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Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Every bride is beautiful on her wedding day, the saying goes. But is she really? As it turns out, this was a matter of dispute between the two factions we often hear about in the Talmud, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. In chapter 2 of Tractate Ketubot, which Daf Yomi readers began this week, the rabbis discuss the proper ways to celebrate a wedding. This involves dancing, of course: “Rabbi Yehuda bar Elai would take a myrtle branch and dance before the bride,” while Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak would juggle three branches. Not everyone approved of a sage showing this much levity, even at a wedding, and Rabbi Zeira used to complain about the juggling, saying, “The old man is humiliating us.” But Zeira was proved wrong when Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak died, and a pillar of fire appeared before his corpse—a sign of divine favor that, the Talmud explains, occurs for only one or two men in a generation. Rabbi Zeira was forced to acknowledge that wild dancing at a wedding was a mitzvah: “His nonsense was effective for the old man,” he admitted.

The rabbis emphasize that nothing should be done to spoil the happiness of a wedding. If there is a funeral procession on the same day as a wedding, it should be rerouted so that the bride and groom won’t encounter it. Indeed, King Agrippa, the Roman-installed Jewish king who reigned during the Second Temple period, once allowed a wedding procession to cross an intersection before him, a great honor. “The sages praised him,” the Gemara says, though not everyone agreed that Agrippa was right to breach royal etiquette in this way. After all, Deuteronomy instructs, “You shall place a king over you,” which implies “that his awe shall be upon you.” It may be that a king has no right to forfeit that awe, even out of respect for a wedding. Yet if there’s one thing that the rabbis esteem even higher than a king, it is Torah study; and here too, a wedding takes precedence. “One suspends the study of Torah to attend the removal of a corpse for burial and to attend the entry of a bride into the wedding canopy,” we read in Ketubot 17a.

Another key element in a wedding celebration is reciting praise of the bride. But Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagree over the form this praise should take. Beit Hillel, generous as always, believe that one should compliment every bride’s appearance, by saying, “A fair and attractive bride.” Beit Shammai, typically strict, disagree, since in some cases praising a bride’s beauty might be a falsehood. “In a case where a bride was lame or blind, does one say with regard to her: A fair and attractive bride?” they demand. Rather than tell a white lie, it is better to praise “the bride as she is”—that is, to find something else praiseworthy in her, whether it is her character, or her family background. But as we know, in an argument between the two schools, the view of Hillel almost always prevails, and so it is here. Indeed, as a general rule “the sages said: A person’s disposition should always be empathetic with mankind.” Kindness and empathy mean praising a bride’s looks. This is doubly important because insulting the bride might grieve the groom, who would feel that he had made a bad bargain, like “one who acquired an inferior acquisition from the market.” The Talmud’s sensitivity here goes along with a hard-headed understanding that marriage was a form of purchase.

These details of wedding etiquette are directly related to the main theme of Tractate Ketubot. But most of this week’s reading dealt with a more general legal question: What are the powers and responsibilities of a witness to a contract? This question first arises in Ketubot 15b, specifically in relation to marriage contracts. Say a woman gets divorced, and she comes to claim the payment due her under her marriage contract from her ex-husband. As we saw last week, the standard contract provides that a woman who was a virgin at marriage receives 200 dinars, while a woman who was not a virgin—because she was already divorced or a widow–receives only 100 dinars. Now, what happens if the woman claims that she was a virgin at marriage, while the husband denies it and insists that she was a widow? The marriage, after all, might have taken place many years before or in a different place; how is the court to know which party is telling the truth?

One way to settle the matter, the Mishna explains, is to summon witnesses who were present at the wedding. These could attest to whether the bride followed certain customs which are reserved for virgins: for instance, going to the wedding with her hair uncovered, or “with a hinnuma.” The rabbis of the Gemara, who lived some centuries after the rabbis of the Mishna, were already uncertain as to just what a hinnuma was—this sort of linguistic slippage comes up fairly often in the Talmud—and in Ketubot 17b they offer a few guesses. One says it is a “canopy of myrtle” worn over the bride’s head, another that it is a veil. Other customs for virgin brides varied by country. In Judea, roasted grain would be distributed to the wedding guests; in Babylonia, the heads of visiting sages would be anointed with oil. Any of these practices could be used as evidence of the bride’s status at marriage.

Most of the chapter, however, focuses on the second part of the Mishna, which has to do with a different kind of legal claim. “In a case where one says to another: This field belonged to your father and I purchased it from him, he is deemed credible.” Why is this kind of claim, unlike the husband’s claim about his wife’s virginity, accepted at face value? The reason, as the Gemara goes on to explain, is that it is an admission against interest. After all, if I own a field, and you come along and claim it, the best tactic for me would be to deny that you ever had anything to do with the field. If I acknowledge that it used to belong to your father, I am implicitly agreeing that you might have a claim on it. So, if I make that admission, but go on to say that I purchased the field from your father, then both parts of my statement should be believed. The first part, which could harm me, guarantees the truth of the second part, which helps me.

The following pages of Gemara explore many facets and applications of this principle. How long do you have to make use of a piece of land before it is legally presumed to belong to you? Can someone lodge a claim to a piece of land in a different jurisdiction–say, if the land is in the Galilee but the claim is made in a court in Judea? And what about if the dispute concerns a loan rather than a piece of property? Here, again, the principle of admission against interest holds: If I acknowledge that I borrowed 100 dinars from you but insist that I paid back 50 dinars, the claim is credible, since I could have denied ever borrowing anything in the first place. It is easy to see how this principle is open to abuse. But in a society that did not document every transaction, the way we do today, it was essential to have some rules to decide when a person could be taken at their word.

 

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