I previously explained in my commentary to Yevamot 99a (see https://rabbijohnnysolomon.com/yevamot-99/ how the seemingly improbable case described in that Mishna (Yevamot 11:4) where two children became mixed up actually referred to a situation when families were forced to hide in caves for long periods while conflicts were reigning in their area ‘during which time babies were born and they became mixed up’.
The reason I mention this is because today’s daf (Yevamot 119b) informs us of how Rav Chiya the son of Rav Huna suggests that the circumstance being described in Mishna Yevamot 15:9 is a case where a woman testified that: אני והוא נחבאנו במערה – ‘I and he (i.e. my husband) hid ourselves in a cave [along with our newborn son]’ during which time both her son and her husband died. Significantly, unlike the previously mentioned case from Yevamot 99a, the key point here is that no others were with this family in their cave who can testify about who died first.
In terms of the Gemara, its primary focus is the halachic status of the woman. However, in terms of this commentary, my primary focus is the mental state of the woman because presuming, as seems likely, that the circumstances bringing her and her family to live in a cave was conflict in the area, what this means is that this woman has not only suffered from living for some time in a war zone, but she has also had to cope with the death of her son and her husband without anyone around to support her.
For some people, experiencing this series of traumas might have simply been too much. But what does this woman do? Once it is safe to leave the cave she comes to the Beit Din, she testifies in order to achieve clarity about her status, and she then begins a new chapter of her life. Simply put, in a world surrounded by death and destruction, she chooses life.
Since the time when this Mishna was written, Jews have unfortunately lived through many more turbulent periods. There have been wars. There has been persecution. And there has been death. Yet the spirit of the Jewish people, as it confronts death, has always been to choose life. And like this woman, there have been countless times over the past thousand years when men and women have had to cope with the most difficult of situations and yet were nevertheless able to dig deep and find the strength to move forward and, in response to the death and destruction that they had witnessed, they built new families, they started new lives, and they helped make a positive contribution to the world.
So rather than this explanation by Rav Chiya the son of Rav Huna being a mere halachic detail, it is – in so tragic yet remarkable many ways – the story of so many of our people. It is the story of those who heard, even in the darkest of places, the command to ‘choose life’.