Today’s daf contains one of those passages that present significant challenges to the modern reader. It deals with an emotionally challenging subject: sexual relations with children.
Yesterday, the Gemara introduced several situations in which a woman married to a priest might not be permitted to partake of terumah (sacrificial food), including when the marriage was for some reason invalid. On today’s daf, one of the examples brought is that of a child bride.
Shmuel said: And Abba (i.e., Rav, whose first name was Abba) concedes to me, with regard to a girl less than three years and one day old, since there is no (legal significance) to intercourse with her, there is no (legal significance) to entering the wedding canopy with her.
Rava said: We, too, learn: A girl three years and one day old can be betrothed via sexual intercourse; and if her yavam had intercourse with her, he has acquired her; and (a man who has intercourse with her while she is married to someone else) is liable on her account because of the prohibition of intercourse with a married woman.
Putting aside for a moment the horrific notion of a man having sex with a three-year-old girl (we’ll come back to this), let’s take a beat and look at the context in which these statements are made.
First, we need to understand that the difference between the age of three and three and one day is the legal demarcation of the age at which a girl can be married, with her father’s consent. (The age for boys is nine.) We also need to know that the marriage ceremony, as we will learn in much greater detail in tractates Kiddushin and Ketubot, is split into two stages: betrothal (erusin) and the marriage ritual (nissuin). Marriage itself can be effected in three ways: with a kebutah (marriage contract), payment (or the giving of a gift of monetary value) or sexual intercourse.
For many reasons, not the least of which was low life expectancy, it was common in the ancient world for parents to betroth their children at a young age. In the era of the rabbis, the average life expectancy was just 25. Without modern medicine, people died young due to illness and, among women, in childbirth. Parents were therefore motivated to attach their children to another family in order to provide care and stability in case they didn’t survive. This was especially so in Jewish communities targeted with violent antisemitism. Sometimes, parents even brought their young children to the wedding canopy and then brought them home to wait until they reached puberty. This is the reason why the erusin and nissuin rituals are separated. Sometimes, they took place months or even years apart.
But this passage isn’t discussing just betrothal; the rabbis are talking quite dispassionately about actual intercourse between a man and a girl who may have been as young as three. Or even younger: The Gemara describes her as a tinoket — literally, a baby. While the Gemara rules that if a child was younger than three it didn’t count as a real marriage, if she was older than three — even by a day — it did.
What are we to make of this?
While our daf shows that the early rabbis were aware of such marriages, other texts demonstrate that they didn’t approve of them. Sanhedrin 76b quotes Rav as advocating that parents wait until the age of puberty to marry off their children, and he forbids child marriage altogether on Kiddushin 41a:
It is prohibited for a person to betroth his daughter to a man when she is a minor, until such time that she grows up and says: I want to marry so-and-so.
A girl who is nevertheless married off as a child may reject her husband once she reaches maturity. As we will read soon on Yevamot 107a, Beit Hillel declares a minor may reject her parents’ chosen suitor.
I’d like to think that the rabbis, if not abjectly horrified like I was when reading this passage, were at least disgusted by it — or at least disgusted enough that multiple later legal rulings were enacted to discourage (and ultimately forbid) it.
Read all of Yevamot 57 on Sefaria.