Yevamot 116

On today’s daf, we continue exploring the mishnah from Yevamot 114 concerning whether we believe a woman who testifies to her own husband’s death. The final clause of that mishnah evaluates her outward expression of grief as a basis for deciding whether she is telling the truth:

Rabbi Yehuda says: She is never deemed credible unless she came crying and her clothing was torn. They said to him: Both this woman (who cries) and this woman (who does not cry) may marry on the basis of their own testimony.

Today’s page continues exploring this dispute. Do the rabbis believe her only if she is wailing and rending her garments or not? 

First, the Gemara offers a beraita (early rabbinic teaching)

(The sages) said to Rabbi Yehuda: According to your statement, a crafty woman will be permitted for her to marry. A foolish woman will not be permitted to marry. Rather, both this woman and that woman may marry.

The sages dispute Rabbi Yehuda’s position on the basis of performative grief, arguing that a savvy woman will certainly come wailing and tearing since she knows that’s what’s expected, while a less bright woman won’t know that she needs to demonstrate that she’s truly grieving. Instead, they assert that both the woman who cries and the woman who does not should be allowed to remarry.  

Next, the Gemara shares a story:

There was a certain woman who came to the court of Rabbi Yehuda. They said to her: Lament your husband, tear your clothing, unbind your hair. The Gemara asks, did they instruct her to lie? They thought in accordance with the opinion of the sages.

Picture the scene: A grieving widow shows up to the court of Rabbi Yehuda, who we already know expects that a true widow will demonstrate her grief by crying and tearing her clothes. His colleagues, who have ruled that this isn’t necessary to accept her testimony, nevertheless understand that since they are sitting in Yehuda’s court, she will be judged based on how she acts. So these rabbis advise the woman to cry so she’ll be believed and be permitted to remarry. Rather than encouraging her to lie, says the Gemara, they’re giving her sage advice that improves her chances of a favorable outcome. 

Rabbi Yehuda’s view is no doubt recognizable to those of us who watch the news — or reality TV. When there is a story about a tragedy, we expect those who are most affected by the situation to express their grief visibly, audibly, demonstrably. If they don’t, we sometimes wonder if they’re really affected by grief at all.

The sages, on the other hand, understand that grief is expressed in all sorts of ways. In Leviticus 10:3, the Torah notes that Aaron, after witnessing the sudden deaths of his own sons, was completely silent. The Hebrew word used in that verse, vayidom, has the nuance of being stopped up. Sometimes, there are just no words. And sometimes, there are no tears, either.

The ruling of the rabbis that the presence (or absence) of outward expressions of grief should not be the basis upon which to decide the truth is noteworthy — and just.  

Read all of Yevamot 116 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 1st, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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