April 9, 2022

Yevamot 33

Both in today’s (Yevamot 33b) and yesterday’s (Yevamot 32b) daf, reference is made to the level of transgression committed by someone who marries their sister-in-law in circumstances that do not meet the specific criteria of permitting yibum. And in each instance where various Rabbis disagree about the severity of the crime committed, the Gemara concludes with the statement that the practical difference between these rabbinic opinions would be reflected by where such a person would be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
To explain what this means we must refer to Mishna Sanhedrin (6:5-6; Sanhedrin 46a) where we are taught that when individuals commit offences punishable by the Sanhedrin, they are temporarily buried in one of two sections in a cemetery: one for individuals who have committed a crime, and the others for individuals who have committed multiple crimes. As such, our Gemara is informing us that depending on how we classify the action of someone who marries their sister-in-law in circumstances that do not meet the specific criteria of permitting yibum would be reflected by which of these sections they would be temporarily buried.
Yet, while it may seem that it is the crime itself that excludes such a person from initially being buried amongst the rest of the Jewish community this is not, in fact, the case – as can be deduced from the words of the Rambam in Hilchot Sanhedrin 14:9 who writes: אין קוברין אותן בקברות אבותיהן בכלל ישראל – ‘we do not [initially] bury them in their ancestral plot alongside the rest of the Jewish people (Klal Yisrael)’. As Rav Nachum Rabinovitch explains in his Yad Peshuta commentary, the Rambam adds the words בכלל ישראל from which it can be concluded that the real crime is to act in a way that creates division within the Jewish people by acting in a manner that is not aligned with the general norms, values and laws of Klal Yisrael.
Thus when someone commits an aveira that causes hurt or damage to another, or that undermines the moral fabric of a community or a society, they have – through their actions – temporarily excluded themselves from the people, and as such, in places and times when there was a Sanhedrin and when cemeteries operated in the manner described by the Mishna, they would be temporarily buried in a separate section to highlight the negative impact that their actions have had on כלל ישראל.
Yet it is crucial for me to stress the word ‘temporary’ or ‘temporarily’ because, as the Mishna and Rambam proceed to teach us, once the body has decomposed, it is then reburied in its ancestral plot alongside the rest of the Jewish people.
What we learn from here is that even when people, through their actions, exclude themselves from the community (which, as you may recall, is the accusation made to the ‘wicked son’), the community should be cautious about the way it responds; yes, some crimes need to be punished, but exclusion – while defendable temporarily – must never be permanent.
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