September 11, 2022

Ketubot 63

Sometimes a Talmudic story can be read in two radically different ways.

Early on in today’s daf (Ketubot 63a) we are told a story involving a father and son, Rav Yosef and his father Rava, where Rava – who wanted his son to be fully immersed in Torah study for a 6-year stretch – disagreed with Rav Yosef returning home mid-way through his studies. According to most translations, upon seeing his son Rava approached him with some kind of utensil in hand (שקל מנא ונפק לאפיה), and he then scorned him saying זונתך נזכרת – ‘You’ve now remembered your harlot?!’ (which is understood to be a reference to Rav Yosef’s wife), while some claim that Rava said יונתך נזכרת – ‘You’ve now remembered your dove?!’.

According to this reading of the Gemara, many commentaries explain that Rava suspected that among the reasons of his son coming home was that he emotionally and physically missed his wife and he was interested in being sexually intimate with his wife. However, since sexual intimacy is forbidden on Yom Kippur, Rava felt it was entirely the wrong time for his son to return home at this time, and that notwithstanding the presumption that his son would observe this law during Yom Kippur, the idea that a husband and wife be under the same roof after 3 years of separation and remain unable to be together was a bad plan. According to this reading, this is why Rava refers to Rav Yosef’s wife as a harlot – because he believes that Rav Yosef is coming home with an agenda of sexual intimacy. Moreover, even the alternative version of what was said by Rava, i.e. ‘You’ve now remembered your dove?!’, is also understood by various commentaries in this spirit because doves are faithful to their mates. The story then ends by us being told that this disagreement between father and son became so heated that neither then had the opportunity to eat the pre-fast meal before the onset of Yom Kippur. Still, notwithstanding this explanation being the approach of numerous commentaries, it is clear that this whole episode is both confusing and unsettling.

However, Rabbi Reuven Margaliot offers an altogether different approach to this story which complements its place in the overall discussion of Massechet Ketubot. He explains that the episode is all about the duties of a husband to provide sustenance for his wife, and that the word זונתך (zonat’cha) – which is translated by many as ‘harlot’ – has no such meaning in this context and, in fact, it refers to the commitment to provide sustenance (מזונות – mezonot). In fact, he then provides numerous references (see for example Yerushalmi Ketubot 5:4) where the word זונתו (zonato) refers to sustenance. Given this explanation, Rava’s remarks to his son had nothing to do with sexual intimacy, and were not even necessarily critical of him. Instead, Rava sought to reassure his son – who had interrupted his studies to come home and make sure that everything is OK – by saying ‘there was no need for you to come back, because your commitment to sustain your wife (זונתך) is being fulfilled’. Infact, beyond this point made by Rav Margaliot, there are lots of additional hints that this is the point of the story. For example, it occurs on Erev Yom Kippur which is a fast day, and the story ends by telling us that neither Rava nor Rav Yosef had the opportunity to eat before the onset of the fast. What we learn from all this is that paying attention to the original words and the context of a story matters, and that when a story is read in one way which is both confusing and unsettling, perhaps there are other ways to understand it that make more sense.

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