It is 5:55am. I wake up bleary-eyed to the sound of my cell phone alarm bursting forth joyously in the Mexican hat dance. I silence the singing and vibrating phone, wipe the sleep from my eyes, and get out of bed with a yawn that doesn’t quite resemble a lion’s roar. As usual, there is no time to waste; I have to leave the house in twelve minutes if I am to make it on time to class.
Twenty minutes later, I am sitting with a dozen older men around the table in the glass-enclosed room of the local synagogue where I attend a Daf Yomi shiur [daily page-of-Gemara class]. Although it is an Orthodox shul, the rabbi is surprisingly liberal, and allows women to join in with men in the class. According to the signs that advertise this shiur, there is yeshiva benifrad, separate seating – but since I am often the only woman, this generally just means that wherever I happen to sit at the table becomes the “women’s section.” If another woman walks in, she will pull up a chair beside me, and I will point to the place with my pencil. I would never think of doing so for a man, and he would never think to ask me where we are. This is simply not done. Men do not ask for directions – certainly not from a woman, and certainly not when the territory in question is a page of Gemara.
I have learned with this group of people for about nine months now – we sit together almost every day between 6:15 and 7am. I do not know anyone’s names, and they do not know mine. We have never looked into each other’s eyes, and we have never exchanged pleasantries. But together we have plowed through Beitzah, Rosh Hashanah, Taanit, Megillah, Moed Katan, Chagigah, and now Yevamot.
Today, Wednesday morning June 6th, we are on Yevamot 34. I joke that this is my summer of tzarot, a word that means both “troubles” and the rival co-wives of the polygamous men that populate this tractate. I expect that today will be another daf about three brothers who take turns marrying two sisters, or two men who accidentally switch wives under the wedding canopy – these are the topics that have concerned us for the past few days.
But as a beloved teacher once said to me, nothing is as exciting or unexpected as the next daf of Gemara! Sure enough, the subject of today’s daf (if such arbitrary distinctions may be applied) is women, pregnancy, and multiple sexual partners. We learn such principles as:
A woman does not become pregnant upon her first intercourse.
For the twenty-four months after a woman gives birth, her husband will sow inside and seed outside.
A woman who commits an illicit sexual act will invert herself after intercourse lest she become pregnant.
Mine is the only womb in the room, and I suddenly feel as conspicuous as Virginia Woolf traipsing across the green quads of Oxbridge. But it only gets worse.
When Ravin came, he said to Rabbi Yochanan: Any woman who waits ten years after the death of her husband before remarrying will never give birth again.
When Ravin came? Oh dear. And what is this about never giving birth again? Apparently I am not the only one troubled. Even the rabbis seek to qualify Ravin’s statement.
Rav Nachman said: This was taught only with regard to one who did not intend to remarry; but if a woman intended to remarry, then she will indeed become pregnant.
It seems that a woman’s womb remains active only if it is fueled by acts of intercourse. If it lies dormant for too long, it will lose its ability to function properly. However, a woman’s psychology may affect her womb (a la the nineteenth-century hysteric). If she intends to have intercourse again, her reproductive organs will not wither. Or so Rav Nachman seems to suggest.
Rav Nachman’s corollary is then followed by two related anecdotes. The first involves Rava and his wife, who is referred to as the daughter of Rav Chisda, for reasons that will become apparent:
Rava said to the daughter of Rav Chisda (i.e. to his own wife): The rabbis are murmuring about you!
She responded (to her husband Rava, whom she had married ten years after her first husband had died): No, my eye was on you all along.
As the Tosafot explain, Rava’s wife had married him more than ten years after the death of her first husband (Rami bar Chama). And so when Rava heard Ravin’s ruling, he assumed that the rabbis must be referring to his own wife. Thus he tells her that he suspects that the rabbis are murmuring about her. But the woman has the last word, in a statement that is both reproving and romantic: “My eye was on you all along!” Rava’s wife explains that she always intended to marry Rava, even though she waited ten years to do so. According to Rav Nachman’s qualification, she will therefore (presumably) still be able to conceive.
What does Rava’s wife (i.e. Rav Chisda’s daughter) mean when she said that she intended to marry Rava all along? Did she plan to marry Rava even while still married to her first husband? Apparently yes, as we learn from Bava Batra 12b (cross-referenced in Tosafot):
The daughter of Rav Chisda was sitting on her father’s lap. They were seated before Rava and Rami bar Chama. Rav Chisda said to his daughter: “Which of these men do you want [to marry]?” She responded, “Both of them!” Rava said, “Then let me be the second one.”
Rav Chisda’s daughter, a girl young enough to still sit on her father’s lap, is like a greedy child in an ice cream shop who wants both chocolate and vanilla, or like Shel Silverstein’s Terrible Theresa who chooses the middle pancake. If given the choice between two men, she’ll take them both! But Rava does not miss a beat. To the extent that he can still control his fate, he intercedes. He does not want to be the first of two men to marry Rav Chisda’s daughter, which would mean that either he would die, or she would divorce him. He’d rather be the second, and thus he wisely stakes his claim.
The story of Rava and his wife is immediately followed by a second anecdote illustrating Ravin’s rule that a woman who waits more than ten years after the death of her first husband will not be able to become pregnant again. In this story, a woman brings herself as a counterexample, which of course only someone with a womb could do:
A certain woman came before Rav Yosef, and said to him: Rabbi, I waited ten years after the death of my first husband, and I didn’t have any trouble becoming pregnant!
He said to her: My dear daughter! Don’t you go mocking the rabbis!
She admitted: OK, I slept with an idolator in the interim.
The troublesome querulous woman who bothers the rabbis is, I think, a trope in the Gemara. She appears in Masechet Sukkah, for instance, where she complains to Rav Nachman that the exilarch stole her Sukkah (31a), and in Moed Katan, where she winnows barley in the streets (“How chutzpatic is this woman!” 16b). Here in Yevamot, our difficult distaff comes on to the scene to challenge Ravin’s rule about the idle womb. “Not so! It happened to me!” she cries. To Rav Yosef’s credit – or perhaps out of a resigned acceptance that he has no choice but to accept the testimony of her body — he does not deny her claim. He chooses instead to accuse her of mocking the rabbis with her words. Unable to counter the facts on the ground, he challenges her on the level of language.
This time, although the woman has the last word, it is not a statement of triumph but one of concession. “OK,” she admits. “You’re right. I did have sex during those ten-plus years in between husbands, and that’s why my womb was still functional when I remarried. In fact, I slept with an idolator!” This woman who wished to mock the rabbis ends up embarrassing herself, and for the rest of the chapter, as in most of the Gemara, it is only men’s voices that are heard.
I know this because we actually did finish the chapter today, even though this meant learning a bit of Yevamot 35. Sometimes we cover a little extra ground if we happen to finish early, and today was one such day. When we got to the end of the chapter, which includes a discussion of unorthodox contraceptive methods, we recited the traditional formula of the hadran. Hadran alayich arba’a achim. We will return to you, Four Brothers. The name of the chapter is Four Brothers, and so this phrase simply means that we will return and study it again someday. But under this formula I pencil in a few words of my own: “We will return to you, Four Brothers, because a woman never becomes pregnant upon the first act of intercourse alone.” I don’t think I would share my joke publicly – to do so would be to mock the rabbis, of course – but it does give me a good chuckle. I’m happy to know that at least in my Gemara, it is the woman who has the last laugh.