As I Was Going to St. Ives (Keritut 15a)

Today’s daf asks a question that I hope is merely theoretical: What is the maximum number of sins you can commit by sleeping with just one woman? The sugya begins with the Mishna’s case of a man who sleeps with one woman and must bring six sin offerings. In this case the woman he married was (1) his daughter, (2) his sister (she could be both his daughter and his sister because she is the child born when he slept with his mother), (3) his sister-in-law (since she went on to marry his brother), (4) his uncle’s wife (because when his brother died, this woman married his uncle), (5) a married woman (since he is sleeping with her while she is still married to his uncle) and (6) in Nidah (the cherry on top). The Mishna goes on to outdo that case by proposing that a man can actually be liable for seven sin offerings if the woman is also his mother-in-law. We can imagine the beit midrash discussions that resulted in these mishnayot: the various sages sat around the table like it was a chess board, each trying to come up with a more sophisticated move than the next. Or perhaps it was a game of rabbinic machismo: Instead of boasting of their conquests (“I slept with six women last night”), the rabbis boasted of how many sins they could imagine a person committing in a single sex act (“Oh yeah? You think six is a lot? I can get to seven.”) In this game of besting one another, each rabbi sought more bang for his buck — or more accurately, more buck for his bang.

We are not told when and where these conversations take place. We know which rabbis proposed which incestuous situations, but not where they were when these discussions took place. There is one notable exception, which I shall quote in full:

Rabbi Akiva said: I asked Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua in the meat market of Emmaus, where they had gone to buy an animal for the wedding feast of Rabban Gamliel’s son: He who has sexual relations with his sister, with his father’s sister, and with his mother’s sister in one spell of inadvertence – what is the rule? Is he liable once for all of them, or once for each and every action? (Mishna, Keritut 3:7)

Here we are told that this particular conversation took place in a meat market, which seems like an appropriate site for discussions of these kinds of illicit sexual relations. After all, it does begin to feel like a bit of a meat market when one is sleeping with one’s daughter who is also one’s sister (among other prohibitions). Moreover, we are told that Rabbi Akiva asks this question of his teacher Rabban Gamliel on the eve of Rabban Gamliel’s son’s wedding, which is a strange time to ask questions about forbidden sexual relations with family members. It’s kind of like asking someone about their favorite bagel store on erev Pesach; there’s nothing wrong with the question, but it’s somewhat awkwardly timed. Ah, well. Another reason to hope the conversation was merely theoretical.

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