Yevamot 87

Two husbands, one wife.

On today’s daf, we encounter a mishnah that describes the following case:

A woman’s husband went overseas, and witnesses came and they said to her: Your husband is dead (and she married another man on the basis of this report). Afterwards, her husband came back. She must leave both this man and that one. 

Travel in the ancient world was a risky endeavor. Whether by caravan, boat, or on foot, those who set off on a journey could not be certain of a safe return. This case reminds us that those who stayed behind assumed risks of a different sort — most especially the wives of those who went off on a journey. According to Jewish law, a woman is married until she gets divorced or her husband dies. In the latter case, witnesses are required to ascertain that a man has, in fact, died and the wife is free to remarry.

The mishnah’s case concerns a situation where that testimony was erroneous and the wife remarries based on that testimony. The mishnah teaches that when this happens, the woman must separate from both husbands. The logic appears to be that her second marriage is invalid because she was still technically married to the first husband when she wed the second. And even though the second marriage was invalid, having been with the second man, she is now required to divorce the first. 

This case is followed by a second one:

But if she married without the consent of the court, she is permitted to return to her first husband. 

In the second case, the woman remarries without a court’s authorization, which implies that she did have the court’s permission in the first case. This sets up a rather strange situation. Shouldn’t having the court’s permission be helpful to her? Wouldn’t acting on her own leave her exposed? And doesn’t this seem to incentivize women to act on their own in deciding to remarry without seeking rabbinic permission? What’s really going on here? 

The Gemara explains:

If she married without consent, she is permitted to return to him, this indicates that she did so not by the consent of the court, but rather by witnesses.

The Gemara clarifies that the second case is one where the woman acts without the consent of the court not because she is stepping outside the law, but because she has the testimony of two witnesses that her husband is dead. Because two witness reports are enough to establish a fact (see Deuteronomy 19:15), the woman does not need to go to court. And even though the testimony turns out to be erroneous, because she acted based on two corroborating statements, her second marriage is not considered to be adulterous and she is allowed to return to her husband.

So what’s happening in the first case? The Gemara sheds light on this matter as well:

It may be inferred that the first clause of the mishnah, which speaks of one who acted with the consent of the court, is referring to a situation when there was one witness. Apparently, one witness is deemed credible.

According to the Gemara, the first case is one where the court authorized remarriage on the basis of one witness alone. This is not the normal way of establishing facts in a rabbinic court. But the rabbis are lenient in such cases, allowing a woman to remarry based on the testimony of only one witness. In doing so, the rabbis have gone out on a limb, waving the biblically mandated two-witness requirement. And so, if the woman decides to remarry based on the permission of the court, she assumes the risk herself. Should the witness’s testimony turn out to be false, she will have to divorce both husbands.

It’s a nice read, but there’s a problem: The mishnah says “they said to her.” The plural would seem to indicate that there are multiple witnesses in the initial case. The rabbis are nothing if not close readers of text, and yet the Gemara reads the mishnah as though it is in the singular. Why? Because logic demands that it does. The second case doesn’t make sense unless two witnesses are involved, so the first case must be about a situation when there is only one witness — even though the text clearly indicates there are two. 

This is not the only time that the Gemara chooses between the language and logic of a mishnah. Sometimes, the Gemara chooses to be a strict constructionist driven by the precise language of the mishnah. But other times it suggests that the text of a mishnah is corrupt and proposes alternate language. Here it does neither, instead reading a plural verb as singular, thereby adjusting the meaning of the text to fit the logic. 

Read all of Yevamot 87 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 2nd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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