As we’ve frequently noted in this tractate, levirate marriage is a strange institution. The requirement that a man marry his sister-in-law (a relationship that is normally forbidden) and father children on behalf of his dead brother (meaning his biological kids are not legally his) could reasonably be filed under: If the Bible didn’t command it, it would be difficult to imagine the rabbis instituting it. And as the two biblical stories about this law in action (Tamar and Ruth) remind us, levirate marriage almost can’t help but add emotional drama to already charged situations.
The rabbis, it seems to me, lean into this strangeness — with gusto. Throughout this tractate, we’ve explored innumerable ever-more-unlikely scenarios that test the edges of this peculiar law. Simultaneous deaths of brothers and their wives, improbable numbers of brothers dying in sequence, reportedly dead spouses who return and, on today’s daf, “brothers” whose actual maternity is unknown.
When the Gemara spills considerable (and, in the ancient world, valuable) ink on myriad nearly inconceivable cases, we might wonder why. Perhaps these discussions are actually rooted in real cases that have been lost to us. Or perhaps the rabbis see these discussions as necessary preparation for future scenarios, however unlikely. Or perhaps these are exercises in legal thinking that build an arsenal of logical and interpretive tools to prepare for the unexpected.
I don’t think there has to be a single answer here, though if forced to pick one I would lean toward the last option. But on today’s page, I see one more thing happening: cases that seem to self-consciously delight in their own absurdity, that might even have been brought for their entertainment value and, I can’t help but think, are presented with a wink and a nod.
The sages taught: There is a case in which one performs halitzah with his mother due to uncertainty, or with his sister due to uncertainty, or with his daughter due to uncertainty.
Did you know, the sages muse (perhaps with a mischievous grin), that it is legally possible a man would have to perform halitzah with his own mother?! Plus, it could happen with his sister or his daughter, too!
Of course, the Gemara now explains, in detail, how this could happen:
How so? If his mother and another woman had two sons (one each) and they then gave birth to two other sons in hiding (whose identities were confused, so we don’t know which son belongs to which mother) and the known son of this woman came and married the mother of that other known son, and the known son of that woman married this son’s mother, and they died without children, the halakhah is that this one of the mixed-up sons performs halitzah with both women, and that one likewise performs halitzah with both women. It is therefore found that each one of them performs halitzah with his mother, due to the uncertainty.
Did you catch all that? Two women each have two sons, one each that is known to be her son, and one each that could belong to either mother. The two sons of known maternity each marry the other’s mother, then die childless. In this case, since the two living brothers do not know which mother belongs to whom, they both perform halitzah with both women, which means that, inevitably, each has performed halitzah with his mother. That’s right … with his mom. Lol.
Is this the ancient rabbinic version of one of those vintage “your mom” jokes? Is God in on the laugh? Read the rest of the page to see how a man might also end up doing halitzah with a sister or daughter and see what you think. For myself, I find it warming to think that humor l’shem shamayim — for the sake of Heaven — like so many other things, can also be Torah.
Read all of Yevamot 99 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 14th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.