Yevamot 115

While Jewish law generally requires two witnesses to establish a legal fact, we’ve learned that the rabbis make an exception to allow a woman to remarry based upon the testimony of only one witness who reports that her husband died overseas. On today’s daf, the Talmud explores whether the same exception should be made during wartime. 

On the one hand, suggests the Gemara, we should believe a single witness during wartime for the same reasons as when a witness returns from overseas — either because there is disincentive to lie under oath if the false testimony could be revealed if the husband winds up returning home, or because we assume the woman will do all she can to confirm the death of her husband given the harsh consequences of remarrying while her husband is still alive. 

But in wartime, when the level of uncertainty about events is clouded by the fog of war, we fear that a woman might not investigate as carefully as she should. Therefore, a single witness should not suffice. 

In an attempt to settle the matter, Rami bar Hama cites the following teaching:

Rabbi Akiva said: When I descended to Neharde’a to intercalate the year, I found Nehemya of Beit D’li, and he said to me: I heard that the sages do not allow a woman to marry in the land of Israel based on the testimony of one witness, apart from Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava. And I said to him: This is so.

He said to me: Say to them in my name: Do you know that this country is riddled with troops? This is the tradition that I received from Rabban Gamliel the Elder, that the sages do allow a woman to marry based on one witness.

At first glance, this seems to be a helpful source in settling the debate. As Nehemya reports, even though the country is full of troops, they allow a woman to remarry based upon the testimony of a single witness. Wartime, in other words, is treated like overseas travel. Case closed.

Not so fast, says Rava. Nehemya does not appear to be saying what you think he is:

If this is (how you interpret the matter), in what way is this country different? 

Rava’s claim is that if Nehemya wanted to indicate that the presence of troops allowed for the acceptance of the testimony of a single witness, he should have taught: “Any place where there are troops, the sages allow a woman to marry based on one witness.” But he didn’t. He referred to a specific place, saying “this place is full of troops.”

And so, says Rava, this is what Nehemya meant:

You know that this country is riddled with troops, and I cannot leave the members of my household and come before the sages. 

In other words, neither Rabban Gamliel nor the sages were concerned with the presence of troops — they were teaching about a more generic situation. Rather, it was Nehemya who was concerned about the troops because they made it too dangerous for him to leave his family to transmit the teaching that he had received. So he asked Rabbi Akiva to deliver the message on his behalf. And so, says Rava, the tradition cited by Rami bar Hama has no bearing on this matter.

This sugya follows a typical talmudic pattern: A dilemma is raised. A source that resolves the matter is quoted. An alternate understanding of the source is presented and we are left back where we started. For some students of the Talmud, this is the cause of endless frustration. How can it be that after all of this deliberation things are no clearer than they were at the outset?

While determining the meaning of a biblical verse, a passage from the Mishnah or the statement of a rabbi may appear to be what the Talmud sets out to do, time and time again we find this is an impossible task. There are always multiple ways to understand a particular text. But rather than throwing in the towel and walking away from the futile quest for clarity, the rabbis are inspired by the process. Lacking a single clear understanding, they embrace the interpretive process that empowers them to find their own path to meaning. For some students of the Talmud, this is why we return to it every day. 

Read all of Yevamot 115 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 30th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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