Yevamot 78


Today’s daf continues a discussion in the Gemara about the complex laws surrounding marriage with non-Israelites. On Yevamot 76 we asked whether intermarriage was possible at all, and on Yevamot 77 the rabbis discussed the prohibition on marrying a Moabite or an Ammonite. But not all enemy peoples were treated with equal suspicion. According to Deuteronomy 23:8–9:

You shall not abhor an Edomite, for such is your kin. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in that land. Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of God in the third generation.

The Israelites had reason to dislike both the Edomites (the descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau) and the Egyptians (a people who had enslaved them). But Deuteronomy provides a path for bringing individuals from these peoples into the Jewish community — albeit through a multi-generational process.

The rabbis read these verses as teaching that when Edomites and Egyptians convert to Judaism, the “first” and “second” generation of converts are restricted to marrying mamzerim (children of forbidden sexual relationships), other converts and enslaved and formerly-enslaved people. Only the “third generation” can marry a non-mamzer, free people who were born Jews. Setting aside the many moral questions that this teaching raises, let’s focus on what interests the Gemara: How are these generations calculated? 

To answer this question, today’s daf introduces us to a man named Minyamin, a Jewish convert from Egypt. Minyamin is not at the margins of Jewish society after his conversion — he becomes a student of Rabbi Akiva and a friend to Rabbi Yehuda. As a convert from Egypt, we can imagine that he had a particular stake in how the rabbis understand the prohibition in Deuteronomy

Rabbi Yehuda reports how his friend Minyamin calculated the generations:

I was a first-generation Egyptian, and so I married a first-generation Egyptian. I will marry off my son to a second-generation Egyptian so that my grandson will be fit to enter into the congregation.

Minyamin seems to think that the convert status of children follows both parents: for his son to be a second-generation convert, both his parents must be first-generation converts. And for his grandson to be considered a third-generation convert, both his parents must be second generation converts. 

The Gemara then challenges this assumption: 

Now, if it enters your mind that we assign the child to the father, even if he marries off his son to a first-generation Egyptian convert (his grandson should be permitted)! 

In other words, if the convert status follows only the father, then the mother’s status as a first-generation or second-generation convert is irrelevant. The second-generation convert can marry a first-generation convert wife and still produce a third-generation convert child.

And indeed, the Gemara then restates Minyamin’s opinion, in light of this conclusion:

Teach that Minyamin sought to marry off his son to a first-generation convert.

This is a funny interaction. On the one hand, the rabbis are telling Minyamin, a convert and a student of Rabbi Akiva, that his own experience of the law is wrong. On the other hand, the rabbis of the Gemara are actually making things easier on Minyamin’s family than he does. After all, if Minyamin’s son can marry a second-generation convert or a first-generation convert, then his options for a spouse have just widened. The rabbis here seem committed to increasing the convert’s offspring’s marriage choices. 

But are they? This story is told slightly differently in another rabbinic text from Roman Palestine, the Tosefta, which preserves earlier Tannaitic traditions. According to Tosefta Yevamot 5:6, Rabbi Akiva himself, Minyamin’s teacher, responds to Minyamin’s statement:

Minyamin, you have erred in the law. From the days of Sennachrib who mixed up the nations of the world, Ammonite, Moabites, Egyptians and Edomites are not in their ancestral lands. Therefore an Ammonite can marry an Egyptian, an Egyptian can marry an Ammonite, and one generation from all of these can marry into any of the families on the earth.

This last point presumably includes Jewish families! According to Rabbi Akiva in the Tosefta, a first-generation Egyptian convert can marry any other kind of convert, not just another Egyptian convert, and their children (i.e. the second generation) can marry anyone Jewish.

So what’s going on? It is likely the attitudes and needs of their own of times (Tannaitic vs. Amoraic) and spaces (Roman Palestine and Sasanian Babylonia) that lead the rabbis to different conclusions. The earlier tradition in the Tosefta allows the Egyptian convert to marry any other converts, and allows their children to marry widely. The Gemara then restricts the Egyptian convert’s marital options to other Egyptian converts, and only opens up the marriage options fully in the third generation. What at first seems a commitment to increasing the convert’s marriage possibilities is actually the opposite. 

Read all of Yevamot 78 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 24th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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