Talmudic pages

Yevamot 74

Man, oh man.

Today we find ourselves deep in a discussion of the mishnah’s rule that those who are ritually impure may not eat terumah, special foods that Israelites separated from their crops and reserved for the priests in order to sustain them while they worked in the Temple. Here is the mishnah’s statement of that rule:

An uncircumcised priest and all those who are ritually impure may not partake of terumah.

In the context of the mishnah, it’s difficult to say if “all who are ritually impure” applies specifically to all priests (who are male) or everyone who eats terumah (which includes women, wives and daughters of priests). The opening clause about uncircumcised priests clearly only applies to men, so perhaps the second clause does as well? But then again, “all” might mean just that: all who eat terumah — men and women.

The rabbis assume the latter interpretation — that anyone, male or female, who is qualified to eat terumah must do so in a state of purity. This is firmly in their minds as they search for a prooftext from the Torah:

From where are these matters derived?

Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Yishmael: The verse states: “Any man from the seed of Aaron who is a leper or a zav shall not eat of the holy things until he is pure.” (Leviticus 22:4) And what matter is the same for all the seed of Aaron? You must say it is terumah.

Leviticus 22:4 states that anyone of the “seed of Aaron” who is impure because he is a leper or a zav (one who has experienced a disqualifying emission) must purify himself before eating “holy things.” If we understand holy things to be terumah, and leper or zav to be shorthand for anyone who is impure, and seed of Aaron to refer to anyone who eats terumah, then this verse can be read to support the mishnah.

But there’s a glaring problem here. Leviticus doesn’t just say “seed of Aaron.” It says “any man from the seed of Aaron.” In Hebrew, the language is pretty clear: ish ish — the word “man” twice — which is a typical Hebrew construction that means “any man.” This makes it difficult to read Leviticus as referring to both men and women.

And yet, that’s exactly what the rabbis do, by honing in not on the words ish ish but on the seed of Aaron — which they take to mean any offspring of Aaron’s line, including daughters.

The Gemara goes on to question this use of Leviticus 22:4 as a prooftext for the mishnah, but for a different reason: the identification of holy things with terumah. The rabbis suggest that perhaps those holy things are instead portions of the sacrifices themselves, specifically the breast and thigh of a peace offering. This interpretation is ultimately rejected, precisely because the breast and thigh are not shared equally with daughters, as the terumah is.

So the interpretation of the verse to refer to both men and women who are qualified to eat terumah stands. It would be easy and natural to read both the mishnah and Leviticus as addressing only men, but the rabbis do not do this. They widen the scope of interpretation to include both.

In the last few decades, many Jews have sought to reinterpret the tradition in ways that are more egalitarian, to find a different place for women in ancient law and texts that better accords with modern sensibilities. I wouldn’t argue that such an egalitarian impulse underlies today’s daf. But the rabbinic comfort with interpreting a verse that states ish ish to mean both men and women does show us that the rabbis were not afraid of making these kinds of moves.

Read all of Yevamot 74 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 20th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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