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Monday, December 12, 2005

How do you tell if a woman is a virgin?

The gemara in Kesubos 10b has the following story. A newly married couple came to Raban Gamliel. The husband claimed that his wife had not been a virgin, she claimed that not only was she a virgin but she is still a virgin. Raban Gamliel performed the following test to determine if she was a virgin.

He took 2 women, 1 a virgin 1 not and had them sit on a barrel of wine. While sitting on the barrel he smelled their breath. The non-virgin's breath smelled like wine (because the odor of the wine went in through the opening and out through her mouth) while the virgin's breath did not smell of wine (because the odor of the wine could not get in because she was a virgin). He then performed the same test on the newly married woman and as her breath did not smell of wine proclaimed her a virgin.

This story is brought down l'halacha in Shulchan Aruch (Even Haezer Siman 68) and is discussed by the early Acharonim.

The difficulty with the story should be obvious to everyone, we know now that this kind of test proves nothing and in fact is based on a completely false physiological premise. The fact that this story is quoted l'halacha further complicates the issue as the gemara clearly needs to be taken literally.

It seems clear to me that Chazal were relying on the medical knowledge of their day and that this test is not Torah M'Sinai.

Update


Here a few additional relevant points which hopefully make things a little clearer.

1. Before doing the test on the woman in question R"G first tried it out on 2 women whose status he knew. There is a machlokes harishonim whether l'halacha we need to follow the example of R"G and test that the method actually works. Clearly according to those rishonim who believe we need to test first there is nothing to talk about nowadays.
2. If you look in shulchan aruch you will see that some of the acharonim already discuss that this test did not work in their day (I saw one suggestion that our wine is not strong enough), and therefore today this test is clearly not valid.
3. The Rambam when he brings down this halacha does not mention the specific test that R"G did, rather the Rambam just writes בודקין אותה, from the Rambam's omission of the one specific test found in the gemara one can possibly infer that the Rambam felt that the wine test did not work.

13 Comments:

At 2:56 PM, Anonymous daat y said...

excellent.It would be interesting to compile a list.This does not take away from the gadlus of chazal.hOW COULD THEY KNOW MORE THAN THE SCIENCEOF THEIR DAY.iT ALSO SHOWS THE IMPORTANCE THAT THEY GAVE TO SCIENCE.

 
At 4:21 PM, Anonymous MNR said...

That's one crazy gemara!

 
At 5:03 PM, Anonymous Bill Selliger said...

It seems clear to me that Chazal were relying on the medical knowledge of their day and that this test is not Torah M'Sinai.

Ok, that's nice. Do you have an alternative explanation? Are you suggesting that this test should not be performed today? Was the gemara just plain wrong? If a Beis Din would follow the Shulchan Aruch and perform this test today, and pasken based on the results of the test, would they be required to remunerate the plaintiff?

 
At 5:29 PM, Blogger bluke said...

Bill,

A few points.

1. Before doing the test on the woman in question R"G first tried it out on 2 women whose status he knew. There is a machlokes harishonim whether l'halacha we need to follow the example of R"G and test that the method actually works. Clearly according to those rishonim who believe we need to test first there is nothing to talk about nowadays.
2. If you look in shulchan aruch you will see that some of the acharonim already discuss that this test did not work in their day (I saw one suggestion that our wine is not strong enough), and therefore today this test is clearly not valid.
3. The Rambam when he brings down this halacha does not mention the specific test that R"G did, rather the Rambam just writes בודקין אותה, from the Rambam's omission of the one specific test found in the gemara one can possibly infer that the Rambam felt that the wine test did not work.

As to your question was the gemara just wrong, I would answer that they based this test on the faulty knowledge of their time and yes it was wrong. Just like, when Chazal (Bava Basra 25b) described the movement of the sun as going around the Earth and the Earth having a roof and the sun going behind the roof (see my post Chazal and Mistakes in Science) which is strikingly similar to the way the people of that time understood it. I have no other way of understanding this gemara. If you have a different way of understanding this gemara please tell me.

I would like to stress, I am not trying to denigrate Chazal. I have the utmost respect for Chazal. We are midgets standing on the shoulders of giants. We are nowhere near their level in ruchniyos. However, we can't bury our hands in the sand and ignore these statements of Chazal.

 
At 5:48 PM, Anonymous Bill Selliger said...

It didn't occur to me that you were attempting to malign or otherwise denigrate Chazal. From experience I know that ain zu darkecha. It just sounded like you came up with this idea by yourself, which was troublesome. For this reason, I think that the 3 points above should be included in the post.

Thanks for the explanation.

 
At 5:52 PM, Blogger bluke said...

It is always a question of how much detail to include in a post and when a post is too long. I did not want to get too bogged down in the details.

 
At 2:31 AM, Anonymous Manny said...

"We are midgets standing on the shoulders of giants. We are nowhere near their level in ruchniyos."

Yes, and the converse is also true. Chazal had not the tiniest fraction of our level of knowledge in the gashmius workings of the universe (i.e., science.)

 
At 12:49 PM, Blogger bluke said...

Even in science we are midgets standing on the shoulders of giants

 
At 7:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This might be a case of Halacha LMoshe Misinai. After the war with Midian, Moshe was angry at his army for allowing the women to live; as they were responsible for the plague that befell Israel. And the Gemorah relates ( sorry I dont remember the source), that this method with the wine barrel was used to determine which of the Midianite women were allowed to live.

 
At 8:35 PM, Blogger bluke said...

Not exactly. The Gemara in Yevamos 60b says that by Midian they checked the women with the Tzitz. The gemara then brings the case from Yavesh Gilad (in Shoftim) where the gemara says that they used this method of the wine barrel.

 
At 5:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think there is a midrash like this with midian.

I always thought it was meant to test whether he had some kind of facility or ruach hakodesh, possibly that is a creative reading, but it never made sense to me that they truly believed this. After all, what about other openings in the body.

 
At 7:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it possible that what R'Gamliel was doing was trying to be me'ayem her, like with the mei sotah? When she agreed to go through with the test, he had more confidence to believe in her story?

 
At 11:36 AM, Blogger bluke said...

No, if you read the gemara you see that this is not the context at all.

 

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