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Jewish Bride Has a Mole? Grounds for Divorce. Husband Smells Bad? Live With It.

Inequality under the wedding canopy, in this week’s ‘Daf Yomi’ Talmud study. Plus: a story about cheating the Angel of Death.

Adam Kirsch
April 28, 2015
Image from "Hand-book of skin diseases for students and practitioners," 1865(Internet Archive Book Image via Flickr)
Image from “Hand-book of skin diseases for students and practitioners,” 1865(Internet Archive Book Image via Flickr)

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

Last week, Daf Yomi readers finished Chapter 7 of Tractate Ketubot, which deals primarily with the grounds for divorce in Jewish law. Throughout, the rabbis emphasize that a marriage should be built on consideration: For instance, a husband should not use his financial authority to deprive his wife of what she enjoys, whether it is something as important as sex or as trivial as her favorite food. But what if the objectionable thing about a spouse is not his or her behavior, but his or her appearance? What if one has a physical blemish or deformity that the other finds repulsive? Ideally, we might think that love should conquer such external obstacles. But the kind of marriage envisioned in the Talmud is usually a financial transaction between strangers, arranged by their families, not a union of people already in love. And it would be unpleasant indeed to be brought under the wedding canopy only find a partner whom you find deeply unattractive. Taking account of this, the rabbis consider what kinds of “blemishes” are sufficient grounds for annulling a betrothal or ending a marriage.

There are, of course, different standards for what qualifies as a blemish in men and in women. The rabbis operate on the assumption that women are more eager to get married than men, since in Talmudic society so much of a woman’s social standing depends on being married. As Abaye says in Ketubot 75a, “One whose husband is as an ant places her seat among the noblewomen”: That is, even an unimpressive husband allows a woman to hold her head up high. (Rav Ashi has a similar saying: “Even one whose husband is lowly does not require lentils for her pot.”) It follows, then, that women are expected to put up with more flaws in a husband than men are expected to put up with in a wife.

The general principle is that any physical blemish that would disqualify a man from becoming a priest also disqualifies a woman from being betrothed. This includes major injuries like broken or maimed limbs. In addition, the rabbis specify several further blemishes: “sweat, a mole, and odor from the mouth.” With priests, excessive sweating or bad breath can be concealed long enough for them to perform the Temple service, which must be done in a state of bodily perfection. “But with regard to a woman it is not possible,” Rav Ashi says: A wife can’t conceal these blemishes from her husband forever, even with tricks like putting pepper in her mouth or wiping her skin with wine vinegar. As for moles, the rabbis go into great detail about what kind of mole constitutes a blemish: A small mole is acceptable, unless it’s in the middle of a woman’s forehead, but a large mole or one with a hair growing out of it is grounds for annulment.

A man who discovers that his bride has one of these defects can dissolve their betrothal, or if they are already married, can divorce her without paying the marriage contract. But this is only the case if the defects existed before the betrothal and were hidden from him. If they were plainly visible, so that he couldn’t help knowing about them, and he went ahead with the marriage anyway, he can’t go back and claim that they are too repulsive for him to deal with. Interestingly, the Talmud further specifies that if the couple live in a town with a public bath, the groom is assumed to know even about the bride’s hidden blemishes, since he would have his own female relatives inspect her while she bathes. In the public bath, they would be able to spot some of the other things the law regards as fatal flaws—for instance, breasts that are too far apart (“three fingers” width between breasts is considered ideal) or too big. (“I once saw a certain Arab woman who flung her breasts behind her and nursed her child,” Rabba bar bar Chana testifies.)

However, if such blemishes only developed after the marriage took place, then it is a case of what the Talmud calls “flooding his field” and what we might call tough luck. Once a man is married, his wife’s appearance might change in ways he doesn’t like, but this is not grounds for divorce. Naturally, this opens up a fertile ground for disputes: What if the bride’s father claims she was unblemished, while the groom swears she was already blemished when they married? The rabbis spend a good deal of time discussing such cases, and in the process they lay down rules for the burden of proof in civil cases generally.

In a man, however, minor aesthetic defects like moles do not constitute grounds for divorce. In Ketubot 77a, we learn that only “major blemishes” count for men: “for example, if his eye was blinded, or his hand cut off, or his leg broken.” In such a case, the court can compel a husband to grant his wife a divorce. So too if he has boils or polyps, or if he engages in a trade that leaves him permanently malodorous, like a tanner or a coppersmith. Even if a woman agrees before marriage to put up with such problems, Rabbi Meir considerately offers her a way out: “She can say: I thought I could accept this but now I realize I cannot accept it.” The rabbis, however, say that “she must accept it against her will,” with only one exception—if her husband develops boils. That is because a man with boils, according to Rabbi Yosei, is endangered by having sexual intercourse.

In discussing boils, the rabbis bring up a related disease called ra’atan, which is what we call leprosy in English. (Confusingly, the biblical disease called tzaarat, traditionally translated as “leprosy,” is now thought not to be leprosy at all, but something different.) “What are the symptoms of ra’atan? His eyes water, his nose runs, drool comes out of his mouth, and flies rest upon him.” And not just upon him: The rabbis believe that sufferers have insects burrowing in their brains, and the treatment for this disease involves cutting the skull open and removing the insects with myrtle leaves. One hopes that this cure was not carried out too often, for it certainly would have been worse than the disease.

The discussion of ra’atan culminates, at the end of the chapter, in a beautiful story about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, one of the greatest Talmudic sages. Most rabbis, the Gemara says, would flee anyone afflicted with the disease, even avoiding the alleys where they lived. But Yehoshua ben Levi would seek out lepers and study Torah with them, confident that Torah itself would protect him from getting sick. This extraordinary selflessness earned its reward at the end of his life, when the dying Yehoshua managed to play a trick on the Angel of Death.

When the Angel approached him, Yehoshua asked to be shown his place in paradise before he died. Once the Angel took him there, the rabbi “jumped and fell into that side,” slipping into paradise while still alive. Such was his virtue that he was allowed to stay, and “Elijah the Prophet announced before him: Make way for the son of Levi, make way for the son of Levi.” Still, there was a limit to what even Yehoshua ben Levi could achieve. On the way to paradise he seized the Angel of Death’s knife and refused to give it back, hoping in this way to abolish death forever; but “a Divine Voice emerged and said to him: ‘Give it to him, as it is necessary to kill the created beings.’ ” However inscrutable it may remain to us, the rabbis are sure that death is part of God’s plan for the universe.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study, click here.

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.