The Mishna on today’s daf continues the discussion of how to establish physical maturity for the purpose of deciding whether a woman whose husband has passed away without children will be subject to the laws of yibum. As we learned on yesterday’s daf, the development of secondary female sex characteristics – including the development of pubic hair and breasts – will determine whether or not the girl is considered an “adult” for these purposes.
On occasion, it was necessary to examine a young woman to determine her status. The challenge that is faced is how such an examination would be performed. It is obvious that it would be inappropriate for a Rabbi – or, in fact, any man – to do this. The Gemara relates that the Sages would arrange for trustworthy women to perform this examination. Rabbi Eliezer would have his wife perform such an examination; Rabbi Yishmael would have his mother do it.
Regarding issues relating to the laws of marriage, divorce, etc., Jewish law ordinarily requires two acceptable witnesses in order to establish fact. Since the decision to establish the status of this woman as an adult can impact on these areas, a major focus of discussion among the commentaries is how the testimony of women, who are not ordinarily accepted as witnesses, is accepted in this case. One suggestion is that a statement about pubic hair is not, itself, testimony, but merely an observation that in any case will be clarified by others in the future. Nevertheless the Ritva points out that it is appropriate to find women who are know to be reliable and upstanding – which may be why the Gemara emphasized that various Sages appointed women who they knew well and felt that they could trust them to do this sensitive job.
There is some disagreement as to whether or not women who are related to the person being examined can play this role. Rabbeinu Tam rules that since we do not view it as actual testimony, we can rely on relatives. In his responsa, the Maharam disagrees.