A signal feature of the Talmud, as we have often noted, is vigorous argumentation l’shem shamayim — for the sake of heaven — that is conducted with equal measures of collegial respect and zeal. But as we have also occasionally noted, sometimes that tone of respect waivers.
On today’s page, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s student, known in the Gemara simply as Levi, asks a question about the mishnah that opened this tractate. The mishnah, as you may recall from Yevamot 2, lists 15 categories of women who are exempt (and also exempt their co-wives) from halitzah and yibbum. Now Levi asks his teacher:
Why does it teach 15 women? Let it teach 16!
It is difficult to judge the tone of this question. Among the dizzying list — mother-in-law, mother-in-law’s mother, wife’s sister, etc. — has he detected a missing category of woman who would be forbidden to her dead husband’s brother and also exempt her co-wives from yibbum? Or is he asking this in a good-natured, teasing sort of tone? After all, he is speaking to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, who is not only his teacher, but the sage credited with compiling the entire Mishnah. This might be the equivalent of responding to a virtuosic lesson with: Hey Teach, I think you missed one!
Though talmudic questions are usually posed in a serious tone, I’m inclined to think that there is a touch of humor or teasing involved here because Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi doesn’t just answer the question, but opens with a barb:
It seems to me that he (Levi) has no brain in his head! What is your thinking? Should the mishnah have included the case of his mother who had been raped by his father?
Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi begins with an insult — whether playful or genuinely aggressive, it’s difficult to say — and then posits a potential 16th category of woman who would be forbidden to a man whose brother had died childless and also would exempt co-wives from yibbum: a woman who had been raped by his father.
This is gross, so bear with me. The woman Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi suggests adding to the list is one who was raped by a man and then gave birth to her attacker’s son. Sometime later, she married a different son of her rapist, the half-brother of her own son. When this same woman’s husband passes away childless, his oldest living brother (her son!) is positioned to be the yavam. However, because he is her son and forbidden from marrying her, there is no yibbum — neither for her nor her co-wives, which makes her someone who should be on that list in the mishnah.
Now, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi continues, there is a good reason this woman with such a complicated family was not included. Some sages hold that a woman who has borne a son to an attacker cannot marry another son of that attacker. For this reason, no woman would ever find herself in this specific situation, positioned to potentially become the yevama of her own son who was conceived through sexual assault by her dead husband’s father. Since it’s not clear this scenario could ever arise, this case was not included in the original mishnah.
The Gemara continues with a discussion about whether the original mishnah really excluded all disputed cases. But leaving that aside, as well as the disturbing substance of this debate (which is, distressingly to us, reported matter-of-factly), let’s return to the tone of the exchange between Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi and his student, Levi. What did he mean when he said of his student: “he has no brain in his head!”?
I suspect a joshing tone in this exchange, and this is why: Elsewhere in the Talmud, we see that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi had great admiration and affection for his student. Levi was honored with reciting the marriage blessing at the wedding of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s son (Ketubot 8a). And when the people of Simonia asked Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi to appoint a leader for them who was skilled in teaching, interpretation, prayer leadership and offering fair judgment, Rabbi Yehudah appointed Levi, telling the community: “Upon your lives, I gave you a person like me.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Yevamot 12:6).
Levi was an imp and a merrymaker, with a talent for acrobatics that came out especially on festivals. He took it too far one Sukkot when, during the blow-out carnival that regularly accompanied festival, he tried to goofily imitate the prostration of the priests in Temple and ended up injuring himself and causing a permanent limp (Sukkah 53a). I can only imagine that this little question of his about the 16th woman, like his gymnastics stunts, was a playful poke at a teacher with whom he was lucky to have a secure relationship of deep mutual respect. And I tend to read Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s acerbic answer as a playful jab back at a beloved and sometimes mischievous pupil.
Read all of Yevamot 9 on Sefaria.