Thursday, 30 October 2014

Yevamot 27: On Chalitza and Rival Wives and Gets and Death

Today's daf is extremely complicated.  We follow the rabbis arguments regarding the efficacy of chalitza with regard to numerous situations.  In particular, the rabbis are interested in the requirement of chalitza with rival wives in different circumstances.  Rav believes that the levirate bond is substantial and that an invalid chalitza must be repeated to be valid.  Shmuel, on the other hand, believes that a yavam should complete chalitza with each sister (see yesterday's case) and that the rival wives and close relatives of those rival wives are permitted to marry that yavam.

The rabbis also turn their attention to which should be considered first, a woman who holds a get, a divorce certificate, or a woman who has been betrothed in levirate marriage.  From this discussion, the rabbis turn to the development of protocols when women die before the process of chalitza is finished.

Reading each argument is like  figuring out a mystery. There are multiple rules, sometimes conflicting each other, that must be known and applied to each case.  When I have not fully integrated my understanding of these rules, it is very difficult to follow the rabbis' arguments.

Needless to say, our Sages are concerned both about "doing it right" and about the ease with which people can manage their social realities.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Yevamot 26: Differences Between Women and Men; Details of Chalitza

The rabbis interpret the new Mishna based on social realities of their times.  The Mishna teaches that women who were judged by Sages are allowed to marry those Sages - or their close relatives - as long as the Sage's wife has died.  Further, if a woman was prohibited from marrying certain men due to suspicions that led to divorce, and she then married and subsequently divorced or was widowed from another man, she is then permitted to marry that formerly prohibited man.  Basically our rabbis are teaching us that we do not want to even allow the impression of adultery; however, given the passage of time and lessening of suspicions, people should not be restricted from marriage to those they desire.

The Gemara continues to examine this Mishna, focusing on justifying its lenient stance on remarriage.  One of their arguments tells us that women slept over at other women's homes but men slept in their own homes. Further, women were less strict than men regarding adultery, as women knew that taking another wife was legally allowed.  Men, however, knew that lying with a married woman would prohibit that woman from being with her husband.  

These commentaries teach us as much about the social practices of the time as they teach us about halacha.  

We begin Perek III with another new Mishna.  It teaches about the case of four brothers, two of whom married two sisters and then died, leaving them childless.  The levirate bond that exists between each brother and sister precludes them from marrying, due to the forbidden sexual relationships between brothers and their wives' sisters (the levirate bond serves as a reminder of the sexual bond between the brothers and both women).  Thus the women must perform chalitza; if they married before consulting the court, they must divorce.

Another case discusses three sisters who become yevamot after their husbands, three brothers, die.  The Gemara looks at whether or not yibum is permitted and whether or not chalitza is valid.  Chalitza would be invalid unless at least one of the brothers performs chalitza with all three sisters.  

These discussions question the significance of yibum.  Is the levirate bond substantial in these cases? What do we learn about the nature of the levirate bond from these cases?  Clearly our learning is just beginning...

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Yevamot 25: Witnesses To Divorce, Adultery, Death & Sexual Assault; Special Privileges For Sages

When women are suspected of adultery - this time because shoe prints are found, in various positions, at the foot of the matrimonial bed - Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi finds this so distasteful that she should be divorced.  Rav believes that a witness is required.  The rabbis discuss the power of rumours.  Abaye teaches that his mother (step-mother) taught him that a rumour in a city lasts one and one-half days.  The rabbis question whether divorce should be required if the rumours last longer than this.  However, if the husband, wife, or suspected adulterer have known enemies, all bets are off.  Our Sages go on to discuss when the rabbis say that the wife should be divorced if the husband remarried her after divorcing her because of rumours/reputation.

A new Mishna teaches that a witness is required to confirm a written get, bill of divorce, that is delivered overseas.   The rabbis do not allow women to marry men who claim to have killed her husband, for that would suggest that wanting a married woman justifies murder.  On the topic of witnesses, the rabbis discuss what should be done when a person claims that another person 'sodomized' him.  The rabbis are not concerned with whether or not this was rape; as long as there is a witness, the accused is to be put to death.  But if he is admitting to his own unlawful sexual behaviour, can he be trusted as a witness otherwise?  We learn in a note that halacha "discard" the information that he was a participant in this act.

The rabbis note that they may be more lenient when dealing with the assumed death of a husband.  Amud (b) brings us into a more detailed examination of witnesses.  Do we believe people who incriminate themselves?  Do we believe them in some cases but not in others?  Do we believe people who admit that they were witness to crimes rather than part of those crimes?  

Another new Mishna is introduced.  We learn that Sages, who are court officials as well as scholars, face restrictions due to their posts.  For example, he cannot marry a woman after he presided over her divorce.  This would look as though he may have been impartial in his judgement granting her the get.  But he is allowed to marry those who perform chalitza or refusal.  In both of these cases, he is only one member of the court and not the presiding judge.

The Gemara ends our daf with a conversation about the number of judges required to allow one of those judges to marry the woman being judged.  The rabbis wonder what should happen if a Sage marries a woman whom he should not marry.  A note teaches us that the marriage is valid in these cases.  Clearly the Sages are offered greater freedoms than those offered to the rest of society.

Today's text regarding anal sex is telling.  The true sin seems to lie in the act of penetration.  Why is that sin more meaningful than the sin of being the 'receiver' in this the sexual act?  Perhaps a man in this role is considered to be emasculated to such  a degree that he is in fact more like a woman than a man.  In that case, his testimony would not count, nor would his version of the events - unless another witness was present.  So is this hatred of male same-sex sexual behaviour about defining the role of men?  Or is it about a hatred of women? 

Monday, 27 October 2014

Yevamot 24: Sibling Order; Converson; Divorce Via Suspicion

Amud (a) focuses on the importance of birth order in yibum.  The eldest, not the firstborn, is obligated in yibum.  If for some reason he is unable to take the yevama in marriage, the obligation falls to the next eldest, and so on.  However, if a younger brother should wish to participate in yibum, that marriage is valid.  The rabbis speak about reasons for these halachot, including inheritance laws and related verses.

Amud (b) takes us on a tangent that apparently will last to the end of this Perek.  First, they speak of converts.  Are Canaanite slaves who are freed and Gentile women allowed to be married to Jewish men?  If those men were suspected of illicit relations with those women before the conversion, they are not supposed to marry.  But does conversion mean anything if a person is converting for love?  Sharing their arguments and their proof texts, the rabbis teach us that they are concerns that after love fades, love for Judaism could fade as well, and idol worship could be introduced to Jewish homes.  They also teach that outside of Israel, conversion is meaningful: there is no benefit to conversion in the diaspora.  The rabbis remind us that conversion was not allowed when Solomon's successes or when David's strength defined Judaism.  People should convert for "pure" reasons: the love of G-d and mitzvot.

On a related note, the rabbis want to understand when a woman should be divorced from her husband.  They speak about suspicion: when a married woman is suspected of an illicit sexual relationship, she should be divorced.  Their examples of such suspicion include witnesses - and arriving home to see a peddler leaving while one's wife is dressing from her undergarments into her clothing.  Even if the woman in question is divorced from her husband, she should not be remarried to her adulterous partner.  

The rabbis are more lenient regarding these questions than with many other questions.  If a woman has children, should she really be forced to divorce?  If people are suspicious about an illicit affair and the couple ends up marrying despite the decree that they should not marry, is it really necessary to end that marriage?  Looking for loopholes and alternate interpretations, the rabbis leave much leeway for courts and individuals to create restorative alternatives to harsh sentences.

We ask these same questions today regarding conversion and justice following infidelity.  Who is a Jew?  Does it matter if someone converts for love?  When should people divorce?  When can their actions be frowned upon but ultimately forgiven - at least enough to allow them continued communal involvement?  The fact that our rabbis were more flexible regarding some of these questions suggests to me that these circumstances occurred frequently; in nuanced circumstances.  Where is this flexibility when it comes to other issues of identity and sexual behaviours?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Yevamot 23: Brothers and Sisters: Some Clarifications

Today's daf continues the rabbi's focus on case studies that elucidate the specific laws of yibum.  For example, we learn about what to do when a man is not sure which of two sisters he betrothed.  We also learn about what to do when two brothers are betrothed to two sisters and one brother dies.  

In the first case, we learn that when one is unsure of a betrothal, a chalitza is required.  If both women are not released from yibum with chalitza, one might marry another person illegally or one might marry her yavam though that marriage is forbidden because she is the sister of his yevama.  

In the second case, the rabbis speak at some length about when chalitza is required; when yibum is permitted.  They extend this case to include three brothers and discuss whether or not he is permitted to perform yibum with the yevama.

Some of these cases seem ridiculously far-fetched.  Others seem ubiquitous.  It is difficult to grasp when our rabbis were sharing stories of the people and when they were elaborating in order to prove a point.  For readers like myself, who are less concerned with halachic decisions and more interested in the social structures in place two thousand years ago, such cases - though interesting - can be frustrating.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Yevamot 22: Sisters, Brothers and Mamzerim

Secondary forbidden relationships, those defined by rabbinic law rather than Torah law, carry on from generation to generation.  For example, one's wife's granddaughter and great-granddaughter are forbidden to the yavam.  The rabbis argue whether certain forbidden relationships carry on to the third, fourth, or infinite generation/s.  We learn in a note that Rambam's opinion is our halacha.  His rationale for "concluding" these prohibitions is that we are to rule leniently regarding uncertain rabbinic decrees.

A new learning regarding conversion: a convert is described as a person newly born.  This means that s/he has no legally binding relationships with Gentile family members.  The rabbis argue about the impacts of this legal fiction on the requirements of yibum.  A Jew who has converted is not subject to numerous secondary forbidden relationships; he is permitted to marry his maternal grandmother, for example, which would otherwise be a forbidden secondary relationship.  We also learn about the testimony of converts who are related to each other.  

Another aside: a paternal half-brother who is a yavam always requires yibum or chalitza, even if there are questions about his lineage.  A maternal half-brother, however, is not considered a yavam if his mother is a Gentile or a Canaanite maidservant.  Any person who dies and has a child - regardless of that child's lineage - exempts his wife from the status of yevama and the obligation of yibum.  This Mishna reminds us that such a child is legally bound as his child.  This means that if the child strikes his/her father, the child is liable to death.  The only exception is a child of a Gentile woman or Canaanite maidservants - such a child is not have the legal status of his child.

The Gemara discusses mamzerim: though a mamzer would exempt a yevama from yibum, if the brother of the deceased man is a mamzer, yibum is still a legal obligation; the levirite bond still exists.  After looking further into the notion of kin relationships and mamzerim, the rabbis look at mamzerim who curse their parents and are sentenced to death.  We watch the rabbis argue this point; it seems as though they are uncomfortable with such a harsh ruling.  Perhaps we should remember the sins of the father; perhaps we should think about the implications of repentance.

The Sages discuss the degree of punishment that face those who have sexual relations with their sisters who are the daughters of their fathers' wives.  The punishments are simply offerings - nothing close to the death sentence facing a disrespectful child.   We learn that the notion of marital rape does not exist: such a yavam is not liable to yibum with a sister from a woman who had been raped.  She is considered his sister because she is the daughter of his father's wife; a rape victim could only have resulted from intercourse between his father and another woman -- such a woman would not be called his sister at all.  

We end the daf with more disturbing interpretations.  The rabbis teach us that when a man's father rapes a woman (not, of course, his wife, for that does not exist as a concept), that man is allowed to marry the woman's daughter of another man.   However, if the woman's daughter was the man's paternal half-sister, the half-sister would be forbidden to him in marriage.  We learn in a note that the punishment the man would receive for marrying his half-sister would be because she was his sister and not because she was the daughter of his father's wife.

It is clear that our rabbis are working very hard to define the boundaries of their society.  They regulate sexual relationships carefully - far more carefully than what was described in Torah law - in order to create a fence around those primary forbidden sexual relationships.  However, they also regulate sexual relationships as a means to reinforce the structure of society.  Men are ultimately in control of their destinies based on the decisions that they make.  Women, however, live lives as decided by the men around them.  If they are raped, they are married - unless a man steps in to challenge that decree.  If they are widowed and without children, they are subject to the actions of their brothers-in-law.  It is disheartening to read about the live of my ancestors today.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Yevamot 20: Torah Law Vs. Rabbinical Law: On Forbidden Relations and Sanctity

We are introduced to a new Mishna.  It shares a principle: When a yevama is prohibited to her yavam due to forbidden relations (Torah law), chalitza is not required and levirate marriage is forgone.  When a yevama is prohibited to her yavam because of a prohibition that is the result of a mitzva (rabbinic law) OR a prohibition that is the result of sanctity (referring to the widow to a High Priest, a divorcee, a chalutza to a priest, a mamzeret, the daughter of a mamzer, or a non-Jewish woman), she must perform chalitza to end the bond of yibum.  In these latter cases, the yevama cannot enter into levirate marriage due to the prohibition; she must perform chalitza.  Further, sisters-in-law who are also sisters must perform chalitza or enter into yibum.  

The Gemara looks at each of these categories.  Multiple cases are applied to each principle to test its worth.  Their analysis questions the application of the rival wife of an alylonit as well as that of a man who cannot have children due to damaged genitals.  The Gemara wonders about the meanings of sanctity: how might each of these women and their rival wives be affected by this Mishna?  Numerous times, the rabbis wonder how they might manage a situation where the yavam has intercourse with the yevama (they do not speak about the issue of the yevama's consent in today's daf).  Does the mitzva of intercourse (it is a mitzva, a positive commandment, according to Torah law) override the rabbinical prohibition regarding intercourse (in relationships where the rabbis determined that the union is forbidden even though it is permitted by Torah law)?

As I often wonder when learning Talmud, did people know about the intricacies of these laws?  Would a yavam who wants a 'prohibited yevama' be sophisticated enough to rape her, knowing that his action was 'sacred' according to Torah law?  I would assume that amei ha'aretz would not be aware of these differences. But the rabbis; learned men - they would know their rights.  Would these religious leaders take advantage of their power and knowledge so that they could take what they wanted?  It's legal, right?  

An interesting argument arises regarding intercourse. The first act of intercourse is a mitzva by Torah law, although it is prohibited rabbinically.  The second act, however, would be likely to follow.  That act would not be protected by Torah law if the woman is prohibited rabbinically.    Thus the rabbis declared the first act forbidden as well, as it would lead to the second act.  If the yavam had intercourse with his 'prohibited yevama', the rabbis declared that he must divorce her, as the act of intercourse is definitive as an act of acquisition.  We learn in note that Reish Lakish teaches that the positive mitzva overrides the negative mitzva if one cannot fulfill both and they contradict each other.  

It is challenging to work within legal thought that has the potential to be so flexible while it is used with such stringency.  Specifically, rape of the yevama by the yevam results in marriage.  The end.  I suppose that our legal system's tolerance of mitigating factors - intention, mental health, etc. - creates many problems for those who have been victimized, too.  But at least our system offers some acknowledgement of the emotional impact of intercourse as an act of acquisition.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Yevamot 19: The Levirate Bond; Disagreement About Rape

The Gemara questions differences in our rabbis' analyses of specific situations where there are multiple brothers marrying multiple sisters (or other close family members). They are concerned about the strength of the zika, the levirate bond.  Is yibum, levirate marriage, the same as any other marriage, or not?  If the zika is substantial, how can we easily exempt a woman from yibum, regardless of the  situation? If marriage is assumed and almost automatic for a yevama and her yibum, shouldn't chalitza or intercourse always be necessary to affirm or finalize the status of the relationship?  How could there possibly be situations where a brother-in-law is available, but a yevama is free to marry another man of her choice?  

The rabbis walk through and around this issue with different examples.  Usually they include cases where a third brother is born - when he is born before the marriage of his older brother(s), he has different obligations regarding yivam than when he is born after that marriage.  This is discussed using the idea of coexistence: did he coexist with the yevama? The rabbis question standing examples from past considerations, wondering whether Rabbi Shimon might have been referring to four men marrying two women each, two men marrying four women each, or some other configuration.  

What held my attention most in today's daf were two discreet items.  First, we were introduced to the principle of "v'lo zo af zo", Not only this but also that.  This style is used in the Mishna to express that when a law applies to an obvious case, it applies just as much to a less obvious case.  This concept is helpful as I continue to understand the thinking of the rabbis as they grapple with the text using their own internally understood methods.

Secondly, mention is made of  a yevama who is raped by her yivam.  Because yibum is considered to be the same as marriage, most rules apply: intercourse, whether or not it is consensual, results in a legal marriage.  But in 'regular' marriage, the woman must consent to her betrothal, if not the marriage.  So why not in this situation?  Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi calls this marriage legal. However, the rabbis disagree.  They decide that a non-consensual betrothal in yibum is "ineffectual".  The rabbis use the halacha that ensures women consent to betrothal in other marriages to prove their opinion on the importance of consent in yibum.  Rabbi Yehuda NaNasi, however, cites a halacha that allows rape to determine marriage to justify rape determining betrothal in yibum.

Again, these arguments - so legal, so logical - seem to be without emotion.  But of course they incited emotional responses!  How did these men feel when the women that they loved were subject to such hateful behaviour? The text only hints at reflections of the rabbis' thoughts about their wives' experiences and feelings.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Yevamot 18: The Power of Minors Regarding Yibum

Today's daf walks us through what happens when a woman's husband dies who has more than one brother.   More specifically, the rabbis share their ideas regarding infants who are born to a man's parents either while he is married or after he has died.  The rabbis are concerned about the two competing obligations of yibum and forbidden relations.  

Interestingly, an infant boy - if born while the yevama's husband was still alive - can be obligated in yibum.  In practical terms, would this mean that a yevama - let's say she was 25 years old - would have to wait, betrothed to this infant, until she is 38 years old and he can legally marry her at age 13?  This seems extremely impractical.  It also seems ridiculous, particularly if the rabbis intended to ensure procreation within the family.

Another short passage in our daf notes that girls are allowed to be married out by their fathers before the age of 12.  If the father has died, her mother and brothers can marry her out before the age of 12 but only with her consent.  But consent cannot be given until age 12!  And so at age 12, such a girl has the right to refuse this marriage.  Refusal, me'un, grants her an annulment of her marriage without any consequences. In fact, me'un allows such a girl to have the same status as one who was never married.

How would this work when the girl remarried at age 16, for example, and did not bleed during her first cohabitation?  Would her husband have the right to divorce her and forfeit her ketubah?  Or were provisions made for girls who were in marriages at age 11 and younger?

We learn that yibum is considered to represent a significant bond between the yevama and her husband's family.  Yibum is only terminated when there is cause, and an action is necessary to complete that ending.

Our daf looks at cases where multiple sisters marry multiple brothers; where people die before their time.  The arguments are complex, and some of today's daf focuses on which rabbis argue which points.  

It continues to amaze me that the rabbis can continually speak about complex legal issues with such insight and reason while completely ignoring the emotional implications of their words.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Yevamot 17: Matrilineal Jewish Continuity; Who is a Brother?

We learn that when Jewish women lived in certain towns, they were likely partnered with Gentile men and thus their children were rendered mamzerim; the women themselves were deemed ritually impure.  Other towns were thought of as places of refuge for Jewish women, and their lineage was not questioned.   Today's text is where the rabbis agree that women and not men determine whether or not their child is Jewish.  And here is where we learn that of the ten tribes of Israel, all of the women are said to have become barren (due to trauma or their own crafty refusal of male attention), resulting in no Jewish descendants.  

Perek II begins with a Mishna that examines the definition of 'brother' in yibum.  The rabbis share their arguments.  What are the differences between the obligations - and restrictions - on a paternal half-brother versus a maternal half-brother?  Why is there a betrothal between the death of the yevama's husband and when she has intercourse with her yibum, formalizing the marriage?  Is the yibum ever allowed to marry the yivama's mother?  What if the yivama dies during the betrothal?  How long must a yevama wait for another yibum to be born?

The rabbis discuss the zikka, the bond of levirate marriage.  Sometimes that bond is substantial and sometimes it is weaker.  

Today's daf somehow feels more grounded in reality.  What about if Miriam does not want to wait around for her mother-in-law to have a baby who will grow up to become her husband?  Often the rabbis' arguments seem theoretical; today they discuss problems with the Mishanyot.  

We can easily note the lasting effect of our rabbis' interpretations.  Even today, many Jewish communities do not recognize paternal Jewish lineage.  Clearly there are pros and cons to that understanding of the text.  We have to remember that even our rabbis were lenient regarding some of their interpretations and their uses of halacha.  When law does not serve the larger good of the community, will it last?  Should it last?  If halacha is harming our community, will it last? Should it last? 

Yevamot 16: How to Solve Problems Respectfully; The Real Issue with Converts

What a daf!  This is one of those days that I wish I could take the time to detail every word; to wonder on this page about the numerous possible implications of the text.  Alas, not enough time.  An outline instead:

·   The great rabbis gather together to question Dosa ben Harkinas, a Sage well over 100 years old who ruled with Beit Shammai that rival wives were permitted.
·   Details on how to approach such a scholar, how to introduce their questions, are beautiful.  Use common practices of respect, speak first of other halachot, ask his opinion in general on rival wives, and only then inquire about his ruling
·   Dosa explains that he brother, a son of satan, made this ruling
·   The rabbis speak with Dosa’s brother who shares intricate arguments and then insults Akiva’s knowledge and lineage
·   Akiva agrees that he is as unworthy as a shepherd

We could all learn a great deal from these interactions.

Dosa then shares three learnings of Haggai, one of which affirms Beit Hillel’s view on rival wives.  These opinions, one about the poor man’s tithe and the other about converts from Karduyin and Tarmodim, are discussed throughout the remainder of today’s daf.

Some interesting notes about converts:  the Sages are concerned about converts – not because of sincerity or even the ritual purity of gentiles (which is not an issue at all), but because of lineage.  It seems that in both cities, there are concerns regarding the intermarriage and/or rape of Jewish women.  And not because of the violation of these women, but because their children would be classified as mamzerim and thus only able to marry other mamzerim.*  Our notes clarify that the lineage of converts are no longer of issue now that all peoples have intermingled.

A final note: Psalms (37:25) was quoted earlier.  Was this actually written by David or was it written by G-d?? Or was it written by the Head of Ministering Angels?  The rabbis are clear that of those three options, it could not have been written by David as David was not “old”; he died at age 70.  More information about life expectation!

*Even under less stringent rules, girls born of these intermarriages were not permitted to marry priests in antiquity.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Yevamot 15: Tzorot (Rival Wives), Chalitza and Mamzerim

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai agree that tzarot, rival wives are not obligated in yibum, but they hold different opinions as to why and thus the consequences of such unions.  The rabbis agreed that future tzarot should be required to perform chalitza and avoid the question of yibum.  However, today's daf focuses on the actions of past tzarot: were their children mamzerim (of flawed lineage based on forbidden sexual relationships other than nidda) with karet as a possibility in their futures or were they simply of flawed lineage with no harsh consequence?

When the rabbis discuss their options, they note twice that we must keep in mind Proverbs 3:17: Dracheicha darchei noam v'chol netivotecha shalom, "Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace".  When facing competing halachot, we should always choose the option that results in the least amount of conflict.  Men would be upset with their wives if they learned after the fact that their wives had not performed chalitza and thus their marriages were in question.  Thus we cannot put families in that position.

The rabbis walk us through a number of examples from their lives and circumstances.  Each story teaches us both about the lives of the rabbis and about the intentions of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.  It seems that the rabbis are looking for times when the houses of the great Sages were able to put aside their differences and bend their preferred rulings based upon a desire for a cohesive community.

The end of our daf focuses more specifically on tzorot, widows, mamzerim and the priesthood.  The High Priest is of such status that only the most 'pure' lineage can be a marriage partner.  However, even ordinary priests - although they are of very high status as well - are said to have married women with somewhat questionable lineage.  

It is heartening to learn that beyond the ideals of our rabbis, real life was understood and taken into consideration.  People marry people, people have affairs, people make mistakes in their ritual practice sand in their life choices.  If only we could treat each other with respect today when we learn about flawed lineage - or its equivalent sins - today.

Yevamot 13: Arguing About Arguing; Cutting

A brief note about Yevamot 13b: our daf ends with an argument between Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan regarding arguments.  How are we meant to understand a verse?  Can a verse hold more than one meaning?  Must it always make reference to its context first and foremost?

Part of this argument regards verses from Masechtot Megilla.  Don't we learn that Jews are not supposed to cut ourselves off from each other; we should act as one?  Or, perhaps we are truly referring to "cutting oneself", which is strictly prohibited.  It seems that cutting as a form of mourning was an understood practice.

Both of these ideas are important to me.  First, that there is a stream of thought within Jewish text that suggests that we can speak with one voice as Jews.  Hard to imagine that Jews today would do what Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai did: marry each other and use each others' vessels.  Both of those acts assume that the accepted practices regarding forbidden relationships and ritual purity can be set aside.  

Secondly, the prohibition against cutting oneself is fascinating.  Cutting is a common practice in today's youth who are diagnosed with depression.  Even only one generation ago, cutting was considered rare and bizarre behaviour that accompanied only severe forms of mental illness.  Could cutting be a practice that predates any 'modern' psychological theory regarding teenage angst, embodiment, or the connections between physical and emotional pain?  Perhaps deep longing and anguish has often been expressed through cutting behaviours and those behaviours were ritualized in ancient religious thought.  

Yevamot 12: Birth Control for Girls

A short note on Yevamot 12b

The rabbis debate whether or not three categories of women can use birth control: minors, pregnant women and nursing women.  

They spend much time discussing minors, as these girls might lose their ability to refuse their husbands; they might be 'set up' to be in forbidden relationships.  There is talk of betrothal to infants, intercourse being fine with girls under age 11 or over age 12, and the benefits of the ability to get pregnant as a marker of sexual maturity.  There is no mention of the punishments for men who impregnate girls and put those girls or their children at risk.  

The women are said to be using absorbent cloths inserted into the vagina either before or after intercourse.  Again, there is no mention of men's responsibility to refrain from having intercourse with minors, pregnant women or nursing women.  

The notion that intercourse is a holy obligation can be a beautiful thing between two consenting partners.  But when that obligation forces men to rape girls without consequence to themselves, there is something terribly amiss.  

I can tolerate most of this ancient rites, rituals and practices with interest, wonder and incredulity.  But today's daf leaves me unable to reinterpret or apologize for the text.  It is simply unfathomable to treat girls with such little regard.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Yevamot 11: The Tzara of a Sota; Meanings of Toeva

Today's daf considers the tzara of a sota.  A tzara is a rival wife, and a sota is a woman accused of being willingly unfaithful to her husband.  Special rules apply to these rival wives: they are considered to be of lower status; they are exempt from chalitza.

Some of the reasoning in today's daf is incredibly complex - it requires knowledge of the halachot regarding men and women of many different 'categories' (for example, a man who has remarried his wife - after she has married other men - who dies childless).  It also requires that we follow what happens halachically when these people interact with each other.  Further, it asks us to understand which rabbis argue which assertions.  

Needless to say, I find it challenging to achieve any one of these requirements.  

One particular argument stuck with me - not the argument itself, but a commentary.  When questioning an interpretation, the rabbis suggest an appealing possibility: once the verse is uprooted, it is uprooted.  They are teaching us that when a verse specifically refers to the tzara of a sota, for example, we cannot use that verse to explain another set of individuals.  

This goes against much of our general learning in the Talmud.  Rabbis frequently take words out of context and understand them in other circumstances.  There must be rules that help the rabbis understand when they should keep verses in context and when verses can be applied externally.  

With this in mind, we are told that certain women are considered to be 'abominations' while their children are not.  We learn in a note the word abomination, toeva, is usually used to describe sins that are punishable by karet.  In this instance, though, the sin is not punishable by karet.  Thus the abomination may or may not be describing a very serious sin.

These points are particularly important when we are considering the interpretation of Leviticus 20:13.  This verse is used to justify hatred of and discrimination against gay men.  However, toeva seems to hold meaning that is more similar to the word tamei, which refers to ritual impurity, than to abomination.  Any sex outside of marriage is tamei, though some acts - the rape of a marriageable woman, for example - are not considered as severe sins as other acts.  

Walking through the Talmud, even when I am unable to fully grasp the rabbis' arguments, is more rewarding than it is frustrating.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Yevamot 10: After Chalitza

Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan argue about some specific questions regarding chalitza.  In ordinary circumstances, a man is not allowed to marry his ex-wife's sister - his sister-in-law.  However, under the special circumstances when the woman's husband has died childless, she is allowed to her brother-in-law in marriage.  If that marriage is unwanted, the couple performs the ritual of chalitza.

What happens when they change their minds?  Rabbi Yochanan believes that all brothers are equally allowed or prohibited from marrying this woman after chalitza.  Reish Lakish, however, believes that all brothers are subject to karet if they marry their sister-in-law following chalitza.  The yibum, however, is subject to a less serious consequence.

The concept of yibum is difficult, as it challenges the Torah prohibition against marrying one's close relative.  One rabbi believes that yibum erases that prohibition, and the other believes that yibum is an unusual exception that does not affect the general rule.

Again, the rabbis attempt to find their way through this maze through legal fiction alone.  There is no talk of the emotional or psychological effects of their potential interpretations.  I wish I had something novel to say about this; it continues to concern me as I struggle with the text.


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Yevamot 9: Communal Punishments; Rape; Exemptions; Emotion

How does communal punishment differ from individual punishment?  The Gemara discusses what is done when the court erroneously allows idol worship.  Sins that are committed in error are generally treated with more leniency than those committed intentionally.  Similarly, sins committed by an entire community are punished more vigorously than those committed by an individual.  The rabbis look to juxtapositioning of different words and phrases to prove this assertion.  They also suggest that a number of verbal analogies point us toward their conclusions.

Returning to the discussion of our mishna, The Sage Levi suggests that there should be a sixteenth woman who is exempt from yibum, levirate marriage.  Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi scoffs, "it seems to me that he had no brain in his head!".  HaNasi goes on to describe Levi's suggestion: when one's mother is raped by one's father.  In this case, she cannot be allowed to one of the father's sons, as this could be her child.  This is not a disputed case, argues R. Yehuda, and so it would never come up for yibum in the first place.  

The rabbis then argue about which disputed/undisputed cases are argued in front of the court.  Amud (b) focuses primarily upon cases where a woman is allowed to her yibum under some but not all circumstances.  We end the daf with a number of questions about rape.  Some of the fifteen women who are exempt from yibum are exempt due to their status not as 'married' but as raped.  Rape cloud the guidelines of what is permitted in relationships.

Again, it is disturbing to read throughout this ancient wisdom regarding intimate relationships and  family bonds while ignoring the emotional impact of any of this traumatic events.  It is almost as if people didn't feel as deeply as we do.  But we know that that cannot be the case.  So how did people cope with their experiences of marriage, loss, yibum, chalitza, rape, etc.?  Quietly?  Or loudly, but not to the rabbis?  Was emotion the domain of women; was emotion considered to be unimportant?  How could any of these experiences happen without emotion attached?

Yevamot 8: Sisters as Rival Wives

The Gemara continues to unravel the halacha regarding yibum in the case of the sister of the wife of a deceased husband.  In an effort to better understand this halacha, the rabbis debate the principle of juxtapositioning (among others).  They wonder about the timing of events and whether there might exist a window of time in which yibum might be permitted, though it would otherwise be forbidden.  Further, they wonder about rival wives in this context; arguments are shared on both sides of this debate.  The rabbis debate whether or not a positive mitzvah overrides a prohibition that would incur karet.  Rival wives may or may not be permitted to the yibum.

Forbidden relatives are a large part of determining how yibum operates.  The rabbis suggest that as long as she is alive, a woman's sister is not permitted to her husband's.  However, once she dies, her sister is permitted.  More controversial today, though - if a woman is divorced, her sister is still forbidden to her ex-husband.  Why would the rabbis protect this relationship between sisters so carefully?

We return to the verse discussed intermittently throughout this Masechet, Leviticus 18:18: "You shall not take a woman to her sister, to be a rival to her, to uncover her nakedness, with her in her lifetime."  The rabbis agree that "with her" is superfluous and must be explained.  The consensus is that these words refer to the yibum having intercourse with her.  

Amud (b) teaches that a yevama can be married without her consent, for this verse proves that intercourse will be part of the act of marriage, regardless of her consent.  After they are married, the yibum is allowed to divorce her and remarry her if he wishes.  This is very different from the ordinary standards of marriage.  Normally women are allowed to refuse a marriage arrangement.  Further, in yibum, generally women are allowed to perform chalitza to refuse her husband's brother.  She is not required to marry and then receive a get.

I understand that I am missing many pieces of this puzzle thus far.  However, the larger picture is becoming more apparent: the rabbis are sketching out our rules of engagement.  Those rules have to change according to circumstance.  Unfortunately, our rules as they have been presented are sometimes at odds with each other.  Thus the rabbis have to talk themselves through the potential meanings of each contradiction.  We notice again our rabbis determining the fate of women's lives as creatures who are equal parts property and human being.  

People's lives are at stake.  I continually wonder whether or not the rabbis were aware of the power inherent in their words.  One halachic decision could direct the lives of hundreds of thousands of people over dozens of generations.  Such responsibility... We know that our rabbis took themselves very seriously.  But did they take their work seriously - beyond the interpretation of G-d's words toward facilitation of lives led with dignity?

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Yevamot 4: Juxtapositions

Amud (a) uses interesting case studies to teach us the principle of juxtapositioning.  The halacha of diverse kinds, using the example of tzitzit, is the main example - the subject of much of today's daf regarding juxtapositioning.

Deuteronomy, we learn in a note, is thought to be Moses' interpretation of verses.  The other four books of the Torah are thought to be G-d's word, in order, or perhaps given to us scroll by scroll, or perhaps another collection of holy thoughts and directives.  Thus the book of Deuteronomy is particularly open to homiletic interpretation via juxtapositioning.

How do we know that seemingly unrelated phrases are meant to inform us about nuance in halacha?  The rabbis use the example of Deuteronomy 25:4, "one shall not muzzle an ox while it treads on the corn" is followed by "if brothers dwell together" (ibid, 25:5).  Some rabbis argue that we can use this juxtapositioning to suggest the homiletic interpretation that a woman offered to her husband's brother in yibum shall not be muzzled; she has the right to speak her mind as she would in other marriage negotiations.  

The example of punishments facing sorceresses, mediums and wizards (those who ask the dead to tell us the future) is said to be stoning because of a juxtapositioning of verses as well.  The Gemara expresses concern about using juxtapositioning to determine the death penalty.

To understand Rabbi Yehuda's view on homiletic interpretation in the book of Deuteronomy, we look at rape and seduction.  "A man shall not take his father's wife, nor shall he uncover his father's skirt" (Deuteronomy 23:1) is preceded by "And the man who lay with her must give the father fifty shekels of silver" (Deuteronomy 22:29).  What is this 'skirt'?  It seems like the skirt would refer to the father's clothing.  However, the rabbis use this juxtapositioning to interpret homiletically: any skirt uncovered by one's father is prohibited in yibum.  So why is raped or seduced woman still permitted to the son in yibum?  Because, explain the rabbis, there is a break in the juxtapositioning.  "A man must not take his father's wife" interposes, suggesting that because these women are not the father's wife, they are permitted.

In order to prove this interpretation, the Gemara suggests that the yevama in this case is waiting for her yibum, who is the father - and thus she is 'his skirt', as awful as that sounds to today's ear.  The rabbis try to pinpoint Rabbi Yeduda's guidelines regarding homiletic interpretation based on juxtaposition: the verses must be out of place and thus recognizable as placed for that purpose, and they must be superfluous/extraneous and thus 'free' for use.  In this case, the verse "... And not uncover his father's skirt" following "A man shall not take his father's wife" is both out of place and superfluous.  It can be used for homiletic interpretation.

Amud (b) ground us in conversation regarding the tzitzit.  We are told that we cannot wear diverse kinds, that we must wear ritual fringes on the corners of our garments, that we cannot combine wool and linen, that we cannot put such a garment upon ourselves, that ritual fringes must be dyed sky-blue... and yet we know from other sources that wool is the only fabric dyed sky-blue.  How can we understand when and how to wear ritual fringes? Must we always wear only one fabric?  What about placing that garment on our shoulders?  What if only the corners are wool - can the rest of the garment be linen or silk?

The rabbis agree that wool fringes can be worn on a linen garment and vice versa, even though this is thought to be prohibited.  Using the juxapositioning of verses, the rabbis are able to homiletically interpret verses to mean something that might not be obvious at first glance.

What power.  To know Torah well enough to interpret in this way is to influence generations to come according to one's own perspectives.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Yevamot 3: Why These Exceptions?

A strong start: why isn't rape of one's daughter mentioned specifically?  The rabbis want to understand why certain relationships are mentioned before others.  In asking this question, they note that some of the relationships mentioned are discussed in Torah and some are only referred to homiletically.   Rape of one's daughter is one of the latter.  Thus the rabbis find one more clue regarding the order of the exceptions to yibum.

With regard to the tzarot, the rival wives,  the Gemara questions why the Mishna states that they are exempt from yibum  rather than being prohibited from yibum when the first wives are exempt.  The rabbis decide that tzarot are not in fact prohibited from yibum but are only exempt in these circumstances.  Following this, the Gemara considers yibum and chalitza.  The rabbis determine that any woman who is eligible for yibum by Torah law is eligible for chalitza.  Any woman who is ineligible for yibum according to Torah law is not eligible for chalitza.

The Gemara wonders why fifteen women were excluded from yibum; whom is not on this list?  The tzara of a sota, an aylonit, a minor who did not refuse her marriage.  The rabbis discuss some of the implications of tzara.  One interesting note suggests that yibum allows a brother to build the house of his deceased brother (Deuteronomy 25:9).  He is unable to fully 'build' when the yevama is forbidden to him by Torah law and when one of her tzarot is forbidden to him.

An interesting game of logic: why not mention the six categories of relationships that are prohibited most severely (marrying one's mother, etc.).  The Gemara walks us through the rabbis considerations: one's mother can never marry one's brother, for she is either also the brother's mother or she is his father's wife.  Thus she will never be eligible for yibum.  Her tzara, however will be permitted to this brother for yibum.  When a first wife is not even remotely eligible for yibum according to Torah law, her tzara is in fact permitted.

This brings our rabbis to an overarching question: can a positive mitzva override a prohibition?  Yes, say the rabbis, but not when the prohibition is punishable by karet.  But how can we justify yibum at all?  A man is not to marry his brother's wife.  Ah, say the rabbis, but yibum only occurs when the brother and his wife have no children.  

This argument might suggest that the important part of marriage is procreation.  Ultimately, these laws - as much as they seem to address social and familial relationship issues - are based upon the imperative of procreation and the patrilineal chain of inheritance.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Chagiga 27: What Cannot Be Destroyed By Fire

In our last page of Chagiga, we learn about susceptibility to ritual purity and to the ravages of fire.  First, the rabbis remind us that the ritual purity of a table is determined by its core, often wood, and not by its coating, even if that coating is a metal such as gold.  In the Temple, the purest gold that was used liberally protected both the object and the people close by.

We are reminded that all people, including amei ha'aretz, are trusted in Jerusalem when it comes to questions of ritual purity.  

Fire, like that within a 'fire salamander', cannot destroy Torah scholars.  The words of Torah are like fire.  Once ingested, they strengthen Torah scholars and thus these people will not be touched by the fires of Gehena.  

I would like to believe that both special salamanders and that scholars of Torah are in possession of superpowers.  How inspiring!  But instead I wonder at the rabbis' abilities to continually praise themselves regarding the importance and the physical fortification associated with their work.  

Having said that, it is gratifying to see that Masechet Chagiga ends with acknowledgement of the importance of amei ha'aretz with regard to ritual purity.  It is only when we respect each others' practice that we will work together a people.

Yevamot 2: The Fifteen Exeptions

We delve into Yevamot quickly: there are fifteen women who are exempt from yibum, levirate marriage, and from chalitza, refusal.  Each of these women is forbidden to marry her brother-in-law based on Torah law regarding forbidden sexual relationships.

Yibum is ordinarily performed when a woman's husband dies before they have had children together.  One of his brothers is obliged to marry her or to perform the chalitza ceremony that releases her from this obligation.   And so we begin Masechet Yevamot with a list of those who are exempt from marrying one of their husband's brothers.  Because families often married cousins or other close relatives, the potential for forbidden relationships through yibum was of concern to the rabbis.

The exemptions:
1. A man's daughter;
2. The daughter of his daughter;
3. The daughter of his son;
4. The daughter of his wife;
5. The daughter of the son of his wife;
6. The daughter of the daughter of his wife;
7. His mother-in-law;
8. The mother of his mother-in-law
9. The mother of his father-in-law.
10. His maternal sister.
11. His mother's sister;
12. His wife's sister;
13. The wife of his maternal brother;
14. The widow of his much younger (not born yet) brother
15. His daughter-in-law.

The yevama is a woman whose husband has died.  Interestingly, these exceptions to yibum also apply to the tzarot, or the second, etc., rival wives who were also married to the yevama's husband.  Thus even when a tzara is not officially forbidden from marriage with someone due to Torah law regarding sexual relationships, she is exempt from yibum.  However, if the yevama dies, the tzara is now free to participate in yibum.

Minors and aylonot are questions: what of a married minor who has not consented to her marriage yet has not, for whatever reasons, removed herself from that marriage through mi'un before adulthood?  And what about the aylonit, who cannot reproduce?  

The rabbis wonder why the list of forbidden relationships is listed as it is, above.  Is it in order of severity of punishment?  Which punishment is worse, stoning or burning?  

Of course, through all of these descriptions, defining parameters and debates, are not concerned at all with the will of the woman who is the subject of the debate.   While rabbis might claim that she is being protected by these guidelines (which they do not yet assert), it is hard to believe that these rules are based on the interests of women.  And when women had no voice in setting the guidelines, it is almost certain that women were afforded next to no power and thus next to no agency in their most important decisions.  We should not forget that all of this is happening while wives were in mourning for their husbands.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Chagiga 25: The Stringencies That Apply to Teruma

We have been learning that sacrificial food usually requires more stringent supervision than teruma.  There are situations where the ritual purity of teruma's demands our attention, however.  

Location: The rabbis note that the land of Israel was inhabited mainly by Jews and by Kutim, or Sadducees.  The Jews lived in Judea and the Galilee, while the Kutim inhabited a significant strip of land between those two areas.  It stretched from the sea to the Jordan river, causing Jews to travel across this land that was designated ritually impure.  The rabbis discuss how one might bring teruma from the Galilee to Jerusalem.  Is a sealed box secure enough? A vessel with a tightly bound cover? What about the wine that is purified in the Galilee for sacrificial use?  The rabbis are stringent regarding this travel.

We learned that there were fewer stringencies regarding oil and wine.  The rabbis find exceptions to these leniencies.  One of their considerations is two brothers who inherit their father's land and produce.  The father and one brother were amei ha'aretz.  The brother who is a chaver is only allowed to suggest that they split each crop, pointing at which areas are ritually pure and offering his brother the other sections.  The brothers cannot barter with the produce.  Our rabbis are careful to soften guidelines regarding inheritance, ritual purity, differences in levels of observance, and family relationships.

Stringencies apply to teruma when eaten in a state of ritual impurity.  The rabbis discuss the example of a beit haperas, a field that might be ritually impure because corpses could lie beneath it.  They walk us through the general rules regarding these fields, and then debate whether or not teruma will become ritually impure anyway.  When an am ha'aretz says that their teruma is ritually pure, the rabbis question whether or not we can consider amei ha'aretz credible in some circumstances and not credible in others.  They question whether wine that is meduma - has been mixed or mingled together - can be considered ritually pure.

A new Mishna that describes land close to Jerusalem as places where amei ha'aretz are credible regarding the purity of their vessels.  The Mishna suggests Modi'im as the outer limit regarding this ruling, and the rabbis suggest that a radius surrounding Jerusalem is implied.  The Gemara teaches us that within Modi'im, the credibility of amei ha'aretz is more complicated.  A chaver must enter the city and purchase the pot before leaving for the pot to be considered ritually pure.

The idea that one's status regarding ritual purity can change based on such circumstances seems bizarre.  It suggests that ritual purity is not a state of being; it is much more complex and nuanced than that.  Hopefully I will continue to understand the notion of ritual purity better as I continue this learning.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Chagiga 24: Ritual Purity: Guidelines for Hands, Vessels, Sacrificial Wine, and More

Ritual impurity has a number of degrees.  First degree ritual impurity is imparted through contact with a corpse or a dead creeping animal.  The subsequent degrees of ritual impurity are more complex; they can be contracted in different circumstances under differing guidelines.  

Today's daf discusses how to carry multiple ritual items in vessels where ritual purity might be at risk.  It considers further differences between sacrificial foods and terumah.  It reminds us that all people are to be trusted when it comes to preparing wine and oil for sacrificial services.  It looks at the susceptibility of dry and wet foods to ritual impurity.  It also considers the human body as a receptacle: if only one hand touches a ritually impure object, both hands should be immersed.

I am trying to imagine a society that operates according to these rules.  Would people become tremendously aware of what they touch; when and how they touch?  Would these guidelines become second nature?  Would people automatically place items in their vessels according to which items were susceptible to ritual impurity?