Yevamot 71

Heads and shoulders.

Today’s daf discusses whether a father can eat the paschal sacrifice (korban pesach) if he has not circumcised his infant son. (Spoiler: He can’t.) According to the rabbis, the obligation to circumcise one’s son is incumbent only on fathers, and only once the son is eight days old. So the Gemara asks what the father should do if the obligation of circumcision takes effect between the time when the korban pesach was slaughtered (on the afternoon of 14th of Nisan), and when it is eaten (after sundown). The rabbis conclude that the father must in fact circumcise his son before eating the korban pesach. 

But how could such a case even happen? After all, a baby can be circumcised at any point on the eighth day, so how could the obligation only fall on the father during the brief period between the sacrifice of the lamb and its consumption?! The rabbis offer a number of possibilities:

Rav Kahana, son of Rav Nehemya, said: For example, a tumtum, in the meantime he was torn and he was found to be a male.

A father is not obligated to circumcise an infant who is born with indeterminate genitals. But in this case, the infant’s genitals become determinate during the period between sacrifice and dinner time, and the infant now requires circumcision — immediately. 

Rav Sherevya offers another example:

If he extended his head out of the corridor.

Mishnah Oholot 7:6 states that an infant is considered born when the majority has emerged from the mother’s body. We can imagine a case where the baby’s head emerges, and then the baby gets stuck — its bottom half still in the birth canal. And, the Gemara asks us to imagine, the baby stays stuck like that for over a week, during which time he ages, reaching the time when circumcision is required. If the birth is then completed in the period between offering the paschal sacrifice and eating it, and we see that the infant is a boy and requires circumcision, the father must circumcise his son before eating the korban pesach. 

The Gemara then asks whether such a case is even possible:

Isn’t it taught: Once a baby emerges into the air of the world, the closed (mouth and nostrils) open, and the open (umbilical cord) closes, as, if this did not, it could not live for even an hour.

Given this rabbinic understanding of obstetrics, how could a baby live in this half-state for a full week?

Theoretically, a child stuck in the birth canal will be OK if the umbilical cord continues to function properly. But that’s a big if. Playing with the very hypothetical scenario that a baby could live for a week in this literal limbo, the Gemara suggests that either the child is sustained without food for seven days through the heat produced by his mother’s fever or, according to another beraita (early rabbinic text), this “applies only when he does not cry, but when he cries he can live.” In other words, though his bottom half is still in his mother, he is able to eat and breathe on his own.

Missing, of course, from the rabbis’ hypothetical is a discussion of the pregnant woman, who is stuck in delivery for at least seven days and apparently running a fever. Conservative estimates of maternal mortality in ancient Rome suggest that 2.5% of births led to the death of the pregnant person. (By contrast, according to the CDC, the total US maternal mortality rate in 2020 was 0.24%). The Gemara’s laboring mother here is almost certainly dying. 

Luckily, the Gemara’s discussion is another example of the rabbis loving to “think with” the gray areas, the border cases, as a way of clarifying the principles at stake. After all, if a child’s head has been born, then a competent midwife would hopefully dislodge the shoulders and pull the rest of the infant out. But today’s daf reminds us that medical reality and legal imagination are not always the same thing.

Read all of Yevamot 71 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 17th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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