י״א בשבט ה׳תשע״ה (January 31, 2015)

Yevamot 119a-b: When The Husband Is Traveling

The sixteenth perek of Massekhet Yevamot begins on our daf. This chapter focuses on three topics:
The case of a woman who testifies that her husband has died, when it is not clear whether she is obligated in yibum (levirate marriage) or is free to marry whoever she wants.
What testimony is necessary in order for the court to accept that someone has died? What must the witnesses have seen in order for the court to rely on them?
Might there be a situation in which we can rely on the fact that a person on his deathbed has died, even if no one witnessed his actual passing?

The first Mishna teaches that if a woman’s husband (who has no children) goes traveling with her tzara (rival wife) and word gets back to her that her husband has died, she can neither marry nor have yibum. She cannot marry because we must assume that she is obligated in the mitzva of yibum. She cannot have yibum because we fear that her tzara may have given birth and without the mitzva of yibum, she is forbidden to her brother-in-law.

The Mishna further teaches that in a case where her husband had no brothers, if his mother (i.e. her mother-in-law) was traveling as well, the widow does not need to be concerned that her mother-in-law gave birth to a son, which would put her in a situation of yibum, unless she left melei’a – literally “full,” i.e. while pregnant. In such a case, the widow would need to ascertain whether or not her mother-in-law bore a son (who would be her husband’s brother) before she can marry someone else. According to the Talmud Yerushalmi this is a real concern because we must assume that there is an equal chance that the mother-in-law will give birth to a boy or to a girl. The Nimmukei Yosef explains that the possibility of a miscarriage does not come into play here (except according to Rabbi Yehoshua, who permits her to marry based on the likelihood that her mother-in-law either miscarried or gave birth to a girl) because once a woman is at the end of her pregnancy, the possibility of a miscarriage is considered to be very small. The Rashash points to the odd language of the Mishna – that the mother-in-law left when she was “full” – as an indication that she was not merely pregnant, but was, in fact, at the very end of her pregnancy. It is also possible that the language is based on the passage in Megillat Rut (1:21) – a book that deals with many issues connected with yibum – where Naomi describes herself as leaving melei’a and returning empty, bereft of her husband and sons.

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