March 28, 2022

Yevamot 18

A week ago the Jewish world lost a beacon of Torah dedication and Torah scholarship, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky zt’l, who died aged 94 and whose love of Torah and of people was powerfully reflected by the huge number of people who attended his funeral and who have since spoken and written about him.

Rav Chaim grew up in a remarkable Torah home which provided him with direct access to the greatest of Torah scholars. However, this alone was not the making of him. Instead, it was his sheer commitment to learning Torah, his deep curiosity in wrestling with all forms of questions in Torah, and his unstoppable pursuit to achieve clarity in Torah that led him to become a true living sefer Torah. And it is this commitment to learning, curiosity, questioning and clarity is reflected in what is the first known letter of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky which he wrote in his youth (around Bar Mitzvah age) to his uncle the Chazon Ish* on today’s daf, Yevamot 18b.

Before proceeding, it is important to note that many who study Massechet Yevamot attest to the fact that this is arguably the most difficult Massechet. Given this, the very fact that Rav Kanievsky was studying this Massechet at such an early age is evidence of the fact that once a student has developed the necessary knowledge and skills from their study of Chumash, Mishna and other Massechtot of Gemara (which he did at a remarkably young age but which generally takes a longer for most people), we should not be afraid to study hard texts.

Beyond this, it is significant that his letter not only makes reference to the Gemara, but also to Tosfot and the Rashba, which goes to show that his pursuit of Torah study was not just about getting through texts quickly, but instead, about achieving clarity in Torah and both listening to, and participating in, the ongoing conversation of Torah dialogue over the generations.

In terms of the letter itself, he addresses the situation discussed in the Mishna (Yevamot 2:2, 18b), when a man dies childless and his brother who was already married then fulfils yibum with his sister-in-law, and then another brother is born and the second brother dies – with the question being whether this third brother is obliged in yibum to the two wives of his older brother – one of which having been previously married to his older brother who had died before he was born? (i.e he can marry either as part of his yibum obligation) Or whether he is only obliged in yibum to the wife of the brother who died in his lifetime?

While the Sages take the latter view, Rabbi Shimon takes the former view. However, we were previously taught (see Yevamot 17b basing itself on Devarim 25:5) that the wife of a non-contemporary brother is forbidden. Given this, and the view of Rabbi Shimon who seemingly permits such relationships, the Gemara (Yevamot 18b) seeks to understand what particular case of the wife of a non-contemporary brother is forbidden, which it then answers in two ways. Either where the third brother is born after the death of the second, or alternatively, where the second brother did not fulfil yibum to the first, and then the third brother was born.

But this second solution raises a question for Rav Kanievsky, because as we have repeatedly seen in Massechet Yevamot there are certain relationships that stretch the bounds of what appears to be the right or appropriate thing to do, with the Gemara regularly invoking the words of Mishlei 3:17 of דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נֹעַם – ‘the ways are ways of pleasantness’ to teach us that some unique yibum situations simply do not reflect the overall spirit of the Torah. This question is raised both by Tosfot (Yevamot 17b DH Eshet Achiv) and by the Rashba, and it then leads Rav Chaim Kanievsky to try and reconcile the Gemara’s discussion with this overall demand. What this goes to show us that even at this young age Rav Chaim was prepared to wrestle with all forms of questions in Torah while also showing sensitivity to the moral dimension of these questions.

It is this spirit of questioning, and his preparedness to write a letter to his uncle to discuss this question, which speaks volumes about Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, and this is why I have always encouraged my students to reach out and write to great Torah teachers and leaders with their questions – because doing so can be an unvaluable boost of confidence which thereby affirms their desire to participate in the ongoing conversation of Torah dialogue over the generations.

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