A curious phrase is used in a Mishna (Ketubot 1:6) found in today’s daf (Ketubot 13a) – which is also invoked in the three subsequent Mishnayot (Ketubot 1:7-9) but is not used anywhere else in the Gemara.
To give some context, the Mishna discusses a situation where an unmarried Jewish woman is suspected of having sexual relations with someone – with the question being whether this sexual relationship impedes her ability to subsequently marry a Kohen. According to Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Eliezer, whatever the woman says in terms of the man with whom she had sexual relations is believed. As a result, she may – if she so wishes – subsequently marry a Kohen without the need for any further evidence. In contrast, Rabbi Yehoshua states that: לא מפיה אנו חיין – ‘we don’t live based on [the statement from] her mouth’, and he asserts that notwithstanding her testimony, the default presumption should be that she had sexual relations with someone who does impede her ability to subsequently marry a Kohen unless further evidence to the contrary is presented.
Fundamentally, while much has been written by rabbinic commentaries about the precise point of difference between these Sages, their disagreement is generally understood to be rooted in the overall question of ‘presumption’ (חזקה) concerning what people say when speaking about their sexual activities. Still, what isn’t clear is why Rabbi Yehoshua uses the phrase לא מפיה אנו חיין – ‘we don’t live based on [the statement from] her mouth’ instead of the more precise phrase אינה נאמנת – ‘she is not believed’.
This question was first addressed by Rabbi Yom Tov ben Abraham of Seville (1260-1320), otherwise known by the acronym ‘Ritva’, who explains that the phrase לא מפיה אנו חיין – ‘we don’t live based on [the statement from] her mouth’ can be understood while reflecting on the teaching in Avot 1:13 that ‘the world endures on justice, truth and peace’. Thus, what Rabbi Yehoshua seems to be saying is that since many people aren’t always fully transparent about their sexual partners especially if what they say has halachic consequences about whom they may marry in the future, then unless further evidence is provided, we aren’t able to presume that what she has said is true.
Interestingly, Rav Yosef Messas (1892-1974) received a letter from Rabbi Avraham Magush who asked him about the meaning of this phrase לא מפיה אנו חיין (see his ‘Otzar HaMichtavim’ Vol. 2 No. 949), and having presented the above-mentioned position of Ritva as quoted by the Shitah Mekubetzeh (Ketubot 12b) and summarized by Rabbi Malachi HaKohen (1700-1771) in his ‘Yad Malachi’ (Klalei HaLamed No. 380), Rabbi Messas nevertheless still felt that this was a forced interpretation – especially since this phrase is only found in Mishna Ketubot 1:6-9 when discussing doubtful cases involving improper sexual activity before and during marriage (whereas, if the focus of this phrase was about the need to pursue truth, we would have expected it to be used in many more places when discussing questions relating to the reliability of testimony).
Given this, Rabbi Messas suggests that the phrase ‘we don’t live etc.’ should not be understood to be primarily focussing on living based on truth, but rather, on living a life of ‘Taharat HaMishpacha’ (family purity), with the implication being that Rabbi Yehoshua is of the view that the spiritual purity of the Jewish people, which is arguably the source of life for the Jewish people, is not reliant on the sole testimony of an individual woman who may not be telling the truth.
Yet, as Rabbi Messas notes, this is not the view of Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Eliezer who rule that an individual woman is נאמנת (believed) when speaking about her personal sexual activities and, therefore, about her personal status vis-à-vis the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha. And significantly, the halacha – as codified by the Rambam (Issurei Biah 18:13) and Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 6:17) – is in accordance with Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Eliezer.
Based on this explanation of Rabbi Messas we have an altogether different way of engaging with these Mishnayot in Massechet Ketubot. Rather than their focus being on the presumption of truth and, therefore, the truth of testimony about past sexual partners which may have consequences for the future, they speak about the value and the pursuit of ‘Taharat HaMishpacha’ which is fundamentally rooted in the present. And while Rabbi Yehoshua is correct that Taharat HaMishpacha is a collective value of the Jewish people, what we learn from these Mishnayot is that an individual woman is נאמנת (believed) when speaking about her personal status vis-à-vis the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha.