Sometimes all it takes is a few words to help make sense of what seems to be an unnecessarily confusing case. The Mishna (Yevamot 11:4) in today’s daf (Yevamot 99a) tells us about a case of ‘a woman whose son became mixed up with the son of her daughter-in-law, and these mixed-up sons then matured and married women, and they subsequently died [childless], then the [surviving] sons of the daughter-in-law perform halitzah with the wives, but not yibum. This is because it is uncertain whether she (i.e. the widow) is his brother’s wife [and therefore his yevamah], or whether she is his father’s brother’s wife [who is forbidden to him]. In contrast, the [surviving] sons of the elder woman (i.e. the mother-in-law) perform either halitzah or yibum, because it is uncertain whether she is his brother’s wife [in which case yibum is valid], or his brother’s son’s wife [in which case she is permitted to him, after having performed halitzah with a son of the daughter-in-law].’
Of course, this case seems highly unlikely, as does the fact that both sons die childless. However, when the Rambam summarises the law found in this Mishna (Hilchot Yibbum V’Halitzah 8:4) he adds two extra words and, in so doing, he provides us with an invaluable commentary on this Mishna: ‘A woman had sons, and her daughter-in-law also had sons. Both the woman and her daughter-in-law became pregnant and they gave birth in the same hiding place (במחבואה אחת), and the identity of the two children then became confused…’ As Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch explains in his ‘Yad Peshuta’ commentary (while also referencing Gemara Ketubot 27a which also makes reference of such hiding places): ‘during wars that lasted a long time there were instances when the people were forced to hide for long periods of time during which time babies were born and they became mixed up.’ In fact, realizing that we are talking about war time also then helps us understand why both sons subsequently die childless as it is highly likely that they died in battle.
What this means is what seems like an unnecessarily confusing perhaps even impossible case in the Mishna becomes a practical and tragic question arising from wartime where loss begets loss, and where confusion begets confusion, with the desire to find ways to fulfil yibum being completely understandable – both with respect to the surviving widows, as well as for the intention of remembering the name of the deceased men who likely died in defense of their people. Yet while the Mishna tries to offer us answers to the halachic question of who may marry whom, the greater question – which was not able to be fully answered until the modern period – of whose child was whose remains unresolved.
When we speak of ‘costs’ and ‘losses’ of war, we often think in terms of those who have died, the towns and cities that have been destroyed, and the amount of money that has been spent on weapons and ammunition. But as this Mishna teaches us, during wartime there are many further hidden and tragic costs and losses. And of these, our Mishna describes one, where births can be interrupted and where, during the tumult and fear of hiding from an enemy, the kind of facts that we take for granted such as which baby is a mother’s child can get lost due to the drama and confusion of battle.
I end this piece by reflecting on how the people of Ukraine continue to defend themselves from the Russian army, and how this war is the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II with more than 7.4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country and a third of the population displaced. In time we may know some of the costs and losses of this war such as the numbers of those killed, which towns and cities have been destroyed, and how much money was spent on weapons and ammunition. But what we never really know – and what we can never truly know – will be the many further hidden and tragic costs and losses of this war.