Talmudic pages

Yevamot 84

Gang of roosters.

Today’s daf continues the discussion of the androgynos that we started yesterday. As we’ve seen, Rabbi Yosei believed that the androgynos was a third sex, neither male nor female, a creation unto themself. But that is not the only rabbinic opinion found in the Talmud. 

The same mishnah on Yevamot 81 that we referred to yesterday also quoted Rabbi Yehuda as saying:

An androgynos may not be married (to a man).

This statement is followed by a discussion of the consequences of such a marriage:

Rabbi Eliezer says: If one had intercourse with an androgynos, he is liable to stoning on his account as if with a male.

Rabbi Eliezer seems to think that an androgynos is legally treated as a man, at least for the purposes of marriage and sex. For Rabbi Eliezer, given the Torah’s prohibition against male same-sex intercourse and the continued attitudes toward this in the world in which the rabbis lived, if a man marries an androgynos and they consummate the marriage, then the man would be liable for the punishments for same-sex intercourse. 

I want to note that entire books have been written about the varieties of sexes and genders in rabbinic literature, the rabbis’ attitudes toward same-sex sex (See David Brodsky’s essay “Sex in the Talmud” in Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible) and the complexities of rabbinic marriage more generally. Each of these topics deserves more time and space than we have here, and I would encourage you to dedicate the time to exploring these issues in depth. 

Today, however, I want to look at the next part of the Gemara, which offers us some context for how Rabbi Eliezer’s teaching was transmitted. 

Rabbi says: When I went to learn Torah from Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, his students joined against me like the roosters of Beit Bukya, and they did not let me learn. I learned only one thing in our mishnah, which is that Rabbi Eliezer says: If one had intercourse with an androgynos, he is liable to stoning on his account as if with a male.

Rabbi here is Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who would eventually become the leader of the rabbinic community in Roman Palestine, best remembered for collecting and editing the traditions that became the Mishnah. But even before he was famous as a political and intellectual leader, he was a descendent of the great Rabban Gamaliel, a Jew, and a fellow human being created in the image of God.

Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua was a generation older than Rabbi, and no slouch in the rabbinic department himself. (Note that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Elazar are two different people). One of Rabbi Elazar’s most famous teachings is found in Pirkei Avot 4:12, where he says “Let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own, and the honor of your colleague as the reverence for your teacher, and the reverence for your teacher as the reverence of heaven.”

And yet, despite Rabbi Elazar’s teachings about the importance of respecting one’s students and colleagues, his own students apparently failed to learn this lesson. Instead, as Rabbi recounts, they ganged up on him like aggressive roosters defending their territory, and kicked Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi out of the room. What were they learning at the time? The teaching discussed on today’s daf that a man may not lie with or marry and androgynos. 

Is there a connection between studying court-sanctioned violence, and perpetrating ad-hoc violence? Are these different forms of exclusion related to each other? The Talmud doesn’t say, but the juxtaposition of Rabbi Eliezer’s teaching and the violence of the students of Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua should certainly make us stop and think.

Read all of Yevamot 84 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 30th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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