March 13, 2022

Yevamot 3

Having been taught that if a co-wife of a woman whose husband has died without children is forbidden to marry her prospective Yavam (levir) that she is then exempt from Yibbum (levirate marriage) and Halitzah (the ceremony performed to reject a prospective Yavam), today’s daf (Yevamot 3b) cites a Beraita which teaches us the biblical verses that explain how we know this rule – and in doing so, also teaches us a major lesson about Yibbum specifically, and marriage in general.

The Beraita begins by citing a verse from the list of forbidden relationships in Vayikra 18:18 which states: וְאִשָּׁה אֶל אֲחֹתָהּ לֹא תִקָּח לִצְרֹר לְגַלּוֹת עֶרְוָתָהּ עָלֶיהָ בְּחַיֶּיהָ – ‘Do not marry a woman to be a rival to her sister [to whom you are already married, thereby] revealing the nakedness UPON HER while her sister is alive’. What this tells us is that a man may not be married to two sisters at the same time. It then cites a verse from Devarim 25:5 speaking about the law of Yibbum which states: כִּי יֵשְׁבוּ אַחִים יַחְדָּו וּמֵת אַחַד מֵהֶם וּבֵן אֵין לוֹ לֹא תִהְיֶה אֵשֶׁת הַמֵּת הַחוּצָה לְאִישׁ זָר יְבָמָהּ יָבֹא עָלֶיהָ וּלְקָחָהּ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וְיִבְּמָהּ – ‘when brothers live together, and one of them dies without a son, his widow shall not be married to a stranger outsider the family.
[Instead], her Yavam (i.e. husband’s brother) shall come UPON HER and take her in marriage, fulfilling the duty of Yibbum’, and based on the fact that both verses use of the word עָלֶיהָ – ‘upon her’ – we come to learn that the law of Yibbum does not overide the prohibition of a man marrying two sisters. And moreover, by Vayikra 18:18 employing the word לִצְרֹר, meaning ‘to be a rival’, we understand that the word sister not only speaks about biological sisters, but also the co-wife of a woman who is considered to be like a sister to her.

Yet it should also be noted that the word עָלֶיהָ – ‘upon her’ – is an indelicate expression, which suggests that the realm of Yibbum is fraught with moral and ethical challenges (nb. on this point see the Meshech Chochmah on Devarim 25:5). In fact, we are taught by Abba Shaul (see Yevamot 39b, as briefly referrenced in Yevamot 3a) that the only instance where Yibbum is not considered to be a transgression of a forbidden relationship is where Yibbum is performed לשם שמים (for the sake of heaven) – which is why Abba Shaul (and many later authorities) rules that Halitzah should be the preferred path over Yibbum in almost every case.

Overall, what we see from here is that while there are ways in which a regular marriage can be compromised by inappropriate behaviour, the Torah – by using the word עָלֶיהָ in both verses – deliberately emphasises the overlap between Yibbum and forbidden relationships, and in doing so, offers us a stern warning that while Yibbum may be permitted, it is a risky moral business and should only even be considered (in times and places where permitted) if performed for the right reasons.

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