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Qatlanit: The “Killer-Wife”





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Qatlanit: The “Killer-Wife”








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Qatlanit: The “Killer-Wife”

Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, is twice-widowed, but the Torah still expects Judah to allow his third son Shelah to marry her. In the Second Temple period book, Tobit marries his seven-times widowed cousin upon the advice of the angel Raphael. And yet, the Talmud prohibits marrying twice widowed women, for fear they are dangerous.


Qatlanit: The “Killer-Wife”

Veiled woman, Frederick Arthur Bridgman, ca. 1890 (adapted). Wikimedia.

Shtisel, a Netflix series about a Chasidic family, features a character named Elisheva Rotshtein (played by Ayelet Zurer), who was Akiva Shtisel’s first romantic interest.[1] When Akiva expressed his desire to date her, the matchmaker compared her to a piece of shnitsel (fried chicken cutlet) that has been “frozen, thawed, heated up in a microwave and served on a paper plate,” and then adds, “I’ll tell you something else: everyone who tasted this shnitsel, you know what happened to him? He died a strange death, ptoo, ptoo, ptoo.”

The imagery she uses about Elisheva is that of the ishah qatlanit, or “killer wife,” i.e., a twice (or thrice) widowed woman. The concept is similar to the English “black widow” except that it refers to women who unintentionally cause the deaths of their husbands, presumably because they are cursed in some way. While today, a woman who is twice-widowed might be in her seventies or eighties, in pre-modern life, because of the high mortality rate, a twice-widowed woman might be in her twenties or thirties.

The Story of Judah and Tamar

The earliest source in Jewish tradition for such a fear is the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah has three sons with Bat Shua, his Canaanite wife: Er, Onen, and Shelah. When Er grows up, Judah chooses a woman named Tamar to be his wife. But Er—whose name is an inverted form of the Hebrew term for evil, raʿ, and may also be related to the Hebrew for “childless,” ʿariri[2]—does evil, and YHWH strikes him down:  

בראשית לח:ו וַיִּקַּח יְהוּדָה אִשָּׁה לְעֵר בְּכוֹרוֹ וּשְׁמָהּ תָּמָר. לח:ז וַיְהִי עֵר בְּכוֹר יְהוּדָה רַע בְּעֵינֵי יְ־הוָה וַיְמִתֵהוּ יְ־הוָה.
Gen 38:6 Judah got a wife for Er his first-born; her name was Tamar. 38:7 But Er, Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to YHWH, and YHWH took his life.

Judah then has Onan (אוֹנָן) marry Tamar in a levirate marriage[3] so that their firstborn son would count as Er’s descendent. Onan—whose name is related to the word “iniquity” (אָוֶן)—agrees to marry her, but performs coitus interruptus so as not to produce an heir,[4] and YHWH strikes him down too:

בראשית לח:י וַיֵּרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיָּמֶת גַּם אֹתוֹ.
Gen 38:10 What he did was displeasing to YHWH, and [YHWH] took his life also.

At this point, according to levirate norms, Judah is supposed to have his third son, Shelah, marry Tamar, but Judah fears that she is a qatlanit, responsible for the death of his two older sons, so he tricks her:

בראשית לח:יא וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה לְתָמָר כַּלָּתוֹ שְׁבִי אַלְמָנָה בֵית אָבִיךְ עַד יִגְדַּל שֵׁלָה בְנִי כִּי אָמַר פֶּן יָמוּת גַּם הוּא כְּאֶחָיו...
Gen 38:11 Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”—for he thought, “He too might die like his brothers.”…

Thus, Judah sends Tamar away in order to eliminate her as a threat to his only surviving son. Rashi explains:

רש"י בראשית לח:יא כי אמר פן ימות – מוחזקת היא זו שימותו אנשיה.
Rashi Gen 38:11 “For he thought: ‘He too might die…’ – she was assumed to be a woman whose husbands die.”

Judah thought that Tamar possessed some malevolent power that killed his two sons, but the reader knows better because the Torah is explicit that it was YHWH who killed Er and Onan for their sins. Mordechai Friedman notes that the Torah’s ascription of their deaths to sin (and not Tamar) shows the Torah’s opposition to the belief in the “killer wife”:

Israelite religion – as manifested in Genesis 38 – rejected this pagan superstition,” and affirms that “women are sources of life, not death.[5]

This conforms to the general tendency in the Bible to suppress belief in the demons and other malevolent powers independent of Israel’s God.[6] Nevertheless, the description of Judah’s fear shows that such a belief was common enough already in biblical times.

The Killer Wife in the Book of Tobit

The fear of the “killer-wife” appears again in the Persian period Book of Tobit, a Jewish work originally written in Aramaic.[7] Set in the period of the Assyrian empire, the book tells the story of Tobias, the son of Tobit, a righteous man from the tribe of Naphtali, who goes on a journey from Nineveh (capital of Assyria) to Ecbatana (capital of Media) to seek his family’s fortune.

His cousin Sarah lives in Ecbatana.  She is the virtuous daughter of Raguel, who’s life has been plagued by the demon Asmodeus—known in rabbinic sources as Ashmadai, “chief of demons”[8]—who had killed seven of her husbands on their respective wedding nights, before the couple had a chance to consummate:

Tobit 3:7 On the same day, at Ecbatana in Media, it also happened that Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, was reproached by one of her father’s female slaves. 3:8 For she had been married to seven husbands, and the wicked demon Asmodeus had killed each of them before they had been with her as is customary for wives. (NRSVue)

Even her own maidservant accuses her of being the killer:

So the female slave said to her, “You are the one who kills your husbands! See, you have already been married to seven husbands and have not borne the name of a single one of them. 3:9 Why do you beat us? Because your husbands are dead? Go with them! May we never see a son or daughter of yours!”

On the way, Tobias is joined by a companion named Azariah, who is actually the angel Raphael (the name means “God Heals”), one of God’s seven “good” angels. Azariah/Raphael suggests to Tobias that he should marry his cousin Sarah, but Tobias is wary, and shares his fear with his companion.[9] Azariah/Raphael responds by teaching Tobias how to defeat the demon:

Tobit 6:17 When you enter the bridal chamber, take some of the fish’s liver and heart and put them on the embers of the incense. An odor will be given off; 6:18 the demon will smell it and flee and will never be seen near her anymore.

Tobias takes the advice and proposes marriage. Sarah’s parents, Raguel and Edna, are ecstatic that Tobias wishes to marry their daughter. Nevertheless, Raguel prepares a grave for Tobias so he could bury him quickly without people knowing that his daughter killed another husband:

Tobit 8:9 …Raguel arose and called his servants to him, and they went and dug a grave, 8:10 for he said, “It is possible that he will die, and we will become an object of ridicule and derision.”

The angel’s recipe works, of course, and Tobias and Sarah live happily ever after.[10] As with Tamar in Genesis, Sarah is not at fault; the text feels sorry for her and does not judge her. Obviously, Tobit knows of no prohibition to marry a woman widowed twice or even seven times.

The Prohibition in The Babylonian Talmud

We first hear of the prohibition to marry a killer wife in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yebamot (64b), where the rabbis discuss the concept of legal presumption (Hebrew hazaqah), i.e., when repeated incidents constitute a pattern with legal consequences:

  1. Baby boys who die following circumcision.
  2. Women whose husbands have died.
  3. Oxen that gore.

Rabbi Judah HaNasi (the Prince) and his father, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, debate how many sons need to die after circumcision, two or three, in order to establish a hazaqah so that later sons should not be circumcised. They have the same debate regarding the qatlanit:

בבלי יבמות סד: [מינכן 95] נשאת לראשון ומת לשני ומת לשלישי לא תנשא דברי ר' ר"שב"ג או[מר]: לשלישי תנשא לרביעי לא תנשא.
b. Yebamot 64b If a woman marries a man and he dies, and she marries a second man and he dies, she may not be married to a third husband: These are the words of Rabbi (Judah HaNasi). Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: She may be married to a third husband, but may not be married to a fourth husband.

Rabbi Yohanan, a second century amora from the land of Israel, follows the position that three constitutes a precedent. Abaye, a 4th century Babylonian amora, relies on this himself to marry Homa, a twice-widowed woman, but he then dies:

בבלי יבמות סד: [מינכן 95] סמך עילויה אביי ואזל נסבה לחומה ברתיה דאסי בריה דרב יצחק בריה דרב יהוד' דנסבה רחבא דפומבדית' ומית ונסבה רב יצחק בריה דרבה בר בר חנה ומית ונסבה איהו נמי ושכיב.
b. Yebamot 64b Abaye relied upon him and went and married Homa, the daughter of Issi son of Rav Isaac son of Rav Judah. Rachba of Pumbeditha married her and died. Then Rav Isaac son of Rabba bar bar Channa married her and died. Then he (Abaye) also married her, and died.[11]

The Gemara explains the reason for the prohibition:

בבלי יבמות סד: [מינכן 95] א"ל רב מרדכי לרב אשי: אמ[ר] אבימי מהגרוני' משמיה דרבא: מעין גורם. ורב אשי אמ[ר]: מזל גורם
b. Yebamot 64b Rav Mordechai said to Rav Ashi: Thus said Avimi from Hagrunia in the name of Rav Huna: “Her maʿayan (“spring,” i.e., uterus) is the cause.” [12] But Rav Ashi said: “Mazal (“astrological constellation”) is the cause.”

Rav Huna sees the death of the husbands as due to something in her body; the sex kills him.[13] Rav Ashi sees it as an astrological problem, she was born under the wrong constellation. Such belief in the power of the stars and their movements to affect the affairs of humankind was widespread in Jewish antiquity.[14]

From the close of the Babylonian Talmud until the 12th century, Jewish sources such as responsa rarely mention the qatlanit. Avraham Grossman of Hebrew University understands this silence as general acceptance that such a woman was forbidden to marry a third husband.[15]

Maimonides: Working around the “Killer-Wife” Rule

Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) is the first to take on the subject in detail.[16] In his halakhic compendium,  the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides includes the ruling prohibiting marriage to a twice-widowed woman, but offers a leniency not found in the Talmud:

משנה תורה—ספר קדושה, הלכות איסורי ביאה כא:לא אשה שנשאת לשני אנשים ומתו, לשלישי לא תנשא ואם נשאת לא תצא, ואפילו נתקדשה יכנוס.
Mishneh Torah—Sefer Qedushah, “Forbidden Relations” 21:31 When a woman was married to two husbands and they both died, she should not marry a third. If she did marry, she need not be divorced. Indeed, even if he merely consecrated her, he may consummate the marriage.

In his collected responsa, a questioner describes a sad case of a twice widowed woman who was being prohibited from marrying again:  

שו"ת הרמב"ם טו אח"כ בא מי שביקש לישא האלמנה לאשה והלכה אצל בית הדין לשאול אותם עצה על זאת. ומנעוה (בית הדין) מן הנשואין ואמרו לה: את קטלנית, שהרי נפטרו עמך שני בעלים.
Responsa Rambam §15 Afterwards, someone appeared who wished to take the widow as his wife, and she went to the court to ask about policy for this, and they prevented her from remarrying and said to her: “You are a qatlanit, for two husbands died while with you.”
ונשארה האשה במצוקה באלה הימים הקשים של רעב, לא יכלה ליטול דבר מן הקרקע, שהניח בעלה, להתפרנס בו ולא יכלה להינשא לאיש, שיזון אותה פרוסה של פת.
And the woman remained in desperate straights, during these days of famine, and she could not produce anything from the fields her husband left her, or to make any living off it, and she could not marry another man to support her with a slice of bread.

Maimonides expresses sympathy for her plight and offers a trick solution, based on the principle he established in the Mishnah Torah that once they are betrothed they can continue on and marry:

שו"ת הרמב"ם טו התשובה אם יקדשנה מישהו בפני שנים, תופסין הקדושין ויכתוב לה אח"כ כתובה בבית הדין ותנשא בבית הדין. וראוי להקל באלה העניינים ושיעמיד הדיין פני מתעלם מהם בגלוי לפי שהדקדוק בזה העניין הקל מביא לעניינים חמורים מאד,
Responsa Rambam §15 The answer is that if someone betroths her before two witnesses, the betrothal holds, and he should then write her a ketubah in the court and marry her in the court. And it is fitting to be lenient about such things, and that the judge should turn a blind eye in public, because being scrupulous about this unimportant thing brings about very serious consequences.

In another responsum, Maimonides expresses frustration at a questioner who seems to take the qatlanit problem seriously. Here he goes so far as to deny the existence of a real prohibition, seeing the prohibition as not an absolute rule, but as just a suggested practice, dismissing the fear that they are dangerous:

והיותר תימה בשאלה הוא השוואתכם ספק נפשות הבא בידים, שדוחה מילה, לספק נפשות, שחוששים לו על דרך הניחוש והכישוף והדמיונות והדימויים.

Your question is extra bewildering, since you equate something considered mortally dangerous based on real actions, which pushes off circumcision,[17] to a possibly dangerous situation based on fear of divination, sorcery, and other matters of imagination.

Maimonides’ dismissal of the danger of the qatlanit fits with his overall dismissal of superstition. As a physician and philosopher influenced by Greek and Islamic science, Maimonides rejected belief in the hidden supernatural powers that were normally thought to constitute the “true” causes of disease and death.[18] Thus, the Rambam considers the qatlanit problem only one of propriety, not a prohibition nor a danger, and continues by noting how keeping this practice could backfire:

שו"ת הרמב"ם ריח והלכה למעשה אצלנו בכל ארצות אנדלוס תמיד, (שאם) ימות לאשה בעל אחר בעל, מספר בעלים, היא לא תימנע מלהנשא, ביחוד כשהיא בשנות הבחרות, בגלל ההפסד שיש לחשוש בזה.
Responsa Rambam §218 The practice in all the cities of Andalusia is when a woman loses her first and second husbands, she is not prevented from marrying, and especially so if she is young, for one can fear the possibility of unfortunate consequences (i.e., that she would engage in sexual liaisons).[19]

In Provence, where rationalism held sway, this permissive view was supported by R. Avraham of Montpellier (d. 1315), who, in his commentary on Yebamot (ad loc.), tried to make Maimonides dismissive viewpoint fit with the Talmudic passage.[20]

Push Back in Spain: The Strict View

Other Spanish rabbis rejected Maimonides’ permissive approach.[21] For example, Rabbi Meir Halevi Abulafia (Ramah, d. 1244) treats such marriages as a matter of life and death, and prohibits absolutely marriage to a twice-widowed woman:

ומה שאמרו נשאת לראשון ומת לשני ומת לשלישי לא תנשא הלכה היא ומי שירצה לעבור על זה מונעים אותו
That which they said (b. Yebamot 64b): “If a woman marries a man and he dies, and she marries a second man and he dies, she may not be married to a third husband” this is halakha (an absolute ruling), and whoever wishes to violate it should be stopped.
ואם אמר אני רוצה לסכן בעצמי אין שומעין לו שאין לו רשות לאבד עצמו ואין ראוי לנו להניחו לעשות זה בפרט הואיל ואסרו אותו חז"ל והנה היה זה מכלל הדברי' האסורים שאין ראוי לשום אדם לעבור עליהם גם אין מניחין אותו לעבור עליהם.
And if he said: “I wish to take the risk myself” we do not pay attention to him, for he has no right to commit suicide, and it is not fitting for us to allow him to, especially since the Sages forbade it. This is an example of forbidden practice that no man should ever violate, and we do not allow anyone to violate.[22]

Nahmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman [Ramban], ca. 1195–ca. 1270), in his commentary on Genesis 38:11, also takes the qatlanit prohibition as binding.  This is consistent with his belief in the influence of mystical forces.[23] He thus expresses confusion as to why Judah feels the need to pretend that he will allow Shelah to marry Tamar when such a thing is forbidden given that she is twice widowed:

ולא ידעתי למה יתבייש יהודה המושל בדורו מן האשה הזאת, ולא יאמר אליה לכי לשלום מביתי, ולמה יטעה אותה והיא אסורה לשלה, כמו שאמרו (בבלי כתובות מג:): בנשואין בתרי זמני הויא חזקה.
I don’t understand why Judah, the ruler of his generation, would be embarrassed in front of this woman, and not tell her to just leave his house in peace. For why would he deceive her when she is forbidden to Shelah? As they say (b. Ketubot 43b), “in marriage, two times creates a legal assumption.”

Similarly, in response to a questioner who says that he has heard others allow a twice widowed woman to remarry, Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo ibn Aderet, d.1310) writes that איני יודע על מי סמך המתיר הזה “I don’t know on what basis this person allowed it.”[24] He then discusses what Maimonides wrote, and states: זה אינו בגמ[רא] ולא ראיתי לזולתו שכתב כן “this is not in the Gemara and I don’t know of anyone else who wrote thus.”[25]

R. Yom Tov of Seville (Ritva, ca. 1260–ca. 1340) takes a similarly strict position (commentary on Yebamot ad loc.), and refers to his own teacher, R. Aharon Halevi (Ra’ah, ca. 1235 – ca. 1290) as precedent:

הלכך גבי נשואין דסכנתא אזלינן לחומרא... ובנשואין אף על גב דבעי למינסב איתתא קטלנית וליזוק בנפשיה לא שבקינן ליה דהא איסור הוא ובכלל שופך דם האדם באדם ומנדים אותו ב[ית] ד[ין] עד שיגרש, וכן ראיתי לרבינו [אהרן] הר[יני כפרת] מ[שכבו] ז"ל עושה מעשה.
Therefore, with respect to marriage, which is a danger, we are strict… so for marriage, even if he wants to marry a qatlanit and accept the danger upon himself, we don’t allow him, since it is forbidden, and is under the category of (Gen 9:6) “one who spills the blood of a person by a person,”[26] and the court excommunicates him until he divorces here. And this is what I saw our teacher [Aharon]—may I be the atonement for his passing—of blessed memory, do in practice.

As strict as the halakhic tradition of these Spanish sages is, the mystical approach of the Zohar, an Aramaic-language library of mystical comments on the Torah, composed in Spain in the last quarter of the 13th century, is even stricter, discouraging the re-marriage of a widow after the death of her first husband.[27]   

Even First Time Widows: The Zohar

According to the Zohar, after his death, the spirit of the first husband remains inextricably attached to his wife, and aims to kill the second husband:

זוהר—שמות, משפטים [מרגליות] ב:קב. שאר בני נשא דעלמא דקא אסתלקו מניה ושבקו רוחא בההוא מאנא דהוו משתמשי ביה ואתנסיבת ואתא אחרא ואעיל בההוא מאנא רוחא אחרא מה אתעביד מההוא קדמאה?
Zohar—Exodus, Mishpatim [Pritzker ed.] Other people who have departed from the world, leaving a spirit in the vessel that they used – if she marries and another comes and infuses another spirit in that vessel, what becomes of the first one...
...רוחא קדמאה מקטרגא בהאי רוח דעאל ולא אתיישבן כחדא, ובגיני כך אתתא לא אתיישבת כדקא יאות בהדי בעלה תניינא, בגין דרוחא קדמאה מכשכשא בה וכדין איהי דכירת ליה תדיר ובכאת עליה או אתאנחת עליה דהא רוחא דיליה מכשכשא במעהא כחויא ומקטרגא בהדי רוח אחרא דעאל בה מבעלה תנינא, עד זמן סגי מקטרגין דא בדא, ואי אעבר דא דעאל לההוא (אתערו) דהוה קדמאה (לבתר) דא קדמאה נפיק ואזיל ליה,
…The first spirit denounces this inflowing spirit, and they cannot dwell calmly together. Therefore, a woman does not settle fittingly with her second husband, because the first spirit pulsates within her, so she remembers him constantly and weeps or sighs over him, since his spirit rattles in her belly like a snake, denouncing the other, incoming spirit. For a long time, they assail one another.
ולזמנין דדחי דא קדמאה לההוא תניינא ואתעביד ליה מקטרגא עד דאפיק ליה מעלמא, ועל דא תנינן דמתרין ולהלאה לא יסב בר נש להאי אתתא דהא מלאך המות אתתקף בה...
Sometimes, this first one repels the second one, becoming his accuser, finally removing him from the world. Concerning this we have learned that from two [husbands] on, a man should not marry this woman, for the Angel of Death is empowered within her....
ומאן דנסיב ארמלתא כמאן דעאל בימא ברוחין תקיפין בלא חבלין ולא ידע אי יעבר בשלם אי יטבע גו תהומי.
He who marries a widow is like one who sets to sea in fierce winds and hurricanes without ropes, not knowing whether he will cross safely or drown in the deep.[28]

Later, the Zohar indicates that if she does not remarry, the souls of husband and wife will reunite in paradise, reflecting the desirability of the wife awaiting reunion with her husband’s soul.

Leniency for Widows after the Black Plague and Persecutions

Despite the influence of mysticism and traditionalism, circumstances in the 14th and 15th centuries made the legal rulings regarding the qatlanit of even greater importance. The Black Death ravaged Europe, killing perhaps a third of its population in the mid-14th century, while the religious violence in Spain following 1391 surely left thousands of women bereaved. Moreover, if a woman’s husband died as a martyr or in a plague when thousands of others shared the same fate, how is this attributable to his wife?

The tragic vicissitudes of Jewish and general history motivated rabbis to create exceptions to the prohibition, so that plagues and martyrdom would not count regarding the widow’s status. No doubt these rabbis saw in their own communities women (maybe their own daughters or sisters!) repeatedly widowed by anti-Jewish violence and epidemic illness.

Thus, Rabbi Hasdai Crescas (d. 1410), a Spanish philosopher and community leader, whose son died in the anti-Jewish riots of 1391, ruled that a man dying as a martyr does not make his wife a qatlanit.[29] Similarly, Ribash (Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet, d.1408; responsa §241–243) minimized the danger of marrying a qatlanit, saying (§241) דעת הרמב"ם ז"ל נראה יותר נכון, “the opinion of Maimonides seems more correct.”[30]

Ribash compares such a case to when an epidemic decimates the crops of a certain region: the misfortune is not imputed to the bad luck of the man who rented a certain field therein (b. Baba Metzia 105b). Thus, when a disaster strikes many people, as in the riots of 1391, the mazal (“astrological signs at birth”) of the qatlanit is not judged to be a determinant, so that she may remarry.[31]

Modern Problems with the Qatlanit Law

As scientific thought became more pronounced in the modern world, Jewish legal decisors pushed further on the path of leniency. First, as people live much longer, the prohibition of remarriage for a twice-widowed woman is rejected if one of her husbands lived to an advanced age, that is, his seventies or eighties. Moreover, modern halakhic authorities become increasingly concerned with the loneliness of old age.

Eretz Hemdah, the Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, discusses a case concerning an 86-year-old Jew in Buenos Aires Argentina who was very lonely after the death of his wife. His psychologist told him to find a new girlfriend, so he befriended a twice-widowed woman who was 78 years old, and now they want to marry. Is there reason to fear that she is a qatlanit?

במראה הבזק ד:קכו נישואי הזוג מותרים, ואין לאישה דין "קטלנית" בהתקיים אחד משני התנאים הבאים: א. אם נישואי האלמנה עם אחד מבעליה נמשכו כמה שנים בבריאות; ב. אם אחד מבעליה מת בגיל מתקדם (שבעים שנה ומעלה). ואם אחד מבעליה מת בדרך לא-טבעית, כגון בתאונת-דרכים, אין מוחים ביד המתיר.
BeMareh HaBazak 4:126 The marriage is allowed and the woman does not have the status of a qatlanit if one of the following two conditions is fulfilled: a. if one of the widow’s marriages lasted several years in good health; b. if one of her husbands died at an advanced age (minimum age 70). If one of her husbands died in an unnatural way, such as in a car accident, we do not object to those who are lenient.[32]

Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wosner (d.2015), a prominent Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbi in Bnei Brak, answered an inquiry about a woman who was thrice widowed: her first husband committed suicide, her second husband, who was over 70, died in a car accident, and her third husband was over 80 when he died a natural death. He responds that she may remarry:

שו"ת שבט הלוי ח:רסח וידוע דיש מקילים גם למעלה משישים, והשלישי למעלה משמונים סו[ף] ד[בר] אין חשש כלל.
Responsa Shevet HaLevi 8:268 It is known that one may be lenient when one of her husbands was older than 60, and the third husband was over 80 so there is no fear of remarriage.[33]

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d.1986), a leading halakhist of the twentieth century, was asked regarding a woman whose first husband died at the age of 48, and after 15 years of singlehood, she married a man who was 74 and he died at almost 80 years of age. He writes that it is “right” that she marry a third husband:

שו"ת אגרות משה אבן העזר ד:מג אך אף אם לא נכנס לשנת השמונים יש לסמוך להקל.
Responsa Iggerot Moshe EH 4:43 Despite the fact that he was not yet 80, there is reason to be lenient.[34]

The Biblical Precedent for Leniency

The move to leniency over the past millennium, and especially in modern times, is based on considerations such as science and longevity, but ample precedent already exists in the story of Judah and Tamar. The Torah is clear that Judah’s belief that Tamar posed a mortal danger to the men of his household was completely at odds with the Torah’s viewpoint that his sons were responsible for their own demise. Indeed, not only is Tamar completely innocent, but her bold and life-affirming response to Judah’s injustice earns her an honorable place in the genealogy of King David (Gen 38:29, Ruth 4:18-22). It is ironic that the oldest source offers perhaps the most enlightened viewpoint regarding the twice-widowed woman.


January 28, 2024


Last Updated

February 25, 2024


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Dr. Elaine Goodfriend is a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and the Jewish Studies Program at California State University, Northridge. She has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from U.C. Berkeley. Among her publications are “Food in the Hebrew Bible,” in Food and Jewish Traditions (forthcoming) and “Leviticus 22:24: A Prohibition of Gelding for the Land of Israel?”