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Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 18b and Yevamot 37b: is this temporary marriage?- Guest Post by Zvi Septimus and Lena Salaymeh

Zvi Septimus and Lena Salaymeh are currently (at the time of publication) giving a lecture entitled “Marriage for Sex in Medieval Jewish and Islamic Legal Debates” at The Jewish Law Association’s 17th International Conference, going on now at Yale University.  This post is a summary of their talk and an opportunity to participate in the discussion. 

Two well-known and seemingly anomalous lines in the Babylonian Talmud have troubled many Talmud commentators for the last thousand years—yet these lines were notably ignored by the Gaonim: “When Rav came to Ardashir, he announced, ‘Who will have me for a day?’  When Rav Nahman came to Shkentziv, he announced, ‘Who will have me for a day?’”  What do these proclamations mean? The subsequent give and take of the Talmud implies that both Rav and Rav Nahman were the equivalent of modern-day rock stars.  They would send their entourage to the next stop on their tour in order to scout out groupies willing to engage in casual sex—or a temporary marital relationship—during their stay in various cities.  After their encounter they would be on their way, off to the next city to be coupled with the next willing set of groupies.  Had these rabbis actually been modern-day rock stars, these stories would probably not trouble us or the medieval commentators, many of whom felt forced to sanitize them.  But these stories are about rabbis.

The trouble with the rock star metaphor is that it implies that sexual relationships, or any relationship for that matter, between men and woman in the ancient world were anything like the way they are today, or even the medieval Christian and Muslim worlds in which medieval Talmud commentators lived.  The story we will now tell is about the evolution of the contexts in which these two Bavli lines were positioned from the time of their first appearance as historical anecdotes of the near past to the time when, as part of a Talmudic sugya, they needed to be incorporated into the complex web of rabbinic legislation.

The two statements of these rabbis appear in succession at two very different locales in the Talmud.  The first, in the order of tractates, and, as we argue, the development of the sugya, is at Yoma 18b and the second is at Yevamot 37b.  The Yevamot context is far more expansive and has therefore generally received more attention from traditional jurists seeking to contextualize the statements legally—to make laws for their contemporaries based on the way the Talmud discusses them.  At stake, for jurists like Alfasi, Maimonides, the Ravad, Nahmanides, the Rosh, and the Tur, is the legislative approach they would take toward casual or time-bound sexual relationships in their own eras in light of both the Talmud’s attitude toward such relationships and their own social and religious realities.  While traditional marriage may receive the most attention, there are many types of sexual relationships between men and women discussed in the Talmud.  Indeed, considerable effort is expended fleshing out sexual relationships between men and women outside of the standard permanent marriage arrangement, including conditional marriage and divorce, levirate marriage, servant marriage, slave marriage, concubines, casual sex, prostitution, and incest.  The Bavli’s discussion of these varieties of sexual relationships is reflective of late antique Near Eastern customary practices.  The question we would like to pose today is: To which of these categories did the Bavli’s redactors and the rabbinic commentators assign the relationships expressed by the stories of Rav and Rav Nahman?

Even within the Bavli itself, the statements of Rav and Rav Nahman—”who will have me for a day?”—can be seen in multiple contexts.  The first is to look at the statements themselves as actual stories recorded at or slightly after the times of their occurrence.  The second is to view them in the context of the extended sugya at Yoma 18b.  And the third is to understand them within the framework of Yevamot 37b.  When looked at this way, the stories can have three separate meanings.  To compound matters, there are numerous manuscripts containing alternate versions and textual variants.  Each of these, in addition, portrays different attitudes toward the story itself.  Of primary concern is the question of what type of relationship is meant by the words “who will have me for a day?”  Is it casual sex, a form of pilegesh relationship, or a temporary marriage?  If it were a pilegesh relationship, then was qiddushin performed?  Was nissuin performed?  Was there a ketubbah?  Is it realistic to think that the rabbis would be willing to pay the 100 or 200 zuz marriage settlement for a day’s worth of enjoyment, or, from a different perspective, a day’s worth of abating sexual urges in a legitimized manner?  Secondly, was the marriage for a day or “days”?  The manuscripts contain both readings.  If “days,” then was the marriage for a specific amount of time or just designated as temporary in some non-specific way?  If for a pre-determined amount of time, was this marriage naturally dissolved or was a get required?  If for a non-specific amount of time, could either party leave at will or was the husband the sole authority in determining the marriage’s end?  Further does the term yiud in these Bavli passages refer to non-sexual seclusion or is it a term referring to designating the woman as a partner, perhaps a pilegesh, where there would be neither qiddushin nor a ketubbah?  These questions are not only of interest to modern academic analysis of the positions of the authors of each sugya, or versions of the sugya preserved in a manuscript tradition, they also drive the medieval commentatorial tradition of those sugyot and the efforts of the codifiers and jurists in trying to incorporate these sugyot into their legal systems.

The inconclusiveness of these narratives and the widespread Near Eastern practices of temporary marriage suggest that at the time of the Bavli’s redaction, some form of temporary marriage was being practiced.  Indeed, Yaakov Elman argues that these “two prominent rabbis contracted temporary marriages in accord with the Sassanian institution.”  So, if rabbinic Jews practiced temporary marriages in late antiquity, then did these Jewish temporary wives receive a ketubbah?  Moreover, how did these temporary marriages end?  Did the rabbis in Yoma 18b or Yevamot 37b deliver divorce decrees or was a divorce effected at the moment of their departure or the conclusion of the day(s)?  This is of course probably depends on whether these temporary arrangements were actual marriages or merely pilagshut. The Bavli does not provide a clear answer on any of these technical details.

This leads us to wonder, how did the Gaonim understand this rabbinic practice of temporary marriage considering their context of Islamic debates about it?  It was not until the late 8th or early 9th century that a majority of Muslim scholars prohibited temporary marriages; prior to that time, temporary marriages were widely practiced and debated.  There is a notable geographic distribution, with Muslim jurists from Mecca generally permitting temporary marriage and jurists from Iraq and Medina opposing it.  Since the Gaonic academies were located in Iraq, it is quite likely that the Gaonim were exposed to these debates about temporary marriage among Muslim jurists.  There are three different forms of temporary marriage in the late antique Near Eastern world.  First: the Shīʿī version, in which the temporary marriage contract specifies the duration of the marriage, which ends automatically without a divorce declaration.  Second: the Sunnī version, in which the temporary marriage contract does not specify the duration, but the husband and wife or one of them intend to divorce and this type only ends with a divorce declaration.  The Sunnī version is a legal fiction because the husband and wife may have agreed upon the specific duration of the marriage, but simply did not specify it in the contract; in addition, in the Sunnī version, either the husband or the wife may intend to divorce the other without this affecting the validity of the marriage.  The third version may be understood as one component of the second version: the uninformed temporary marriage mentioned by Rabbi Eliezer Ben Yaaqov, in which the husband intends to divorce the wife with a get, but has not informed her.  Yet, somewhat surprisingly, there is little Gaonic discussion of the Yoma 18b or the Yevamot 37b sugyot.  Why is it that the “Who will have me for a day?” statements in the Talmud did not generate Gaonic commentary?

We want to end with this question and encourage those of you who are able, to attend our panel at the Jewish Law Association meeting or continue this conversation in the comments section of The Talmud Blog.

Lena Salaymeh is Robbins Post-Doctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley School of Law and recently earned her PhD in the History department at UC Berkeley; and Zvi Septimus is Anne Tanenbaum Post-Doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. He was previously Alan M. Stroock Fellow for Advanced Research in Judaica at Harvard University and received his PhD in Jewish Studies from UC Berekely.