Up until this point, Massekhet Yevamot has focused on the rules and regulations of the commandment of yibum – levirate marriage. With the twelfth perek that begins on our daf, the focus of the Gemara shifts to the other end of the spectrum – the mitzva of halitza (see Devarim 25:7-10) that will end the relationship of the widow with her first husband’s family, allowing her to marry whomever she pleases. The pesukim (verses) describe the procedure in some detail, although the Gemara clarifies the specifics. For example, when the Torah commands that this procedure take place before the zekaynim – the elders – to whom is it referring? How many need there be? Where should it take place?
Among the responsibilities of the beit din is to advise the potential yavam and yevama (the widow and her brother-in-law) about their options. In a case where there is a great discrepancy in age, for example, it would be appropriate for the elders to recommend halitza rather than yibum.
The Mishna teaches that under ordinary circumstances, three judges – and even non-ordained people who act as judges (i.e. they know the requirements of the ceremony) – can supervise a halitza. Nevertheless, the Gemara relates that several of the Sages recommended convening a group of five judges for a halitza, and tells of halitzot that were performed in the presence of a specially invited group of five. The Gemara explains that the additional people are brought in ki heikhi de-li-farsame milta – in order to publicize the event.
The need for special publicity is explained by the rishonim in a number of different ways. The Meiri suggests that the community has an interest in making it known that this woman is no longer connected to a specific family and that she is now available for marriage. Another reason is to serve notice to kohanim that although this woman is a widow (and under ordinary circumstances kohanim are allowed to marry widows) she can no longer marry a kohen because she has undergone halitza.