Difficult Rabbinic Marriages
Our Gemara on Amud Beis sheds light on an attempt by Yehudis, the wife of Rav Chiyya, to retroactively annul her marriage through a scheme. Although her plan ultimately failed, her actions raise questions about her circumstances and motivations. Fortunately, other Gemaras provide insight into her life:
In Yevamos 65b, we learn that Yehudis had two sets of twins with extremely challenging pregnancies and labors. In fact, she successfully carried out a scheme where she disguised herself and sought counsel from her husband, aiming to find a halachic permission to permanently render herself infertile:
Rabbi Ḥiyya’s sons, Yehuda and Ḥizkiyya, were twins, one fully developed after nine months, and the other at the beginning of the seventh month. Yehudis, Rabbi Ḥiyya’s wife, experienced intense pain during childbirth due to these unusual deliveries. To avoid being recognized by her husband, she came before him in disguise, asking whether a woman is obligated to be fruitful and multiply. When he answered in the negative, she took an infertility potion.
The matter eventually came to light, and Rabbi Ḥiyya discovered Yehudis’s actions. His response reflects his deep desire for more children: “If only you had given birth to one more belly for me.” Rabbi Ḥiyya recognized that his sons Yehuda and Ḥizkiyya, who were born as twins, went on to become prominent Torah scholars. Pazi and Tavi, Rabbi Ḥiyya’s twin daughters, also achieved distinction as matriarchs of families of Torah scholars.
Despite their challenging relationship, Rabbi Ḥiyya made efforts to show kindness to his wife. He would find things she appreciated, wrap them in his shawl, and present them to her (ibid 63a).
To Yehudis’ credit, her actions were not solely driven by deceit. In her desperation to avoid pregnancy, she sought halachic guidance from her husband. She resorted to a scheme rather than directly violating halachic principles, despite her distress.
It’s important to recognize that even great individuals, including revered scholars, can experience challenging marriages. Circumstances are complex, and judgments should be made cautiously. Life’s complexities sometimes lead even good people into less-than-ideal relationships.
A modern historical example can be found in the case of the Chazon Ish’s wife, who was known for her unhappiness and lack of respect toward her husband. The Chazon Ish, despite the difficulties, remained loyal and kind to her throughout their marriage. There was a significant age difference between them (15 years), and information about her seniority was concealed from the Chazon Ish prior to their marriage. (See this link: https://www.ynet.co.il/article/4096403 ) And even though members of his family counseled him to annul the marriage, he felt it was in proper to remain in the marriage; loyal and kind to her throughout the years. Unfortunately, it also seems that despite his intentions and herculean efforts, there was a lack of love and warmth between them.
One of the Chazon Ish’s close Talmidim, Rav Dr. Zvi Yehuda, who learned daily with him for a decade, shared candid and nuanced insights about the couple in an interview.
He said, he never heard the Chazon Ish speak harshly toward her or lose his patience, and she was quite bitter and disrespectful, and most people therefore wrote her off as being mentally unbalanced. However, Rav Dr. Tzvi felt that to be a convenient narrative to explain a much more complex person and circumstance. Despite the great efforts that the Chazon Ish made to show her respect, it was apparent that, at least, in the western notion of romantic love, there was much lacking. For example, he said, “When I heard the Chazon Ish and his sister interact (Rebetzin Kanievsky), there was this clear warmth between the two. Unfortunately, that was not present between him and his wife. She was an intelligent, independent woman who sacrificed everything for her husband’s success. Despite her best intentions, it did not work out well for her.
(This prior paragraph is a compilation of paraphrase sentences from the interview. You can look at the transcript in its Hebrew original. It is fascinating and nuanced. He had great deference for the Chazon Ish but also portrays the “Ish”, and not just the “Chazon”. Here is the link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ONLg9uG3xAtR5yLWaw1h2z4oa4D9Guvk/view?usp=sharing )
These discussions provide valuable perspective, revealing that even great individuals grapple with trying circumstances and strive to navigate them as best they can. It’s essential to remember that the decision to remain in a difficult marriage or to seek divorce is deeply personal and complex.
Divorced From Reality
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph delves into the qualifications necessary for performing marriages and divorces. Due to their intricate nature and profound impact on the future lineage of multiple families, extra training and caution are required beyond standard Rabbinic expertise.
Rav Yehuda, quoting Shmuel, asserts: “Anyone who does not know the nature of bills of divorce and betrothals should have no dealings in them,” highlighting the potential for grave consequences resulting from ignorance in this area. Rabbi Assi, citing Rabbi Yochanan, adds: “And they are more difficult than the generation of the Flood.”
Ben Yehoyada (ibid) and Be’er Mayyim Chayyim (Shemos 22:4) express a similar sentiment. This statement can also be interpreted metaphorically. Divorce involves separation and rejection, while marriage is a conscious choice to establish a connection. In matters of morality and practices, people often believe they can discern what they should embrace and what they should distance themselves from. However, this too requires wisdom and experience. Hence, this statement can apply to all of us. Prior to determining what is worth attaching ourselves to and what requires detachment, we should become well-versed in the “nature of divorce and marriage.” This means comprehending the far-reaching consequences and implications of the choices we make in both directions.
– Talmud Bavli, Yevamos, 114a
– Ben Yehoyada commentary on Talmud Bavli, Yevamos, 114a
– Be’er Mayyim Chayyim commentary on Shemos, 22:4
Serving With Honor
Our Mishna on Amud Beis addresses the topic of the Jewish slave, discussing the requirement for a Jewish slave who chooses to extend his servitude beyond the prescribed six years to undergo a ritual that involves piercing his ear.
The Gemara later on (22b) elaborates on the significance of this ritual:
Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai would expound this verse as a type of decorative wreath [ḥomer], i.e., as an allegory: Why is the ear different from all the other limbs in the body, as the ear alone is pierced? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: This ear heard My voice on Mount Sinai when I said: “For to Me the children of Israel are slaves” (Leviticus 25:55), which indicates: And they should not be slaves to slaves. And yet this man went and willingly acquired a master for himself. Therefore, let this ear be pierced.
Certain understandings of this concept indicate that even selling oneself for six years is frowned upon, although it is not categorically forbidden due to extreme poverty. But when he repeats the act of selling oneself, while not appropriate initially, compounds the issue and makes it more problematic. For an extensive discussion on this perspective, refer to the following sources: Maskil Ledovid commentary on Rashi Shemos 21:6, Chizkuni ibid, Bartenura on the Torah ibid, and Riva ibid.
Yismach Moshe (Mishpatim 6:2) raises a question: How was it permissible for Yakov to “sell” himself into servitude to Lavan (Bereishis 29:18)? He answers that when Yakov initially agreed to work for Lavan, he stipulated that he would work the seven years before marrying Rochel. This condition allowed him to remain unencumbered since he was free to change his mind during that period. However, a challenge arises with the second set of seven years he worked after Lavan deceitfully substituted Leah for Rochel. In this instance, Yakov married Leah immediately after the Sheva Berachos (Bereishis 29:27) and subsequently obligated himself to another seven years of labor. Yismach Moshe contends that because Lavan initiated the agreement, Yakov wasn’t genuinely obligated. Rather, he chose to honor his commitment out of a sense of integrity.
An inquiry arises from this explanation. The Gemara in Bava Basra (47b) teaches that even a sale made under duress is valid since the recipient ultimately accepts the payment. This principle seems to contradict the assertion that Yakov wasn’t bound by his agreement with Lavan due to the latter’s coercion.
However, we may answer this with another precedent set by an earlier Gemara (13b), which permits engaging in subterfuge to recover what rightfully belongs to an individual:
The Gemara further relates: There was a certain woman who was selling belts. A certain man came and snatched a belt [varshekha] from her. She said to him: Give it to me. He said to her: If I give it to you will you be betrothed to me? She took it and was silent, and Rav Naḥman said: She could say: Yes, I took it, but I took my property. There is no proof that she agreed to accept it as a betrothal.
Applying this principle, one could argue that Yakov’s second agreement to marry Rochel was actually a method to retrieve what was rightfully his. In fact, his commitment to work an additional seven years was to reclaim what he was entitled to from the outset. Nonetheless, as the Yismach Moshe concludes, Yakov upheld his word out of honor and integrity.
Check out new videos: Halakhically Informed Sex Therapy:
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation
Do you like what you see? Please subscribe and also forward any articles you enjoy to your friends, (enemies too, why not?)