Yevamot 34 - 40
The Ten-Year Deadline
The daughter of Rabbi Chisda married the Sage Rava after ten years of widowhood. When she became pregnant it caused a stir amongst Rava's colleagues, because Rabbi Yochanan had stated a law of nature that a woman who remains unmarried for ten years after her first marriage is no longer capable of bearing children.
Rava's wife cleared up the mystery by informing him that during her widowhood she had in mind to marry him, and the rule stated by Rabbi Yochanan had been qualified by Rabbi Nachman who declared that if the woman had in mind to get married she could conceive even after ten years.
The background for this dialogue is supplied by Tosefot on the basis of an incident related in Mesechta Bava Batra (12b) to illustrate that since the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, prophecy was removed from the prophets and allocated to fools and children. Rabbi Chisda's little daughter sat in his lap as two of his disciples, the Sages Rava and Rami bar Chama sat before him. "Which of these two do you want to marry?" he asked the child. "Both," she announced, to which Rava quickly responded "and me last."
She did indeed marry Rami bar Chama first, and after his death she was certain that her childhood prophecy would be fulfilled and that she would marry Rava. The latter, however, had a wife already and she had to wait ten years until that woman died. Having her mind on eventually marrying Rava during all these years saved her from losing her ability to bear children.
On the basis of the rule and qualification found in our gemara, the Midrash thus explains a passage from the Book of Ruth (1:12). In it, Naomi discourages her widowed daughter-in-law from accompanying her to Eretz Yisrael in the hope of someday marrying other sons she may eventually bear. "I have grown too old to marry a man," she told them, "and even if I said that I have hope, and even if tonight I would marry a man and then give birth to sons, would you wait until they grow up?"
Naomi explained that, since it was ten years short a day since the death of her husband, her ability to bear children in a new marriage would depend on one of two things:
1) "I said that I have hope" that she had her hopes set on marriage; 2) "If tonight I would marry a man" before the ten years came to an end.
- (Yevamot 34b)
The Preferred Mitzvah
Should a man die childless, the Torah made it a mitzvah for his brother to perform yibum by marrying the widow. The Torah thus put aside the prohibition on a man marrying his brother's wife even after his death in order for this mitzvah to be done.
But what if the brother is not motivated to marry her for the sake of the mitzvah but only because of her beauty or some other ulterior motive? The Sage Abba Shaul viewed this as bordering on a violation of the ban on marrying a brother's wife, and he even considered the idea that a child born from such a marriage would be a mamzer. The other Sages disputed this approach and held that regardless of the motive, the yibum was a valid fulfillment of the mitzvah.
These two conflicting opinions determine whether today we encourage yibum or its alternative, chalitzah. The mishna in Mesechta Bechorot (13a) quoted in our gemara declares that in earlier generations when people had the right attitude and did yibum for the sake of the mitzvah, it was preferable for yibum to be done. Since in later generations people began to perform yibum for different reasons and not for the sake of the mitzvah, it is preferable to do chalitzah. This is clearly in line with the view of Abba Shaul.
The Sage Rami bar Chama, however, quotes Rabbi Yitzchak as stating that this position of endorsing the view of Abba Shaul was subsequently abandoned in favor of the view of the other Sages which makes yibum preferable even today.
There is a major debate amongst the commentaries as to whether we rule like Abba Shaul or the other Sages. Rabbeinu Alfas (Rif) cites the statement of Rami bar Chama as support for the view of the other Sages and therefore concludes that yibum is preferable. Rabbeinu Tam of the Tosefists and Rabbeinu Chananel rule like Abba Shaul and conclude that chalitzah is preferable.
The accepted practice in virtually every Jewish community today is to avoid yibum in favor of chalitzah.
- (Yevamot 39b)