April 19, 2024
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Ketubot 75a: Better to Have Loved a Short Girl

On Ketubot 75a, Rava resolved a difficult baraita dealing with a prominent woman. The husband doesn’t like that his wife has taken vows, but doesn’t wish to divorce her because that would render him forbidden to her prominent family members. The talmudic narrator asks why the same assumption cannot be applied to the end of that baraita — with the genders reversed — with the woman not wishing to be forbidden to the prominent man’s relatives, so no betrothal should take effect. The talmudic narrator answers on Rava’s behalf with the presumption that women prefer to be married. It channels a familiar sugya, beginning with “It is as Resh Lakish. For Resh Lakish says …”

That sugya has a consistent message from different Amoraim: Resh Lakish (second generation, Israel), Abaye (fourth generation, Pumbedita), his contemporary Rava’s student Rav Pappa (fifth generation, from Pumbedita to Naresh), Rav Pappa’s student Rav Ashi (sixth generation, Sura) as well as a Tannaitic source. Resh Lakish’s statement is “טָב לְמֵיתַב טַן דּוּ מִלְּמֵיתַב אַרְמְלוּ,” but it is unclear what that means.

What does“tan du” mean? Rashi explains it means “two bodies.” Rav Steinsaltz follows this in his commentary. He says the origin is uncertain, but it probably comes from the Persian “tan do,” though it’s an imperfect match. While I’m in favor of finding Persian words and influence in the Babylonian Talmud, I wonder why Resh Lakish — an Amora living in Roman-controlled Israel — would cite a popular Persian aphorism.

Another explanation is put forth by Rabbi Dr. Marcus Jastrow, who suggests it is corrupted Hebrew for “טְעַן דֵּו — with a load of grief,” thus “in trouble.” He points to the Aramaic Targum to Iyov 18:6. The translation of the phrase: “בַּדֵּ֣י שְׁאֹ֣ל תֵּרַ֑דְנָה” is “ טַנְדוֹ לְבֵי קְבוּרְתָּא תָחֲתָן — shall we descend ‘tando’ to the cemetery.” It’s even difficult to know the meanings of the poetic and archaic Biblical Hebrew words in Iyov, but “with a load of grief” can make sense in the depressing context. Additionally, the rest of the phrase is Aramaic. Finally, consider Talmud Yerushalmi — written in Galilean Aramaic — where the dropping of ayin, as in the word “טְעַן” is regular, so works well with Resh Lakish as speaker .

Contextual Cues

What does this aphorism mean? Is it that the woman would rather be married (dwell with two bodies), or that she would even be willing to be in a contentious marriage (dwell in grief)? The continuation is similarly ambiguous. Treat “אַרְמְלוּ” as if it had a final tav, like “מַלְכוּ” (Daniel 2:40). Most straightforwardly, it means “in widowhood,” as the “למנר” letters interchange, it comes from “אַלְמָנָה.” (See “הָאִשָּׁה שֶׁנִּתְאַרְמְלָה” in Mishnayot Ketubot). But it may stem from a meaning of solitude. This would seem necessary, since the many times it comes up aren’t of widowhood, but e.g., being divorced or never getting married.

To figure out what a word means, context is key. Alas, “טַן דּוּ” is a near “hapax legomenon,” that is, a word with only one recorded use in the corpus. It isn’t exactly, because we have Jastrow’s citation of Targum Iyov. Also, the entire sugya — including Resh Lakish’s quote — repeats itself several times. This is then the same context. On the other hand, we might examine the context in which the sugya is brought to determine its intent.

For a ha’avara (repeated / transferred sugya), it’s useful to identify the primary sugya, since the usage there will be most on-point. Ketubot 75a isn’t primary, as the quote isn’t in conversation with other Amoraim or presented as a simple quote. Rather, the possibly post-Amoraic talmudic narrator is saying that can answer a difficulty based on something known to us from another sugya — “כִּדְרֵישׁ לָקִישׁ” — then elaborating to expand the present the actual quote —“דְּאָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ.” In Ketubot 75a, the context is that a woman would rather be betrothed, despite flaws in her spouse. We might better justify this with Rav Pappa’s statement — of a woman proud of being married to a wool-comber — though this is satisfaction after the fact.

Other instances of “כִּדְרֵישׁ לָקִישׁ דְּאָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ” with the ensuing sugya follow: In Kiddushin 7a, Rava discusses a woman who is betrothed via her giving a gift, because of the benefit of it having been accepted by someone prominent. The talmud narrator explains, based on Resh Lakish’s dictum, why we couldn’t extrapolate to monetary matters, so that Rava needs a separate statement. The woman would prefer to be betrothed. In Kiddushin 41a, Rav Yehuda cites Rav that a man is forbidden to betroth a woman until he sees her, lest he find something repulsive in her and then violate “וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ.” (Tangentially, this is an oft-recognized drasha of  “רֵעֲךָ”, as “beloved,” like “רַעְיָתִֽי” in Shir HaShirim 1:9) The talmudic narrator stresses this is only from the male perspective — based on Resh Lakish’s dictum. In Bava Kamma 110b — in discussing initial intent regarding sacrifices not encompassing a later negative development — the talmudic narrator asks why this wouldn’t also apply to the initial intent of betrothal, if the husband died and the yavam was afflicted with boils, and then answers based on Resh Lakish.

The primary sugya seems to be Yevamot 118b: It’s a discussion with certain named Amoraim . Ravina I asks his fourth-generation teacher, Rava, about “הַמְזַכֶּה גֵּט לְאִשְׁתּוֹ בִּמְקוֹם קְטָטָה  — one who confers possession of a get to his wife,” when there is marital strife. There is a principle of “זכין לאדם שלא בפניו,” that we can legally acquire on behalf of someone when it is to their benefit, but not their detriment. In response: תָּא שְׁמַע, דְּאָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ“ טָב לְמֵיתַב טַן דּוּ מִלְּמֵיתַב אַרְמְלוּ.” It’s unclear whether this is the talmudic narrator (as in many but not all תָּא שְׁמַע) or Rava’s direct response, but Rava does rely on statements by Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish. Next, a statement by Abaye — who is Rava’s contemporary — then Rava’s student Rav Pappa and Rav Pappa’s student. This works well within  a sugya beginning with Rava.

This primary context — of marital strife and divorce — works nicely with the aphorism, especially with Jastrow’s explanation. Marital strife is close to “a load of grief.” Even if “אַרְמְלוּ” means literal “widowhood,” we might imagine a widow looking back at her contentious life with her husband and wishing her spouse were still alive. Rava’s application to a bill of divorce is only a slight stretch; wistful nostalgia might not be as strong for marital strife followed by rejection and bitter divorce. However, the non-primary sugyot may involve even greater extension, e.g., to establish a betrothal ab initio, with no strife or with a repulsive yavam with whom she has no prior relationship.


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

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