The Weekly Daf

For the week ending 15 November 2014 / 22 Heshvan 5775

Yevamot 41 - 47

by Rabbi Mendel Weinbach zt'l
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Prophetic Parameter

When can a prophet influence a ruling on a halachic prohibition and when not? The line of demarcation is clearly drawn in our gemara's distinction between two cases of yibum. One is the situation of a man who married one of two sisters but a doubt arises as to which one is his wife. Should he subsequently die childless, his brother cannot perform yibum with either of them, for he may unknowingly be marrying the sister of the woman he is indeed supposed to marry (whom the Sages prohibited because of her similarity to a wife's sister.) Since yibum is not possible unless witnesses appear to clarify which is the real widow, he is required to perform chalitzah with both women in order to make it possible for both of them to marry outside the family.

The other case is that of a man who came before Rabbi Yossi and asked to perform chalitzah before three months had passed since the death of his brother. He was told that he could not do so because the mishna tells us that neither yibum nor chalitzah can be performed before three months have elapsed. Yibum cannot be performed because it is not evident that the widow is pregnant until three months pass. Should she indeed be pregnant and bear a live child, she is forbidden to her dead husband's brother, for yibum was permitted only if there is no surviving child. But why, asks the gemara, should chalitzah not be performed before three months, since there is no violation involved even if the widow is found to have been pregnant? The answer given is that the Torah linked yibum to chalitzah, and whenever yibum cannot be performed neither can chalitzah.

If this is the rule, asks Rabbi Chanina, why do we permit chalitzah to be performed in the case of the two sisters where yibum cannot be performed?

The solution to this problem is thus expressed: Should the Prophet Eliyahu come and reveal to us which sister is the widow, there would be no obstacle to yibum. We therefore consider her eligible for yibum; and even if actual yibum cannot be performed, she is still eligible for chalitzah. Should Eliyahu come, however, and reveal to us that the widow is not pregnant, we still would not permit yibum before three months because the Sages established an inflexible waiting period of three months in every case, even if the widow was a minor incapable of conceiving.

This gemara is cited by the commentaries as one of the sources for distinguishing between the power of the prophet to intervene in halachic matters and his power to clarify the facts of a case, such as in the situation of the two sisters. Where the facts are not the issue, such as in the case of the waiting period which applies even when we are aware of the facts, the prophet's intervention in the halachic process is ruled out, because once the Torah was given through Moshe, no prophet was empowered with prophecy to affect the halachic process.

  • (Yevamot 41b)

Your People are My People

In addition to circumcision and immersion in a mikveh, a non-Jew who wishes to convert to Judaism must commit himself to fulfilling all the mitzvot incumbent on Jews. As a source for the sort of basic instruction given to the conversion candidate, the gemara cites the dialogue between Naomi and Ruth, which is only hinted at in the words of Megillat Ruth (1:16-18).

"Amech ami – Your people are my people," Ruth says to the mother-in-law who is pointing out the difficulties of being a Jew. This, explains Rabbi Elazar, was a response to Naomi's informing her that Jews are obligated to fulfill 613 mitzvot.

Where, ask the commentaries, is it hinted in these words of Ruth that she was expressing a commitment to this large body of commandments?

Maharsha offers two approaches, one based on the numerical value of the letters in the Hebrew word "amech," and the other on the connotation of the words as a distinctive hallmark of the Jewish people.

"Amech" consists of three letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The first, "Ayin," has the numerical equivalent of 70, and the second, "Mem," equals 40. The final letter, a "final Chaf" has a numerical value of 500 (after the last letter "Taf" which equals 400 come the five letters which have a different form when they appear at the end of a word, and their numerical equivalents range from 500-900). Combine these three numerical equivalents and add three, representing the number of Hebrew letters in "Amech," and you arrive at 613.

The second approach refers us to a derisive comment about Jews made by heathen critics (Mesechta Shabbat 88a and Mesechta Ketuvot 112a) to the effect that we are "an impulsive people" because we "put our mouths before our ears." Unlike the other nations who rejected the offer of the Torah, we accepted so many commandments upon ourselves even before hearing what they involved by saying shall do" even before saying "we shall hear."

This "impulsiveness," which the Sage Rava (Shabbat ibid.) explains as the result of our having confidence that the Creator would not obligate us in anything beyond our ability, is what made us a people unique in the range of its obligations. Ruth's response to this was that "your people are my people" and I am prepared to assume responsibility for all that you took upon yourselves at Sinai.

  • (Yevamot 47b)

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