The Mishna (Yevamot 3:5) in today’s daf (Yevamot 29a) describes a case of three brothers, where two of the brothers were married to two sisters and the third was unmarried. The Mishna then discusses the unfortunate scenario when one of the married brothers dies without children and whose widow then fulfils yibum with the single brother, afterwhich the second married brother then dies. The question is whether the now-not-single brother is also dutibound to fulfil yibum or halitzah towards his recently widowed sister-in-law?
According to Beit Shammai, she is exempt from both, while Beit Hillel rules that he should grant a get and perform Halitzah to his first (yibum) wife and perform Halitzah for the second. As the Mishna concludes, it is about such a case that the saying goes ‘woe to him over his own wife and woe unto him over his brothers wife’ (i.e. due to the rules described earlier in Massechet Yevamot, Beit Hillel requires that he be married to neither woman – thereby requiring that he divorce his wife).
Before we go further, it is important to add the observation of Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (in his insights on Yevamot) who points out that the saying should also say ‘woe to her’. Still, what is clear is that, at least according to Beit Hillel, the technical rules prohibiting the brother from being married to either woman means that halacha demands an outcome that is hard for all parties and requires a huge amount of personal anguish, sacrifice and loss.
For some thinkers, like Rav Soloveitchik in his profound essay ‘Catharsis’, this halachic loyalty involving such anguish, sacrifice and loss is an example of a halachic heroism. Yet while this may be so, the pain, the anguish, the sacrifice and the loss is still present, and rather than the Mishna pretending that such a choice is easy, it uses the word אוי – ‘woe’ – to highlight the pain interwoven in the outcome of this ruling.
Unfortunately, there are those who give a false impression of halachic observance and imply that every halachic act and decision is easy or upbeat. Yet while I proudly live a life as defined by the demands of halacha, I recognize that there are moments of great joy, as well as occasional moments of challenge, frustration, and even אוי. And it is the honesty with which our Mishna acknowledges this outcome which we should try and emulate when we speak and teach about halachic living.