Up until now, Gemara Ketubot has made it clear that while land (קרקע) can be taken from an estate, movable property (מטלטלין) cannot be taken as collateral for debts. Yet notwithstanding this principle, we are taught in today’s daf (Ketubot 96a) that ‘in the case of a widow who seized movable property for her support, whatever she seized she has seized’. Moreover, the Gemara then relates how the daughter-in-law of Rabbi Shabtai seized a sack of money from her husband’s estate to pay for her sustenance and that ‘the Sages did not have the power to extract it from her hand’.
In explaining this rule, the Rambam writes in his Hilchot Ishut 18:10 that ‘If a widow seizes movable objects in order to provide herself with sustenance, then whether she seizes these objects from the living (i.e. from her husband’s estate while he is still alive) or from the dead (i.e. once he has died), and even if she seizes a talent of gold, then this property is not removed from her possession.’
Admittedly, the Rambam then proceeds to explain that if such an event occurs, then when the formal calculation is made about the money that is to be given to the widow from her husband’s estate, that whatever she seized is then deducted. Still, this law appears to acknowledge that sometimes there is a lag between when a person has needs, and when formal arrangements are made to provide for those needs, and if – during this time – a widow takes movable objects for her sustenance, then no attempt should be made to return those objects.
We oftentimes say that a person should not take the law into their own hands. However, this principle only works when the law works and when it provides timely sustenance for those in need. Consequently, if a widow feels the need to seize movable objects from her husband’s estate before it has formally been distributed, what this practically means is that the process is taking too long – and the reason why ‘the Sages did not have the power to extract it from her hand’ is, ultimately, because they realized that this was the case.