Monday, February 20, 2017

The "Mamzer" Masechta

Purim is looming close so it may be appropriate to present one of my all-time hallmark tongue-in-cheek vertels; although my intention is to get very, very serious. Here it is:

The pasuk says in Bamidbar (11:10): וישמע משה את העם בכה למשפחותיו

And Moshe heard the nation crying about their families.

Rashi quotes the chazal in Yoma 75a: על עסקי משפחות – על עריות שנאסרו להם

They were crying regarding family matters; on the incestuous relations that were forbidden to them.

So, according to this chazal, our ancestors were crying over the freshly delivered prohibition of indulging in forbidden relations.

One may want to ask:  Why is this such a great tragedy? Polygamy was not forbidden and most women in the world are not close relatives. Most people wouldn’t want to get involved with their sisters, our aunts are usually older and our nieces are permitted. There’s plenty of “legal game” in the forest so what’s all the commotion about?

The answer lies in the far-sightedness of our ancestors. From the moment that they were forbidden incestuous relations they understood that we will now have to define the 15 types of relations that exempt the step-wives from yibum. We will now have to deal with the issues of Tzaras habas, achos tzara, aseh docheh lo taaseh, edus isha, etc. In short, we have just created a “monster” – Masechet Yevamos. And from now on for all generations we are condemned to being forced to study Masechet Yevamos. 

No wonder they were crying!

There is an adage that says that there are three masechtos in Shas that are so complicated that even after one studies them he is still called an עני – a poor person.  They are so hard to master and usually one remains bewildered, at a loss.  These three masechtos are indicated by the acronym ענ"י. They are:

Eruvin -  ערובין



I think that the connection between these three masechtos is that, aside from being complicated, they deal with some very unpleasant and unpopular aspects of Jewish life. They are all Torah decrees (Niddah and Yevamos) or Rabbinic decrees (Eruvin) that most of us would prefer not to have been incorporated into our Halachic database.  It is not only the burden of having to master the laws, but more so the burden of having to carry them out.

Life isn’t easy for the Torah observant Jews. Our ancestors sure knew what they were crying about.

Don’t get me wrong. Yevamos is still a “team” masechta and is among the “Yeshivisha” masechtas that make up the learning cycle in the great Litivishe yeshivos. But rarely does it get fully digested. The introspective (Iyun) programs never really get past the sugya of aseh docheh lo taaseh (folio 10). In the afternoons they will do HaIsha Shalom, but somehow, the dark recesses of Yevamos usually remain unexplored. The Litvishes don’t usually finish the masechta and those who learn daf yomi are normally studying too superficially to absorb the massive flow of material.

People tend to undermine the significance of this masechet because the main subject, Yevamos – levirate marriage, is all but irrelevant in today’s day and age. Of course, the rules still apply, so on very rare and tragic occasions, we need to conduct a chalitza. Yet, when we step back to look at the whole picture, we note that Yevamos is at the head of the four primary masechtos, Yevamos-Kesubos-Gittin-Kidushin, that comprise seder Nashim (Nedarim, Nazir and Sota are more or less tag-alongs). One way to understand the sequence is based on the rule that the masechet with the most chapters gets first billing. So Yevamos leads with 16, Kesubos with 13, Gittin with 9 and Kiddushin with 4.

But this just happens to “coincide” with another explanation for the sequence: Before one takes a wife in marriage he must know (1) who he is allowed to marry and who not (Yevamos), then (2) what are his rights and obligations in marriage (Kesubos), then (3) how to dissolve the marriage if things don’t work out as they should (Gittin), and finally, (4) only then is he ready to learn how to actually perform the marriage (Kiddushin).

So, all told, Masechet Yevamos doesn’t get much glory. I suppose it could be called a “mamzer” masechta; partly because it is so unpopular and partly because forbidden relationships and mamzerus is one of the subjects it deals with.

And this is the subject that I want to deal with, as well. So, stay tuned for the next post, one of the most neglected issues discussed in Yevamos, and why we neglect it. Stay tuned for “The Male Agunah”.

No, it’s not what you think…

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