Yevamot 82

Two inheritances.

The covenant between God and the Jewish people is a conditional agreement. Simply put, God presents a way of living to the Israelites and, if they follow it, God promises to let them live the good life in the promised land. If they don’t, the consequence is exile. 

On today’s daf, the rabbis seek to align this viewpoint with their understanding of Jewish history:

It is taught in the anthology Seder Olam: “And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers inherited (yarshu), and you shall inherit it (virishta)” (Deuteronomy 30:5).

These two expressions of inheritance teach that the Israelites had a first inheritance and a second inheritance, but they will not have a third.

As we’ve seen before, the rabbis are sensitive to repeated language in the Torah. In this case, the repetition of words with the Hebrew root y-r-s is understood to convey an important message: The Israelites will inherit the land twice only twice. The first inheritance is a limited one and will end after some time, but the second has no end. There won’t be a third. 

Rashi explains that the first inheritance began when the Israelites ended their 40-year march through the wilderness and settled in the land of Israel. It came to an end when the people were exiled by the Babylonians. The second inheritance began during the time of Ezra when some of the people returned to Israel and the Second Temple was built. 

This explanation has a clear problem: The second inheritance did come to an end, with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the ensuing exile. The rabbis assert that, unlike the destruction of the First Temple, the second exile did not put an end to the Jewish inheritance of the land. But how can they do this? If exile represents a loss of inheritance at the end of the First Temple period, shouldn’t it have the same impact at the end of the Second Temple period? The rabbis’ options are obviously limited — clearly, there can only be two inheritances. So is there another way to read this teaching that’s more consistent with history?

The commentator Rabbeinu Chananel offers one way. In his view, the first inheritance began when Abraham came to the land and ended when Jacob and his family moved to Egypt. The second inheritance was when the Israelites inherited the land after the years of wandering in the wilderness. And that inheritance is still operative today, despite the two exiles following the destruction of the two Temples.

While most commentators follow Rashi, Rabbeinu Chananel’s read is appealing for a number of reasons. First, it treats the two exiles equally — neither shatters the connection between God, the people, and the land. And it aligns well with the biblical narrative. Abraham establishes a covenant with God that promises the land of Israel to his descendants. His family stays there for three generations, but when they leave, their bond to the land is severed in a way that requires their descendants to recommit to the covenant and claim their inheritance anew.

For the rabbis, the question about the status of the covenant arises in the context of their attempts to figure out if mitzvot connected to the land of Israel are biblical or rabbinic obligations in their day. Yet the conversation is actually much deeper, touching on questions about the complex relationship between God and Israel, both people and land.

Read all of Yevamot 82 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 28th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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