Yevamot 59

Like a virgin.

Leviticus 21:13 states that a kohen gadol (high priest) “shall take a wife in her virginity” and most of the talmudic rabbis take this to mean that not only should a high priest’s bride be a virgin, but also that the physical signs of her virginity must still be present. In line with this understanding, a mishnah on today’s daf presents a majority opinion that holds that a high priest cannot marry a grown woman because of the possibility that she no longer possesses signs of virginity — regardless of her history of sexual activity. Meaning, from the rabbis’ perspective, the fact that a girl has become a woman makes her virginity sufficiently suspect to prevent her from marrying the kohen gadol. 

Unperturbed by the suggestion that a high priest is required to wed a minor, Rabbi Hiyya bar Yosef raises a different concern before Shmuel:

What about a high priest who betrothed a minor and she matured while betrothed to him? What is the halakhah? Do we rule according to her status at the time of marriage when she was unfit to wed a high priest? Or, do we rule according to the time of betrothal when she is fit?

In other words: If a woman reaches the age of majority after she is engaged to a high priest but before they are married, can the couple still wed?

In order to resolve this matter, the Gemara turns to a mishnah on Yevamot 61 for precedent:

If a priest betroths a widow and is subsequently appointed to be high priest, he may marry her.

This mishnah, which states that a priest promoted to high priest doesn’t have to ditch his fiancée (a widow) for not being a virgin, suggests that we rule according to the time of their engagement. And so, it is reasonable to conclude that we should do so in our case as well. Just as the priest’s betrothal to the widow — which was just fine before he was promoted — is allowed to stand, so too do we rule in the case of the girl who matures, regardless of whether she can pass a virginity test (even if she is in fact a virgin).

While this is a reasonable talmudic argument, it is not the path that the Gemara chooses. Instead, it rejects the case of the high priest and the widow as precedent and rules that a high priest is not allowed to marry a woman who matures after engagement but before marriage for the following reason:

In the case of the grown woman, her body has changed. In the case of the widow, her body has not changed. 

The physical development of the engaged woman leads to a change in her status, moving her from a permitted category to a forbidden one. As a result, the marriage is called off. This is not the case for the widow who undergoes no such physical change — there it is the priest himself, and not his betrothed, who changes status.

For me, this is one of those times when the Gemara’s rationale is hard to understand. It still seems intuitive to me that if the high priest can marry the widow (to whom he was engaged before his appointment to higher office), the high priest also ought to be allowed to marry the girl who grew to maturity during their engagement. But the Gemara’s silence at this point implies that the rabbis are satisfied with their answer.

And then, like the Gemara, I move on to a new mishnah.

Read all of Yevamot 59 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 5th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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