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Family Ties

In Tractate Yevamot, the Talmud teaches us that being Jewish is about much more than religion

Dovid Bashevkin
July 07, 2022
Original photo: The Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest/Flickr
Original photo: The Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest/Flickr
Original photo: The Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest/Flickr
Original photo: The Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest/Flickr

How would you begin a conversation about family? Maybe walk someone through the marriage ceremony, or talk about the birds and the bees, or possibly, if you were feeling generous, you could simply hand out one of those artsy signs they sell on Etsy that list the family rules, saying things like “In our house, we count our blessings, we never give up.” These are all sweet, sensible ways of talking about the foundational institution of human life. So forgive the Talmud for taking a radically different approach.

Seder Nashim, literally The Order of Women, is the third of the six orders of Mishna, and it begins with Tractate Yevamot. And this, my friends, is no mushy-touchy-feely tractate. It begins with a tragedy, the death of a husband in a childless marriage. Not exactly a great way to introduce the concepts of Jewish marriages and relationships! But, as we shall see, perhaps this is the most fitting introduction to the sacred notion of family—the enduring bonds that keep us connected.

I am not the first to wonder why Seder Nashim begins with Tractate Yevamot. In 1934, a year before his passing, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook asked the same question. Yevamot is a heartbreaking topic. Following the death of a husband in a childless marriage, assuming he has brothers, the widow is given two options: Marry one of the surviving brothers—known as yibbum, or levirate marriage—or in the event she doesn’t want to marry a brother, she can perform the halitza ritual, which involves spitting and shoes. Of course, there are mounds of head-spinning exceptions—brothers only from the mother’s side, say, or what if the widow is also—soap opera gasp—the brother’s daughter? There’s a reason why people studying Tractate Yevamot look more like they are busy tracing their genealogy. So why, asks Rav Kook, is this the introduction to the Jewish approach to family life? Why not start with, I don’t know, the laws of marriage? Rabbi Shalom Carmy presents Rav Kook’s answer this way:

… R. Kook suggests that yibbum is a better model for Jewish reflection on the family, precisely because the extraordinary and tragic illuminates the normal. “The life of Torah is not ordinary life, but eternal,” both in its spiritual and material dimensions. For that reason Torah life is manifest, not only under ideal circumstances, but also in situations of destruction, even when “the natural structure has broken down and the family is destroyed.”

Seder Nashim begins with tragedy to show how family endures even through tragic circumstances.

But I believe this tractate is actually about so much more than the family unit—it is about the Jewish people. Yevamot is a curious commandment because it was practiced, albeit in a slightly modified form, before the other commandments were even given. In Chapter 38 of Genesis, following the death of Eir, the son of Yehuda, his brother Onan refuses to consummate a levirate marriage with his widow, Tamar. It’s odd to see the practice of yibbum so early—why was it practiced before the giving of the Torah?

The ancient wise men of Israel, Ramban explains, began performing this ritual even before its formal command at Sinai. “Yehudah began practicing yibbum first when he discovered this secret from his father,” Ramban writes. And the secret of yibbum, I believe, is that Judaism is more than a faith tradition. Yes, our religion may have formally begun with the giving of the Torah, but the familial component of Judaism began earlier. Judaism began not as a religion, but as a covenantal family. The Jewish bonds that endure, even through tragedy, were forged much earlier. Sinai was the beginning of Judaism as a religion, but the preexistence of yibbum tells us that we have always been a Jewish family.

In the story of Ruth, the rituals of yibbum and halitza both make a conspicuous appearance. Interestingly, Ruth, and more generally Yevamot itself, are the sources not only for the laws of yibbum but the laws of conversion as well. And the shared roots of conversion and yibbum are not happenstance—their respective sources are neighbors for a reason. Yibbum tells us what conversion to the Jewish people is all about. Conversion is more than the acceptance of a religion, it is the entry into a family. And becoming part of a family means embracing the bonds of family not only in ideal circumstances, but when life is an absolute mess if not entirely tragic. The conversion process doesn’t just discuss the fun Jewish stuff—cholent, kugel, cold seltzer—we acknowledge the pain, the stakes, and the oftentimes tragic consequences of Jewish identity. If conversion was just about joining a religion, it would be enough to just become an expert in Jewish life. Tractate Yevamot is here to teach us that joining a family is both more difficult and more rewarding. It creates an enduring connection—not just through honeymoons, but also through heartbreak.

One of the fascinating features of yibbum is a legal concept known as a zikah (not the virus) which essential means “bond,” and connects the widow to her living brother-in-law. As the Talmud notes, “familial bonds never disappear”—they must be addressed and resolved. And in a larger sense, the Jewish people are connected through a similar zikah-bond. It is not our shared religious practices that bind us, it is the fact that we are literally a part of the same mishpucha. And just as yibbum addresses the enduring bonds of individual families, conversion forges those familial bonds within those who join the Jewish people. Conversion is a national act of yibbum—bringing outsiders within the bonds of the Jewish family.

In 1983, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, one of the chief rabbis of Israel, published an article titled “Denial of Jewish Peoplehood Regarding Matters of Conversion” (Kefira be-Am Yisrael le-Inyanei ha-Giyyur). He posed the following question:

Regarding the question of a non-Jew who accepts observing the commandments according to the law, but does not accept his connection to the Jewish people, but rather prefers to remain British or Hollander or French etc.; is it permissible to convert such a person based on Jewish law or not?

And the answer lies in the difference that Tractate Yevamot highlights. Joining a family is not the same as joining as country club. When you visit a golf club, they show you the courses, the lunch menu, and the potential social circles you can imagine hobnobbing among. So long as you have the right polo shirt and can cover your dues, you’ll be fine. Entering a family is different. You never really become a part of a family until you weather your first tragedy together. A loss, a pain, an unmet expectation. And as difficult as that moment can be, when the winds subside and the storm passes, and you’re still huddled together protecting one another, connected to one another—you know this family is now a part of who you are. That is Tractate Yevamot, and that is what conversion to the Jewish people is all about. Even following destruction—a widow from a childless marriage, the pains of peoplehood—familial connections endure.

In the story of Ruth, yibbum is called geulah, the Hebrew word for redemption. Because what is redemption, if not rebuilding after tragedy, presence after loss, and highlighting that interwoven into the substance of the Jewish people is an immutable familial connection that can never be broken. Yibbum is redemption because it reminds the Jewish people that our family, the oldest existing family, will never disappear or break until the End of Days. Yibbum is the introduction to the family of Jewish peoplehood.

In 1986, Simon Rawidowicz published his famous essay “Israel: The Ever-Dying People.” His thesis was provocative. “We see that not only in traditional Judaism,” he wrote, “the Judaism of Torah and its commandments but also so-called modern or secular Judaism tended from its beginning to consider itself the end.” The Jewish family also begins with a similar fear. The Talmud begins its discussion of family through the story of another family’s end. Because if you can immediately find another beginning within an ending, it means those bonds never really dissipated. And so it is with our Jewish family.

“Our incessant dying,” Rawidowicz writes, “means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up and beginning anew.” It is specifically within rubbles of tragedy that we find the enduring and immutable character of the Jewish people—the grandest family story that continues uninterrupted—living, rising, standing up, and beginning anew.

הדרן עלך מסכת יבמות והדרך עלן

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.

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