Talmud pages

Yevamot 83

A creation unto themself.

In the mishnah on Yevamot 81a, Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon taught that if an androgynos (someone who possesses external genitalia traditionally assigned both male and female) from a priestly family married an Israelite woman, he enables her to eat terumah.

Two important elements underlie this teaching: 

One is the law that a priest who is lawfully married to a woman from a non-priestly family enables his wife to eat terumah, the sacred foods which can only be eaten by priestly households. 

The second is that, according to the Talmud, an androgynos is subject in some ways to the laws incumbent on men, and in other ways subject to the laws incumbent on women. (Just as a reminder, Hebrew and Aramaic are both gendered languages, so the male pronouns here are used as a default, not as a statement about the androgynos’ sex or gender.)

The unstated question that Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Shimon are attempting to answer in this mishnah is whether an androgynos’ marriage to a woman is legally effective, and would thereby enable their wife to eat terumah. These two rabbis conclude that it is legally effective, and so works to make this woman part of a priestly household. This means that, at least for the purposes of marriage, they view the androgynos as male.

Today’s daf points out that there is another rabbinic tradition in which Rabbi Yosei did not think of the androgynos as male: 

It is taught that Rabbi Yosei says: An androgynos is a creation unto himself, and the sages did not determine whether he is a male or a female.

This teaching is attributed to the same time period as the Mishnah, and here Rabbi Yosei explicitly states that the androgynos is neither male nor female, but instead a third “creation.” The language of creation here harkens back to Genesis and God’s intentional creation of the world, and everything in it. Rabbi Yosei here teaches that God created a third sex, androgynos, and so the rabbis should treat the androgynos as such legally.

The Gemara next goes on to discuss what we should do when we have two teachings ostensibly from the same time period, attributed to the same person, with two different conclusions. Did Rabbi Yosei change his mind? If so, which was his original teaching? And which of the two teachings is authoritative? 

The Gemara concludes that the teaching on today’s daf is the final and authoritative one. Rabbi Yosei ultimately taught that the androgynos is a creation unto themself, part of God’s intentional plan for the world.

First, Rabbi Yosei agreed with his colleague, Rabbi Shimon, that the androgynos should be considered a man when it comes to marriage. But at some point, he changed his mind and came to a different understanding. The Gemara not only preserves the two opinions, but also offers us a model of a great man, known for his wisdom, who publicly changed his mind after doing more learning and thinking.  

So then what about the priestly androgynos’ non-priestly wife?  Can she in fact eat terumah, according to Rabbi Yosei? If the androgynos is a creation unto themself, then their marriage is not necessarily rabbinically legal, and the question of whether she can eat terumah gets even more complicated. But that’s a discussion for a different day.

Read all of Yevamot 83 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 29th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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