April 19, 2022

Yevamot 35

A principle discussed in today’s daf (Yevamot 35b) and stated explicitly in a later Mishna (Yevamot 4:10, 41a) is that if a woman’s husband dies, she may neither fulfil yibum or halitzah until three months have passed since the death of her husband so as to verify that she is not pregnant from her first husband.
Significantly, the reasons for this rule are twofold. Firstly, Jewish law avoids all situations where questions could arise about the paternity of a child – which is why, if a woman divorces, she too must wait three months before remarrying because, were she to become pregnant soon after marrying, there wouldn’t be a suspicion that she is, in fact, carrying the child of her former husband.
However, there is a second reason why this delay is necessary in this case, because if the woman is pregnant from her deceased husband, then she is neither required, nor allowed, to fulfil yibum or halitzah with her brother-in-law.
Having said all this, I would simply like to reflect upon a tragic scenario presented in the Mishna (Yevamot 4:1) in today’s daf. A woman – whom we shall call Leah – was married, and then her husband – whom we shall call Shlomo – died. Still mourning her husband, and likely still living in the community where her husband and his family lived, Leah then consents to her brother-in-law – whom we shall call Ari – fulfilling the law of yibum, but they are either unaware of, or they choose to ignore, the above-mentioned three-month rule.
So Leah and Ari – she mourning her husband and he mourning his brother – marry through yibum. But then, soon after getting married, Leah finds out that she is pregnant with Shlomo’s baby, and she then realizes that if the baby lives, she will need to leave Ari because she and Ari should not have married until three months after the death of Shlomo.
What this means is that throughout her pregnancy, Leah is persistently confronted with the most painful of questions: will my baby live and I will have a reminder of Shlomo but I will lose Ari and revert to being unmarried? Or will my baby not survive and I will continue to be married to Ari – which is a relationship that is intended to maintain the name of my late husband? And at the same time, Ari knows throughout this time that if Shlomo’s baby survives, he will need to leave Leah. Whatever the outcome, a family that have already experienced loss knows ahead of time that a loss – of one or another – is impending.
Unlike most Disney movies, there is no happy ending to this story. Loss begets loss. Yet there is nevertheless an important lesson to be learnt from here – which is that decisions that can affect the lives of one or more people should be made with deliberation and care, and that when we are grieving we are rarely in the bestest of places to make the bestest of decisions – which is perhaps a third reason for the three month rule, to avoid rushing into relationships that we may come to regret.
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