A story is told in today’s daf (Yevamot 116b) which is the basis for an important Talmudic rule:
‘It occurred at the end of the wheat harvest when ten people went to harvest wheat. A snake bit one of them and he died, and his wife then came and told the Beit Din that her husband died. They sent messengers to investigate who discovered that it happened in accordance with her statement. They then said: “The woman who says: My husband died, may marry on the basis of this testimony. Furthermore, if she says: My husband died without children, and he has a brother, she enters into levirate marriage.”’
Upon reading this story you, like me, may be somewhat confused. This is because the rule which is derived from the story is that when a woman testifies that her husband has died, she is believed. However, in this story it seems that her husband didn’t die alone; there were ten people present! Beyond this, it also seems that she wasn’t believed since we are informed that the Beit Din subsequently performed their own investigation around the circumstances of his death.
Rav Yosef Engel answers these questions in his ‘Gilyonei HaShas’ by telling us that before this episode, the Sages were not willing to rely on the sole testimony of a woman who claimed that her husband has died. Instead, they presumed that if a woman’s husband has died, then further witnesses could be found.
Then this event occurred in a location where – as we were told – others were present. Yet, as their subsequent investigation revealed, only his wife witnessed this event or saw his body. Upon realising that even where events occur in the close proximity of others that it is possible that only one person actually saw the event or the body, the Beit Din reversed their presumption that if a woman’s husband dies then further witnesses can be found.
What this teaches us is that while law is based on principles, it is often based on presumptions. And when it becomes absolutely clear that those presumptions are not correct, our duty is to revisit and, where necessary, reconsider the law.