June 10, 2022

Yevamot 87

The Mishna (Yevamot 10:1) in today’s daf (Yevamot 87b) describes one of those terrible ‘what-if’ cases, where a woman whose husband went overseas and who was informed that her husband had died. On the basis of that evidence, the woman then married another man, afterwhich her (first) husband returned. The question addressed by the Mishna and subsequent Gemara is what is the marital status of this woman according to Jewish law?

Significantly I mentioned this as a ‘what-if’ case. However, such situations have sadly happened throughout Jewish history. Here is a summary of such a case from Rabbi Dr. H. J. Zimmels’ book ‘The Echo of the Nazi Holocaust in Rabbinic Literature’ in his heartbreaking chapter titled ‘The Agunah Problem in the Light of the Final Solution’. It is a case not about the Holocaust, but one that a Rabbi dealing with the questions of agunot from the Holocaust had reason to invoke in his ruling.

‘When speaking about the persecution under Chmielnicki, Rabbi Jacob Emden tells us of the fate of his grandfather Rabbi Jacob, father of the Chacham Zvi. In his haste to save his life he separated from his young wife who remained with her father, Rabbi Ephraim HaKohen (1616-1678). While the family succeeded in escaping to Moravia, Rabbi Jacob was caught by the hordes who had killed many Jews. When they met Rabbi Jacob the commandant ordered him to kneel down to be executed. He did so ready to die for kiddush Hashem. But suddenly the commandant had mercy on the young man and instead of striking him with the blade of his sword he only felled him with the blunt side of his weapon. Rabbi Jacob remained lying on the ground during the daytime, leaving his place at night to seek some food. When after eight days the hordes had left the place he ran away. Some people who had hidden themselves and saw him being struck by the sword thought he had been killed. When two of them came to Trebitsch to where his father-in-law had fled they testified to the ‘fact’ that Rabbi Jacob had been killed. On account of this evident given by two trustworthy witnesses Rabbi Joshua Heschel ben Jacob of Lublin permitted the ‘widow’ to re-marry. However, the young woman refused to accept any marriage proposal as she did not give up hope that her husband was still alive. How great was the surprise of all when half a year later her husband appeared. From then onwards Rabbi Heschel refused to deal with agunah cases of that period when there were so many agunot seeing that he had permitted a married woman to re-marry.’

I remember the first time I read this case, and I remember the chill that ran down my spine and the tears that ran down my face. Of course, it could be argued that things worked out well in this case since the woman did not remarry. But for Rabbi Heschel, even though he relied on compelling evidence when making his ruling, the shock of what eventually occurred meant that he was unprepared to render any further halachic rulings in this realm.

Ultimately, when we study a Mishna such as the one found in our daf it is easy to speak of ‘what-ifs’. But in every case like this there are many victims – which is precisely why we should do what we can to prevent these and comparable cases (eg. war gets, pre-nups) to reduce the number of victims whose lives are shattered when tragedy occurs. 

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