Yevamot 69

Context matters.

The subject of Yevamot is not particularly relevant to the practice of Judaism today as its main mitzvot, yibbum and halitzah, are rarely performed. At times, the talmudic discussion includes headache-producing arguments that require multiple readings before the Gemara begins to illuminate more than it obfuscates. And in recent weeks we’ve encountered a number of discussions about gender, marriage and sexual relations that reveal rabbinic attitudes that are not only different from our own, but are troubling and even offensive. 

So today’s daf may be a welcome one for those of us looking for a discussion that bears more directly on contemporary Jewish life. 

As we have learned, members of a priest’s household are entitled to eat terumah, food that had been designated for use by members of the priesthood alone. The daughter of a priest is entitled to eat terumah while a member of her father’s household, but loses that right if she marries a non-priest. Today, we learn about a situation in which that right can be restored:

The daughter of a priest who married an Israelite (and her husband died on that same day), she immerses and she may partake ofterumah that evening. 

In the unfortunate case where a priest’s daughter’s husband dies on their wedding night, the woman may immerse herself in a mikveh and then resume eating terumah the same evening. But things are a little more complicated than this. If the union between a priest’s daughter and an Israelite (non-priest) produces a child, the child prohibits the mother from eating terumah for the rest of her life, even if the husband dies and the woman returns to her father’s home. The teaching cited above appears to assume (as the rabbis often did) that the first time a woman has intercourse, she cannot produce a child. 

Rav Hisda is not so sure that we should be unconcerned about pregnancy. He teaches:

She immerses and partakes until 40 days after her husband’s death, as if she is not pregnant then she is not pregnant. And if she is pregnant, until 40 days (the fetus) is merely water. 

Rav Hisda limits the permission to eat terumah immediately upon the death of the husband to 40 days. Why? Because in the event that the woman is pregnant, the fetus is not considered a living being for the first 40 days and so would not restrict her ability to resume eating terumah. After 40 days, the status of the fetus changes. So Rav Hisda restricts her ability to eat terumah from the 40th day until it’s clear she is not pregnant. 

Although he is weighing in on a discussion about a woman’s right to eat terumah, Rav Hisda’s statement is one of the talmudic sources concerning when life begins and as such is among the texts frequently referenced in connection to the Jewish view on abortion. Rav Hisda’s statement is often taken as proof that Judaism does not believe that life begins at conception. 

There is no one place where the Talmud discusses abortion. Relevant passages are scattered throughout. As such, those who cite these texts in the context of the abortion debate commonly do so without the original context. While responsible writers often do their best to contextualize the sources to which they refer, it can be challenging to fully capture the context from which a particular source is drawn. Discovering a source in its original context can deepen our understanding not only of the text itself, but of the rabbinic enterprise as a whole. 

Bumping into Rav Hisda’s statement is one of the great benefits of the Daf Yomi experience. Having done so, you now have your own relationship with it and (hopefully) new insights about how it should (or should not) inform contemporary conversations in which it might arise. Familiarity with the context in which a talmudic text appears can sharpen our understanding about its relevance to a discussion into which it has been introduced and our ability to discern if it is being used in an appropriate way.

Read all of Yevamot 69 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 15th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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