They raised a dilemma before Rav Sheshet: If (only) one witness testifies (that a woman’s husband is dead), with regard to a yevama, what is the halakhah?
A woman becomes ayevama when her childless husband dies. But if the husband is only reported to have died — perhaps while on a trip — one needs proof. In a world without modern refrigeration, where bodies cannot be transported home for burial, and where death certificates are not routine, the best proof of a husband’s death in a faraway land is witnesses.
Normally, a rabbinic court requires two witnesses to establish something as a fact. But what happens if the court has only one witness to the husband’s death? Do we trust the witness and allow the widow to move on with her life? Or, knowing the stakes, do we hold out for the biblical gold standard of two witnesses?
The Gemara offers some reasons we might trust the single witness:
The testimony of one witness in the case of a missing husband is accepted because a person does not lie about something that will be discovered, and here, too, he will not lie, in case the husband later arrives.
Answer #1: This witness will not lie because he can be too easily caught in the lie if and when the supposedly dead husband comes strolling home. No one would be that stupid.
Of course, in our own world, we see demonstrably disprovable lies perpetuated all the time, so this reasoning seems weak. Furthermore, we don’t need to suppose the witness is lying, we need only suppose he is mistaken. Perhaps someone who looked like the husband, or had the same name, died — and he then reports this to the court back home.
The Gemara now suggests a different reason we should trust the single witness to the husband’s death:
Perhaps the reason for the eligibility of one witness is because the woman herself is exacting in her investigation before she marries again.
Answer #2: We don’t have to rely solely on the single witness because we can trust the widow to have investigated. If the woman remarries based upon the erroneous testimony of a single witness, it is she, more than almost anyone else, who will suffer for the error. Once the first husband is discovered alive, she will be considered an adulteress, be forbidden to both men and be denied any monies due from her marriage contract. Further, any children of her second relationship will become mamzerim, severely proscribing their life options as well. So the woman of the questionably dead husband has good motivation to confirm, by her own means, his passing. We may not trust a single witness, but we trust her.
Or maybe not. Now the Gemara considers a reason we should worry about this scenario of a single witness:
But here, since she sometimes loves the yavam, she is not exacting in her investigation before she marries again.
Now we enter daytime soap opera land. The woman, we imagine, is in love with her brother-in-law, and so she sends her husband on a little trip, and then brings a witness to lie to the court and say he is dead so she can marry her not-really yavam.
OK, the Gemara’s scenario is not quite that nefarious. It suggests only that because the woman has affection for her brother-in-law she is a little too willing to believe her husband is now dead.
At this point, Rav Sheshet is finally allowed to answer the question posed to him. Rather than speculate about the motivations of the witness or the widow, he gives a legal answer, based on a mishnah we have learned on the previous page, that the court will indeed accept the testimony of one witness. And the Gemara notes that in another similar case we also accept the wife’s assertion that her husband is dead.
The Gemara constantly negotiates between the ideal (two reliable witnesses) and the real (maybe we only have one). In such cases, we make do with what he have and permit less ideal scenarios, like trusting a single witness or even, dare we say it, the woman.
Read all of Yevamot 93 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 8th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.