Talmudic pages

Yevamot 94

Shards and pearls.

On today’s daf, the Gemara continues to unpack a mishnah we encountered back on Yevamot 92 concerning a woman whose husband traveled abroad and was erroneously reported dead. One of the situations described in the mishnah is one where a woman hears that her husband is dead and becomes engaged to another man, but before they can marry her husband returns home alive and well. The mishnah teaches that the woman is permitted to return to her original husband and, if her fiance issues her a bill of divorce, she is not disqualified from marrying a priest in the future.

In the mishnah, Rabbi Elazar ben Matya cites Leviticus 21:7 as a prooftext for this law: “Neither shall they take a woman divorced from her husband.” In other words, with respect to priests, they cannot marry a woman who was divorced by her husband. But if she was “divorced” from someone to whom she was only engaged, there’s no problem. 

On today’s daf, we find this comment about Rabbi Elazar’s teaching. 

Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: Rabbi Elazar should have taught this verse as a pearl but in fact he taught it as earthenware shard.

Rav is basically saying, “Not bad, Rabbi Elazar, but you could have done a lot better.”

The pearl/shard metaphor occurs five times in the Talmud and is used to compare an everyday thing with something more valuable. If it sounds familiar, it may be because the previous usage was two days ago, on Yevamot 92.

In our case, what kind of pearl did Rav have in mind? The Gemara has a suggestion:

As it is taught: “Neither shall they take a woman divorced from her husband,” even if she was only divorced from her husband she is disqualified from the priesthood. And this is the trace of a bill of divorce, which disqualifies her from the priesthood.

The case here involves a husband who presents his wife with a trace of a bill of divorce. Rashi explains that this refers to a document in which the husband writes an additional stipulation into the divorce document, for example declaring that the woman is divorced but may not marry another man. The teaching cited by the Gemara says that such a document does not grant an actual divorce, but would be enough to prevent her from marrying a priest

What makes the former reading a shard and this one a pearl? Neither Rav nor the Gemara take the time to explain. You could argue that Rabbi Elazar ben Matya’s reading is more commonplace (or shardlike) as it merely relies on a common midrashic reading of the text.

The second interpretation involves reading “a woman who is divorced from her husband” to mean a woman separated from her husband based upon an incomplete divorce document. The Gemara considers this to be a pearl, perhaps because reaching the conclusion is dependent upon a more complex read of the text (though it could also be seen as more forced than artful).

It may be worth noting that the Gemara’s pearl is not a fancier way to arrive at the same place that the original midrash does. Rather, it involves a different situation (an erroneously reported death vs. an improperly written divorce contract) and reaches a different conclusion (permitted to the priesthood in the former, forbidden in the latter). The Gemara’s concern here is not the conclusion, but the midrashic path taken to reach it.

It takes time to develop an appreciation for these sorts of legalistic midrashic readings. There is definitely an art to it and, as Rav suggests, some are better than others. During the seven-and-a-half year journey through the Talmud, Daf Yomi students will encounter a gaggle of midrashim. My advice? Keep your Post-Its close by so you can mark the place when you discover a pearl. Doing so will help you collect at least a necklace’s worth to refer back to by the time we are done.

Read all of Yevamot 94 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 9th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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