Sometimes, when studying the Gemara, we encounter a teaching that prompts us to do a double take because we struggle to believe that we just read what we just did.
Today’s daf (Yevamot 4a) contains one such example where we are informed that Rav Sheshet says in the name of Rabbi Elazar, quoting Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, that if a woman’s husband dies without children and she therefore becomes the Yevama to her brother-in-law, and soon after he develops a severe skin condition that covers him with boils (מוכה שחין) to the extent that she is revulsed by the thought being married him, then – to use the exact words of the Gemara – ‘we do not muzzle her’ meaning, to quote Rashi, ‘we do not silence her claim [that she is revulsed by the thought of being married to him] to force her to fulfil Yibbum with him. Instead, we force him to choose [the option of] Halitzah’.
Moreover, in addition to the fact that such an outcome of ‘not forcing her’ to marry him seemingly needs a biblical verse to be proven by the Gemara to be the right halachic outcome, there is also the very unsettling invocation of the words about muzzling which are taking from Devarim 25:4 (‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain’) which are then immediately followed by the verse relating to Yibbum (‘when brothers live together, and one of them dies…’) – as if to say that in a case of an unacceptable yibbum arrangement, the woman’s feelings are not muzzled.
Admittedly, I am not the first to be startled by this Gemara. For example, the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) asks in his commentary on our daf: למה לי הך דרשא? – ‘Why do I need this exegetical deduction?’וכי יעלה על הדעת שכופין אותה להתייבם? – ‘Is it possible for anyone to have thought that we would force her to fulfil Yibbum [in such a case]?’ דרכיה דרכי נועם! – ‘[As we know] “her ways are ways of pleasantness” (Mishlei 3:17) [which means that any interpretation of halacha that leads to such an unpleasant outcome must essentially be erroneous]’ (nb. on the final point, see for example Sukkah 32b).
Yet while the Chatam Sofer offers his own explanation, I would like to discuss a different answer given to this question by Rabbi Chaim Shmuel Halevi Birnbaum (1810-1887) who was the brother-in-law of the Chatam Sofer and Rav in Dubno, Ukraine, as found in his Sh’ut Rachash Levav (no. 17 & 21), where he argues that were we not to have been taught this rule in our Gemara, we may well have thought that the woman could have, or should have, fulfilled Yibbum with her brother-in-law on the basis that by fulfilling a mitzvah, it would protect her from both the possible physical harm (of what may be an infectious disease) as well as the discomfort of being married to such a man.
Of course, I recognize how this approach still seems equally hard to comprehend, and it is likely that you may have just done a further double take because you are struggling to believe that you just read what you did! Yet while I am not comfortable with either of the answers given by the Chatam Sofer or by R’ Birnbaum, there is still a lesson I wish to emphasise from this particular explanation which is that we learn from this Gemara that while there are those who assert that mitzvot can protect people from physical and emotional harm, we do not decide Jewish law that way!
And what of the reference to muzzling? True, it is unsettling. But while the Gemara says ‘we don’t muzzle her’, I believe that a further statement could be added, namely that ‘we do muzzle those people who believe that she should fulfil the mitzvah of yibbum to honour her deceased husband and keep his memory alive, and we do muzzle those who think that by fulfilling this mitzvah she will not suffer from physical and emotional harm’. Simply put, when it comes to possible yibbum situations – which are, as I explained in my commentary to yesterday’s daf, ‘fraught with moral and ethical challenges’ – the one person whose voice must be heard and whose feelings must be respected is that of the woman.