Yevamot 81

Born this way.

The mishnah on today’s daf, and the many pages of Gemara that follow, focus on priests who do not fit into the male-female gender binary and whether they enable their spouses to partake of terumah, the special sacrificial foods set aside to sustain the priests and their families. 

The first lines of the mishnah read as follows: 

If a priest who is a eunuch by natural causes married an Israelite woman, he enables her to eat terumah. Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon say: If a priest who possesses both male and female genitals married an Israelite woman, he enables her to eat terumah. 

The mishnah addresses two related scenarios in which priests who do not present with typical male genitalia enable their spouses to eat terumah. In both the cases, the rabbis of the mishnah permit it. The rabbis underscore the point by noting that the spouse in question is an Israelite woman, and thus the only way she would be permitted to eat terumah would be because she married a priest — not because she was born into a priestly family. 

The Gemara looks at the first situation and wonders why it’s necessary to mention it at all. After all, the woman is the spouse of a priest. Why would we think she wouldn’t be permitted to eat terumah?

The Gemara answers: This halakha is necessary lest you say only one who can father children enables his wife to eat terumah, but one who cannot father children does not enable his wife to eat terumah. 

The Gemara teaches that the mishnah’s ruling is necessary because one might have thought that only a fertile priest would empower his spouse to eat terumah. This faulty assumption could be derived from a reading of Leviticus 22:11, which states: And such as are born in his house, they eat of his bread.” The mention of children born in the priest’s house might have led us to think that only priests who can father children enable their spouses to eat terumah. But this is not the case. 

Regarding the second scenario, the priest with both male and female genitals, the Gemara concludes that even if it might be prohibited by biblical law for their spouse to eat all types of terumah, it is permitted by rabbinic law. 

This passage is fascinating to me for many reasons, but I’ll share just two of them here.

First, there is no question that both the eunuch and the intersex priest are permitted to serve in the Temple, despite the fact that neither presents with typical male genitalia. While Leviticus 21:20 notes that a priest with “crushed testes” is barred from offering sacrifices in the Temple, that prohibition does not include those priests who were born without them. 

Second, there seems to be no value judgment attached to gender. The rabbis do not speak of these individuals in a disparaging or demeaning manner. Nor do they presume them any less capable of serving as priests simply because they do not possess typical male anatomy. 

As someone who works in the field of civil rights, I’m more than a little impressed that 2,000 years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud seemed to understand that the presence or absence of a priest’s genitals do not — and should not — determine their fitness to function in the Temple, get married, and share terumah with their spouse. Just as a eunuch or an intersex priest was born that way, they were also born priests — and it is that status that matters most. 

Read all of Yevamot 81 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 27th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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