Today we begin our study of Seder Nashim and, specifically, Massechet Yevamot, though it should be noted that in the Cambridge manuscript of the Mishna this Massechet is not called Yevamot but is, instead, called ‘Massechet Nashim’ – thereby suggesting that there are teachings found in this Massechet that powerfully express the spirit of the entire Seder Nashim. Given this, the question I would like to consider is what are those teachings?
Admittedly, most people are unaware of the above-mentioned fact about the alternative name of our Massechet. Yet this same question is asked, in its own way, by many of our commentaries who wish to find out why Yevamot – which discusses the laws of levirate marriages when a husband dies without children – is the first in Seder Nashim, since it would have made more sense to precede Yevamot (the laws of levirate marriages) with the laws relating to Kiddushin (marriage) and Ketubot (marriage contracts)?
Though various answers have been offered to this question by those such as the Tosfot Yeshanim, the Rambam, and the Tosfot Yom Tov, I would like to share a unique answer suggested by Rabbi Avraham Shimon HaLevi Engel-Horovitz הי”ד (1876-1943), otherwise known as Rav Shimon Zelichover, who was the mashgiach ruchani (spiritual guide) in Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin until he, like so many others, was murdered by the Nazis – which was subsequently shared by his student Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi Wosner zt’l (as recorded in ‘Derashot Sisco Shevet HaLevi’ pp. 91-92).
R’ Shimon begins with a mashal (parable) about someone who wishes to buy a house. He explains that before making the purchase, the prospective buyer first finds out about who the neighbours are, what the quality of life is like in the neighbourhood, and what possible aggravation or risks may exist in that region? And only once those questions have received satisfactory answers and it seems clear, as best as one can know, that this is a good location to move to, then the prospective buyer then makes the purchase.
In terms of Massechet Yevamot, it begins by discussing the possible family ties between the prospective Yavam (levir) and the co-wives of the woman whose husband died (nb. this obviously would only apply at a time or in communities where polygamy was permitted), whereby if the Yavam is related to any of this woman’s co-wives, she is exempt from Yibum.
In light of this, R’ Shimon explains that before a woman marries a man who has other wives, she would first wish to know who those wives are, and how her prospective husband treats his existing wives. And only once she is satisfied with the answers to those questions, and only once she has an idea of the ‘neighbourhood’ of being married to this man, will she agree to marry him.
Explained this way, I believe that this is why some refer to Massechet Yevamot as Massechet Nashim, because we learn from here that a good – though unfortunately not guaranteed – way to understand what marriage may be like with a particular man is to get to know the women who are married to – or nowadays who may have previously been in a relationship with – this man and therefore find out how he treats women, and whether it is advisable, and safe, to marry him.