April 19, 2022

Yevamot 38

While not the only example, it is rare for a Mishna to appear verbatim as a Mishna in two different Massechtot. However, the Mishna (Yevamot 4:3) in today’s daf (Yevamot 38a) – which discusses the status of a woman whose husband has died and who is in the three-month waiting period during which she is connected to her yavam brother-in-law but not married to him – also appears as a Mishna in Massechet Ketubot (8:6, 80b). This is because a central topic of the Mishna relates to her rights, her Ketubah, and any inheritance that may fall to her during this period of being married to her husband and becoming married to her yavam.
However, the way in which each Massechet relates to these same words is significant. In Ketubot, the discussion appears within a wider conversation about ‘beginning of married life issues’ where a woman, upon getting married, is presented with her Ketubah, while here, in Massechet Yevamot, the discussion appears within a wider conversation about ‘end of married life issues’ where a woman, following the death of her husband, receives her Ketubah. The former is closely connected with joy, hope and wedding celebrations, while the latter is closely connected to loss, mourning and the various options available – such as yibum – to a woman whose husband has just died without children.
Of course, when involved in the former, one tries to avoid thinking about the possibility of the latter, yet – of course – the whole point of the Ketubah in the former is to bear in mind the reality of the latter, namely that marriages formally end with divorce or death. Still, this is hard for many to process, and so the woman we encounter in today’s daf is in the midst of a torrent of emotions. She is mourning her husband, along with the fact that she is likely sad that they were unable to bear a child together, and she is also asking herself hard questions about what the next chapter of her life might look like. And it is at this point, while still attached to so much of her recent past, that she considers what her future may be.
There are those for whom this Pesach may be splendid and who, like the Mishna in Massechet Ketubot, are riding a crest of joy, hope and celebration. Yet there will be those for whom this Pesach will be incredibly hard, including those who may have lost a spouse or loved one in the past year. Just recently, I was in contact with one such woman whose husband died a few months ago, and in our exchange I decided to share a powerful perspective about the Marror, penned by Rabbi Lamm, that gave her some comfort and that I hope offers comfort to others who may have experienced difficulties over the past year:
“The maror that we eat at the Seder is more than just a vegetable recalling the hard times inflicted upon our remote ancestors in ancient Egypt. It is the very symbol of human anguish through all the ages, and what we do with the maror is an expression of the Jewish philosophy of suffering as it issues out of the historical experience of the Jewish people. Consider how astounding is our attitude towards this piece of food and how it speaks volumes to us. We do not weep when we eat it. We take this maror, this morsel of misery, and we recite a berakhah over it, as if to say, “Thank you, God, for the miserable memory!” We then take this bitter herb and dip it into haroset, the sweet paste of wine and nuts and fruit. Life, we say in effect, is neither all bitter nor all sweet. With rare exceptions, it is bittersweet, and we ought not to bemoan our fate but to bless God for it. Ever since Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, our Kabbalists taught us, good and evil are commingled, and life others us neither pure, unadulterated goodness nor pure, unredeemable wickedness. The pessimist deplores the bitter and the bad that corrupts the sweet and the good. The optimist is delighted that the sharp edge of bitterness is softened with sweetness, that there is some good everywhere. That is why when the Jew, the eternal optimist, dips his maror into the haroset, he makes a berakhah. That too is why when we celebrate the zeman herutenu, the season of our liberation, we lean and recline as did ancient Roman noblemen while partaking of their banquet. Let others laugh at the comical Jew who tells himself he is a king while he is being tormented. We know it is true. Life is bitter, but we have dipped it into the sweetness of haroset. Hence, as we come to Pesah this year and every year, we relearn our lesson. Many of us enter the holiday burdened with a secret sigh, a heavy heart, a distracted mind, and a soul sorely troubled. Yet, as Jews, we shall look for the sweet, we shall perform the tibul maror beharoset, the dipping of the maror in the haroset, and experience by sheer will the simhat yom tov, the happiness of the holiday. But the message of maror is more than just the awareness of the bittersweet taste of life, more than just the idea that every black cloud has a silver lining. What maror wants to tell us is that misery is not meaningless, that pain is not pointless punishment, that human anguish has larger dimensions, that the bitter leads to the sweet. In fact, without the foretaste of maror, haroset loses its value. There can be no sweet without bitter, no light without darkness before it, no joy without prior sadness. There can be no wealth without poverty, no faith without doubt, no freedom without slavery, no redemption without exile. A people that dips maror into haroset and makes a berakhah over it is defeated neither by fate nor by foe. A folk that can find the mellow in a morsel of misery can drive away the darkness with its own light, the outer sorrow with the inner joy.”
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