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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Yevamot 37b and Yoma 18b -- “Who Will Be Mine for a Day?” Temporary Marriage or legitimate prostitution?

     Can any married American man imagine himself living in a culture where it is completely legitimate to openly engage in a sexual relationship with another woman while on a business trip? Being accustomed to monogamy and shunning adultery, perhaps some of the married men I know would have preferred to live in the Talmudic times.

     While there is a tendency to down-play intimate information because of shame or modesty, we will see in the passages below that the Babylonian Talmud's redactors show no moral disapproval for extramarital relationship and admit that sexual urges have to be fulfilled even when it involves infidelity. Thus, they openly talk about great Torah sages, Rav and Rav Nahman, who would travel as part of their work to other Babylonian towns. Rav would come to Darshish, and Rav Nahman would come to Shkentziv. They would send their entourage ahead of time to choose for them a woman for the day.

     In Yoma 18b we read bizarre and incomprehensible incidents: 

When Rav came to Darshish, he announced, ‘Who will be [mine] for a day?’ When Rav Nahman came to Shkentziv, he announced, ‘Who will be [mine] for a day?’ 
     Imagine; in a distant foreign city, the rabbi cannot stay alone for a few days and he meets with a woman he does not know. He is with a new body, with new passion. She has no idea what this man’s weaknesses are, like his wife does. She sees him at his best!! Like in the fairy tale of Scheherazade, the Persian King demanded a new woman/virgin every day without getting to know her. These rabbis are looking for a sexual encounter. But – who knows… maybe there was one woman, whose name will never be mentioned in the Talmud, that a rabbi fell in love with, just like we read at the end of the Scheherazade’s story…

      There are many questions that can be asked;

     - What kind of relationship is meant by these words? 

     - Could it be a similar custom that the Japanese use with Geishas to entertain men on their journey?
     - What kind of compensation these women received by being the rabbi’s escort.
     - Does this practice reflect more than just promiscuity or immorality?
     - Is there no other ways to engage with a woman other than reliance on a prostitute in an unknown city?

      If you feel uncomfortable with the conduct ascribed to these rabbis, you are not alone. You got it! I think that we deal with legitimization of prostitution. But wow! Can it be so? Even the Talmud editors in Yevamot 37b were not entirely comfortable with this. They had the need to “redeem” or justify this immoral behavior. Thus, they came up with a concept called "A Marriage for a Day". “Who will be mine for a day” can be understood now as “Who will be my wife for a day?” The institution for a sexual release becomes “legal”… But – what does it say about the sanctity of marriage?

In Yevamot 37b we find the above statements of Yoma 18b repeated with a context:

     Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: A person should not marry one woman in this country and then go and marry another woman in another country lest the children of the two marriages pair up together and a brother inadvertently marry his sister.

      When Rav would visit the city of Darshish, he would announce:
"Who will be mine for a day?" And when Rav Nahman would visit the city of Shkentziv he would announce: "Who will be mine for a day?" But it is different with rabbis, because their names are well-known [thus no one would confuse the patrimony of their children].

     The rabbinic logic indicates that a marriage has to be established because the children of such unions might end up marrying their half-siblings. But why should it be a solution only for famous people such as rabbis? Because their children will be proud to say who their father is and avoid incest.

     Interesting enough, there is also a historical take on this practice which deals with a Persian custom. An account in Avodah Zarah 76b describes King Shapur who entertained two guests, Bati b. Toba and Mar Judah. Accordance to the Persian custom, the king "honored" them by sending to each a concubine. This gift was rejected by Mar Judah, but accepted by Bar Toba.
Because it caused complicated embarrassment, Rav and R. Nahman declared themselves married to a wife in the city they visited, thus helping them escape the royal "gift.

     Ruth Calderon, in her book "Hashuk. Habyit. Halev." (The market. The home. The heart). Page 69,    also raises good questions:

     ‘Why did rabbis prefer to get involved in such a complicated procedure [one-day marriage] instead of remaining anonymous and simply sleep with a prostitute? After all, we know that there is precedent in the Talmud about men who are seized by their sexual drive: "He should dress in black and wrap himself in black and go to an unknown city." Perhaps, going to a prostitute was beneath the dignity of the rabbis, therefore they were willing to use women and damage the institution of marriage?’ [Not a direct translation from Hebrew]

     These sections in the Talmud bring up again and again the way in which women were treated in those days. Not with much respect. We see nothing about their role except imagining them as being like  prostitutes. Yes. Assumptions! How did she imagine that night while anticipating the arrival of the rabbi? Maybe she was hungry and wanted the festive wedding meal? Maybe she longed to become pregnant with a son of the Rav? Who knows!

     In conclusion I also wanted to point out another lesson I see in between the lines: We know that declaring a marriage for one day goes against the main principle of a marriage. On the other hand, it illuminates the dangerous slippery slope of a relationship that could became routine and meaningless. Perhaps we could become mindful of the idea that living one day at a time to its fullest is better than routine. What therapy could it be when we discover something new in our partner and take it in to its fullest – one day at a time. What if we take our own partner to a remote city and feel as if it is a one night stand…?

(C) Rabbi Ziona Zelazo