As we’ve discussed in previous pages, the priests (kohanim) who served in the Temple had special restrictions in where they could go (e.g. no cemeteries) and who they could marry (e.g. no non-virgins), all in the service of keeping them fit for service. Priests were also entitled to eat terumah, food portions set aside for them by all of Israel, because it was assumed that the priests were too busy with Temple service to manage their own crops or flocks.
Terumah wasn’t just for the priests themselves, it also sustained their families: wives, children and slaves. In a crude sense, if the priest owned his wife who in turn owned slaves, the wife and slaves (along with his children) were all entitled to terumah because of that chain of ownership.
If the priest died childless, his widow had no claim on the terumah because she had no family members connecting her to the priesthood. If he left children, however, then she would continue to eat terumah because the children kept her connected to a priestly family. In the borderline case in which the priest dies and leaves a pregnant widow, the unborn child does not entitle its mother to terumah, but if and when that child is born male (a future priest) then the mother is once again entitled.
And what of the slaves during those months when the priest is dead and his progeny is still in the womb? The mishnah on today’s page reads:
An Israelite woman who married a priest and he died and left her pregnant, her slaves may not partake of terumah (during her pregnancy) due to the share of the fetus.
This mishnah, attributed to Rabbi Yosei, says the slaves do not eat. When, some day in the future, the fetus is born male and therefore is a priest, this little boy will take ownership of the slaves, and then they will eat terumah because of him, as will his mother. But while he is still in utero, he does not enable either his mother or the slaves to eat terumah.
There is much for the Gemara to unpack here, including questions of what happens if the wife of the priest was a bat kohen, the daughter of a priest, and therefore could eat terumah because of her father. Also questions of how this changes depending on whether the slaves are owned by the priest or his wife. There are also questions of what happens if the priest left daughters (not kohanim) or sons (kohanim) or if that fetus turns out to be a girl. It keeps the Gemara plenty busy.
For modern readers, none of whom are active priests serving in the Temple and eating terumah, there’s a lot of other things we might wish to unpack in this discussion of the unborn child, a fetus who is, by the legal logic on the page, person enough to be part owner of slaves (more on this in a moment), but not person enough to entitle those slaves to terumah. Judaism’s take on the status of the fetus is complex, but we cannot do it justice here.
I’d like to focus our attention on one bit of the Gemara’s discussion that resonated with me:
If among the priest’s children there are males, the slaves may partake of terumah. But even though sons inherit from their father, isn’t there a fetus to be accounted for, as perhaps he too is a male, and therefore has a share in the inheritance?
If there are already male heirs born, those male children own the slaves. But if the woman is carrying a male fetus, that unborn baby is also part owner of the slaves — which means the slaves are only partially owned by priests who are out in the world and breathing on their own. This disqualifies the slaves from terumah.
All of this means the legal situation is different depending on whether the widow is carrying a male or female fetus — which, of course, in a pre-modern world, cannot be known until the baby is born. So how should they act?
Rabbi Shimon holds that we are not concerned about the minority of cases. Only a minority of fetuses are male inheritors, as roughly half are female, and some are stillborn. Therefore, the majority of fetuses will not become male children.
Rabbi Shimon is blunt: We assume this pregnant widow will not ultimately birth a priest — because statistically that is what is most likely. This is a grim reminder of the reality of child bearing. Roughly half of fetuses are female, half are male, but significantly fewer than half of all fetuses will become beautiful baby boys, because some will not make it.
This one felt personal. I am married to a kohen. I have two beautiful sons who walk to the front of the synagogue to be with their father for Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing. I remember having to navigate my way, literally, differently when I was pregnant — avoiding cemeteries — because kohanim were inside me. It was weird, but also special.
I also have other memories that live in me. Two male fetuses who did not become kohanim. It can be hard to talk about, and yet I appreciate the raw candor of Rabbi Shimon: The majority of fetuses will not become male children.
The times of the Amoraim were well in advance of feminism, political correctness and modernity. As such, much of the language of the Gemara, naked as it is, is challenging for me to digest. But in another way, they also speak the truth, and I feel seen.
Read all of Yevamot 67 on Sefaria.