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Would a Jackal Take Better Care of Its Young?

For most Jews in Talmudic times, marriage was the biggest financial transaction of their lives

Adam Kirsch
March 31, 2015
(Tablet Magazine/Shutterstock)

(Tablet Magazine/Shutterstock)

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

Is a Jewish father legally obligated to provide food and shelter for his children? This question might seem like a no-brainer: Nothing is more natural or expected than for a parent to care for his or her child. But is this social and ethical obligation also a legal obligation? The answer, which Daf Yomi readers learned this week in Ketubot 49a, is more complicated than you might expect. According to the mishna, “A father is not obligated to provide his daughter’s sustenance,” and the Gemara draws the obvious corollary: “It is with regard to providing his daughter’s sustenance that he is not obligated, but with regard to providing his son’s sustenance, he is obligated.” This looks like another glaring example of gender inequality in the Talmud: Sons have a greater claim on their father’s resources than daughters.

But the ensuing discussion suggests that things are not so clear-cut. Indeed, according to several authorities, including Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda, sons too do not have a legal claim for sustenance from their father. Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka says, “During their father’s lifetime both these and those,” that is both sons and daughters, “are not sustained.” Paradoxically, as it might seem, children have a legal claim on their father’s property only after he is dead. Once a father dies, his sons have the right to receive payment of their mother’s marriage contract, and his daughters have the right to be “sustained” with funds from his estate. But because the law only speaks of this kind of posthumous claim, the early sages in Yavneh, where the rabbis relocated after the destruction of the Temple, concluded that children have no rights while their father is still alive: “Just as the sons inherit only after the father’s death … so too, the daughters are sustained only after their father’s death.”

No sooner has this principle been established, however, than the Gemara begins to qualify it. A child may not have a legal right to sustenance, the rabbis explain, but providing for your children is nonetheless a mitzvah—that is, it is considered proper and necessary to do so. The rationale for this mitzvah is different for boys and girls: Boys must be sustained so that they can engage in Torah study, while girls must be sustained because it would dishonor them if they had to go begging for their bread. As we have seen several times before, the Talmud is acutely sensitive to a woman’s reputation and tries to prevent any public disgrace that could diminish her value on the marriage market.

In practice, then, a father who tried to shirk his obligation to his children came in for severe reprimands. When Rav Yehuda heard about a father who wouldn’t provide for his children, “he would say to them: The jackal bears offspring and casts them on the residents of the town?” That is to say, even a jackal cares for its own young and doesn’t expect others to feed them. Likewise, Rav Chisda would order such a father to stand up on a public platform and say, “The raven wants to care for its sons, and yet this man does not want to support his sons.” As scavengers, jackals and ravens are the lowest of the animals; for a human being to sink lower than them was a disgrace. The only excuse for such behavior would be absolute poverty, if a man had no way to buy his children’s bread. If a wealthy person tried to get away with it, on the other hand, the court would “coerce him against his will.” After all, the court had the power to force a rich man to give to charity; all the more so should it force him to support his own family.

The rationale for supporting sons is that it allows them to engage in Torah study. But at what age is a boy supposed to begin studying? According to Ketubot 50a, the answer is 6: “Less than 6 years old, do not accept him” into school, says Rav, but “if he is 6 years old, accept him and stuff him like an ox.” This vivid metaphor suggests that Jewish schooling was a rigorous process, as it would have to be, considering the sheer amount of material that a Torah scholar needed to master. However, if a boy resists going to school, the Gemara advises that he should be treated patiently until he is 12 years old. Once he turns 12, his father should pressure him to start learning: “From this point forward he harasses him in all aspects of his life.” As for the curriculum, Abaye credits his mother with the rule that a 6-year-old is ready to study the Bible, while study of the Mishna should begin at age 10. Starting study before age 6 is a mistake: “Anyone who brings his son to school when he is younger than 6 years old will run after him and not catch him,” Rav Ketina says—that is to say, the parent will always be worried about the child’s welfare.

The bulk of this week’s reading, however, dealt with money matters. The main purpose of the ketubah, from which Tractate Ketubot gets its name, is to establish the financial obligations of the bride and groom, primarily the latter. We have already seen that, in a standard ketubah, a virgin bride is guaranteed a payment of 200 dinars if she is divorced or widowed, while a previously married woman receives 100 dinars. In Ketubot 51a, we further learn that a groom must promise to ransom his wife if she is taken captive—a provision that speaks volumes about the uncertainty and danger of Jewish life in Talmudic times. Likewise, he promises to pay for her medical care if she is sick. A husband cannot get out of these obligations by divorcing his wife if she is in need. And even if the scribe writing the marriage contract omits one of these provisos, it is still held to be legally binding.

The sums prescribed in the mishna are a legal minimum, but the Talmud often provides ways to get around its own requirements, and so it is in this case. As Rabbi Yehuda explains in Ketubot 54b, “If he wishes, he may write for a virgin a document for 200 dinars, and she may write a receipt stating ‘I received 100 dinars from you.’ ” This legal fiction allows the bride to effectively waive her right to half the marriage settlement. It’s not clear in the Talmud exactly why a woman would want to do this—perhaps in order to make a match with a man who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the full amount. However, Rabbi Meir frowns on this practice, saying that a woman who accepts less than the minimum amount is effectively not married, and therefore her relationship “amounts to licentious sexual relations.”

The rabbis go on to lay out in great detail the rules about how a widow can make claims on her husband’s estate. Should the amount she is owed be paid from his real-estate assets or from his movable property? Can he designate a certain piece of property for his widow’s sustenance? What if the wife sells her marriage contract to a third party in exchange for immediate cash—can her sons still collect from it when she dies? And when exactly does a marriage contract go into effect—at the time of betrothal or at the time of marriage? For most Jews in Talmudic times, marriage was one of the biggest financial transactions of their lives, so it’s no wonder the rabbis spend so much time on these subjects. Marriage and estate law may not be as exciting as some other parts of the Talmud, but no society can get along without them.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.