Navigate to Belief section

For Jewish Widows, Like Modern Drug Offenders, Just How Much Matters

Why Talmudic law is precise, and how practical matters can test the moral foundations of the system

Adam Kirsch
May 19, 2015
(The Library of Congress via Flickr)

(The Library of Congress via Flickr)

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

Reading the Talmud means learning a whole new system of measurements. To know how far a person may walk on Shabbat, you need to measure in cubits; to know how much liquid volume a ritual bath must contain, you measure in se’a; to determine a bride’s marriage contract, you measure in dinars. The numbers are important because the Talmud is not a collection of moral precepts, like the Ten Commandments, but a practical legal system; and for laws to function they must be clear and precise. The flip side of clarity, however, is arbitrariness—as we frequently see in American drug laws, where possession of a certain amount of a drug is a misdemeanor but only a little bit more qualifies as a felony. Things are similar in Jewish law, even when it comes to purely ritual matters. In this week’s Daf Yomi reading, in Ketubot 104a, the rabbis laid down the rule that “all the measures of the sages are such.” That is, they are exactly as specified and cannot be adjusted for convenience. A ritual bath containing 40 se’a of water is valid, but one containing “40 se’a less one kortov,” a tiny amount less, is no good.

Abaye, one of the leading amoraim, was uneasy about this exactitude when it came to the question of a widow claiming payment of her marriage contract. This was the main subject of chapters 11 and 12 of Tractate Ketubot, where we learned that a woman has two options when her husband dies. She can either claim “sustenance” from his estate, in which case his heirs are responsible for her support, or else she can ask for full payment of her marriage contract, in which case their obligations are discharged. If she continues to live in her husband’s household, she has the right to be sustained indefinitely. If, on the other hand, she decides to leave her husband’s family and go back to live with her father’s family, she can receive sustenance for only 25 years before forfeiting the right to her marriage contract.

Abaye wondered about this cut-off, asking: “If she came before the setting of the sun at the end of the 25-year period, she collects her marriage contract, but if she came after the setting of the sun she may not collect it? In that slight period of time did she waive her rights?” It seems absurd that after 25 years the difference of an hour might deprive her of her due. But Rav Yosef replied that “all the measures of the sages are such”: 25 years means 25 years, not 25 years and an hour. This might be arbitrary, but without clear measures it’s obvious that any legal system would be unworkable. If 25 years and an hour is all right, what about 25 years and a day? A month? An extra year? Who would decide what is reasonable?

The amount of attention that the Talmud devotes to the rights of widows in Tractate Ketubot is a direct reflection of their vulnerability in a patriarchal society. As a daughter, a Jewish woman is under the protection of her father; as a wife, she is under the protection of her husband; but as a widow, she is suddenly left to fend for herself. Some women might have felt this as a liberation, but it was also a position of economic and social peril. How is she to make sure that her husband’s heirs—who might not be her own children, but any of his relatives—will treat her fairly? What if they throw her out of her house? What if they refuse to give her money to live on?

These were anything but academic questions, as you can see in an amazing document from a much later period of Jewish history, the Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln. Glückel, who lived in Germany in the 17th century, writes movingly of her fears of being a dependent widow, losing the independence and respect she had enjoyed as a married woman. Nothing makes her happier than to record how well her sons and their wives treated her in her old age, giving her plenty to eat and money to spend. Her pride in this state of affairs suggests how tenuous it was: If her children had stinted and starved her, there wasn’t much she could do about it.

The Talmud, taking account of the biblical precept “Cursed be he that perverts the justice due to the stranger, fatherless, and widow” (Deuteronomy 27:19), lays out generous provisions for a widow’s rights. Indeed, the Gemara interprets the Mishna to make them even more generous. The Mishna in Ketubot 103a rules that a widow may claim sustenance from her husband’s heirs as long as she agrees to keep living in her husband’s house. (The Talmud envisions large houses or linked houses shared by extended families, rather than the single-family dwellings of today.) If she decides to return to her father’s house, however, she loses the right to that sustenance: “The heirs are able to say to her: If you are living with us, you will have sustenance from us, but if you are not living with us, you will not have sustenance from us.”

The Gemara, however, seems to feel that this is too harsh. After all, it exacts a financial penalty from a woman who decides not to live with her in-laws, even though those in-laws may hate her as a drain on their resources. So, the amoraim reason, if she goes to her father’s house “they should give her support just as they would if she were living there.” Granted, there may be a difference between the amount of money it takes to support a widow in her husband’s house and in her father’s house. In general, Rav Huna observes, “the blessing of the house is in its abundance of residents.” This is not a sentimental statement about the warmth of a big family, but a practical one about living expenses, which are cheaper if they can be shared by many people. If, then, a widow goes from her husband’s large household to her father’s small one, where she requires more money to live on, the heirs are only required to pay her as much as she would have needed if she were living with them. That, the Gemara decides, is what the Mishna really meant. This kind of creative interpretation of the law, often in the direction of greater leniency and generosity, is one of the hallmarks of Talmudic reasoning.

If, however, a widow decides to stay in her husband’s house—which is the house where she had been living before—then the heirs are legally forbidden from making her situation uncomfortable. “The heirs are not able to say to her: Go to your father’s house and we will sustain you,” the Mishna says sternly. “Rather, they sustain her and they give her living quarters befitting her dignity.” The Gemara goes on to explain that this means she continues to have all the domestic rights and privileges she enjoyed before: “the slaves and the maidservants,” “the pillows and the sheets,” “the silver utensils and the golden utensils” are all hers to use as she desires. The inclusion of slaves on the same list as pillows is, of course, striking evidence for the ubiquity and familiarity of slavery in Talmudic Jewish society. The list also gives us a sense of just what kinds of insults a widow might be subjected to by her in-laws: forcing her to sleep with the worst bedding, making her drink out of wood cups when everyone else uses silver ones. Like every legal code, the Talmud’s prohibitions suggest the kinds of bad behavior prevalent in society. In this case, domestic pettiness and spite are just as frowned upon as actual oppression and theft.


Adam Kirsch’s Daf Yomi Talmud column will return June 2.

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.