
We do not issue a decree against the wife partaking of terumah through marriage to a deaf-mute, due to the case of betrothal to a deaf-mute.
Rav Yosef states that her betrothal to someone of priestly lineage who was at the time qualified for service is enough to entitle her to partake of terumah. But Abaye insists that she is only afforded that right once a son is born to her.
We don’t hear again directly from Rabbi Natan who, as we are told by Rav Yosef:
Left before they finished their statement, and then disagreed with them.
Even the sages seem to have tired of this argument. In the end, there is no resolution, and this case is deemed “difficult” according to Rav Yosef. So is a woman’s membership in the terumah club active on account of her husband or son, whether alive or dead, whether they served during the marriage or not? Does betrothal qualify her to enter the club? This is left unresolved.
There may be more at stake here than membership in a fancy eating club. In a society where it is difficult for women to support themselves, the terumah that this woman eats even while her husband or son are not serving in the priesthood might be more than a mere perk — it could be life sustaining.
Read all of Yevamot 56 on Sefaria.