The Mishna (Yevamot 10:5) in today’s daf (Yevamot 96a) begins by telling us about a man who, having been informed that his wife has died, then goes on to marry a series of women – in each case only once he has been informed that his previous wife has died – all of whom being directly related to his first or subsequent wives, and all of whom being forbidden for him to marry in in such a case that his first or subsequent wives are found to be alive.
In terms of the function of the Mishna, it is to teach us about the halachic status of these various marriages in the situation where we find out that one of these wives is proven to be alive. However, as I explained in my commentary to Yevamot 35b (see https://rabbijohnnysolomon.com/yevamot-35/), there is a further lesson from Mishnayot such as these 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’.
In this instance it seems that the man is unable to deal with the loss of his first or subsequent wives, and in each case he seeks to marry women who are part of his previous wife’s family to help maintain a connection – in the same spirit as yibum itself where a family connection is maintained between a widow and the family of her late husband. Yet unlike the mitzvah of yibum which deals with one moment of loss, in this case the man cannot cope with any form of loss. True, the Mishna is halachically complex; but at the same time it is emotionally tragic.
Moving towards the end of today’s daf (Yevamot 96b), we are told a story where a heated debate between two Torah scholars led to the tearing up of a Torah scroll in anger. Significantly, the Gemara tells us that the location where this event occurred later became a place for idolatrous worship – with the implied message (as later made explicit by the Rambam in his Hilchot Deot 2:3) that someone who becomes uncontrollably angry is comparable to an idolater. Here too we are being taught the importance of honing our emotional regulation skills so that we can respond to life’s stresses in a manner that is neither obsessive, nor destructive.
But how do we develop these skills? Interestingly, this was a topic that I addressed in one the shiurim that I delivered last week while I was in London during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and in response to a video I’d recently seen about the Queen herself (see https://youtu.be/7iksIsZOCBM).
Speaking about the experience of wearing her crown, the Queen explained how it is crucial that she keeps her head straight so that the crown doesn’t fall or, were she to tilt her head, so that it doesn’t put too much weight or pressure on her neck. Upon hearing this I was reminded of the words of Kohelet 9:8 stating: ‘Let your garments be always white; and let the oil on your head not be lacking’, which R’ Yerachmiel Yisroel Yitzchok Dancyger (1853–1910) teaches in his ‘Yismach Yisrael’ to mean that we should always imagine as if we are walking while wearing white clothes and as if we have oil on our head. As he explains, if we walk down the middle path of life and keep our head straight and therefore don’t tend in either direction to emotional extremes (as recommended by Rambam in his Hilchot Deot 1:4), the oil won’t drip on our clothes. But if we do not regulate our emotions and, instead, allow our emotions to control us, then the oil will spill and dirty our clothes.
Overall, what we learn from today’s daf is that when we are unable to emotionally regulate we are likely to make bad decisions, which is why we all need to imagine as if we are constantly on an path of emotions while wearing white clothes and with oil on our head, and be wary of making sudden movements – because they generally end up being messy.