In the story of Tamar, whose union with Yehuda ultimately founded the Davidic lineage, we learn that she was widowed from her first two husbands, both sons of Yehuda. While Yehuda was originally reluctant to have her wed his third son, the Torah states that after the events, Yehuda himself, “was not intimate with her any more” (Bereishis 38:26). According to one opinion of the Sages (see Sotah 10b), this means that Yehuda married her.
The remarkable series of events recalls the halachic principle of a katlanis—a woman who is widowed twice and may not remarry for fear of endangering her third husband. Rashi explains that Yehuda did not agree for Tamar to marry his third son because she had established a chazaka (a legal assumption) that her husband will die. Yehuda, however, seems to have been less concerned for this matter with regard to himself. He married Tamar even though her two previous husbands had died.
In the present article we will discuss the matter of the isha katlanis, a woman who, as it were, kills her husbands. Is there a full prohibition against marrying a woman who was widowed twice? Does one have to divorce such a woman if the marriage nonetheless takes place? What is the halacha if the husbands who died were elderly? And does the principle apply for husbands who were sinners?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Source of the Prohibition
The Gemara (Yevamos 64b) cites a dispute among Tana’im concerning a woman who was widowed twice. According to Rebbi, the fact that she was widowed twice suffices to create a chazaka, an assumption that the woman is a katlanis, such that she must not marry a third man. According to Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel, however, only a woman who was widowed three times becomes a katlanis and is forbidden to marry a fourth time.
The Gemara proceeds to rule (citing Rava) according to Rebbi’s opinion: a woman who was widowed twice is forbidden to marry a third time. Elsewhere, the Gemara (Kesubos 43b) adds that the opinion of the Mishnah likewise follows the stringent opinion of Rebbi.
The Gemara’s ruling is echoed by the Rif (Kesubos 15a), and likewise by the Rambam, who states: “If a woman was widowed from two men she may not marry again” (Hilchos Isurei Bi’ah 21:31). The Rosh (Yevamos 6:13) explains that while for other matters there is a doubt concerning how a chazaka is created—whether by something occurring twice or three times—in matters of danger, including circumcision and the halacha of a katlanis, we follow the opinion that minimizes danger (see also Nimmukei Yosef, Kesubos 15a).
Following these rulings, the Shulchan Aruch rules that “if a woman was married to two men and they died, she may not marry a third, for her chazaka is that her husbands die” (Even Ha’Ezer 9:1).
While all Poskim agree that it is forbidden to marry a woman who was widowed twice, the Rambam adds that once married, a person does not have to divorce her: “If she married a third husband, she may remain with him.” This ruling is echoed by the Shulchan Aruch, who adds that even if only kiddushin was performed, it is permitted to complete the marriage.
This is a significant chiddush, and a ruling that seems questionable: if it is forbidden to marry a katlanis out of fear for lethal danger, why is there no obligation to separate after marriage?
In fact, the Nimmukei Yosef (Kesubos 15a, citing the Ritva) writes in no uncertain terms that there is an obligation to divorce and that Beis Din must enforce this: “We do not allow one to marry a katlanis and harm himself. This is forbidden, and it is akin to suicide. Beis Din thus excommunicates him until he divorces her.” Similarly, the Rosh rules that on account of the danger involved, we coerce the couple to divorce. This is also the ruling of the Gra (Even Ha’Ezer 9, 2).
What then is the source and the understanding of the Rambam’s ruling?
The Beis Yosef suggests that since the Gemara did not note that a person must divorce after marriage, this implies that the prohibition does not extend this far.
Alternatively, he notes an anecdote mentioned by the Gemara (Yevamos 26a) concerning Abaye, who married Choma, a woman who was widowed twice. Although he heard from his masters, Rabah and Rav Yosef, that this was forbidden, he nonetheless did not divorce her. Moreover, the Gemara records that Rava was shocked to hear of the union, stating: “Does anybody jeopardize his life in this way?” Nonetheless, he did not instruct Abaye to divorce his wife.
Source from Yehuda and Tamar
The Vilna Gaon (Biur HaGra 9:2) suggests that the source of the Rambam’s ruling is from Yehuda, who married Tamar (according to one opinion in Sotah 10b) even though she was widowed twice. This indicates that after marriage, it is permitted to remain with a woman even if she was married and widowed twice.
Yet there is room to discuss this proof, given that Yehuda’s marriage to Tamar was a form of yibum, a levirate marriage that is a mitzvah. Based on the commentary of the Ramban on the Torah, it is clear that the concern for a katlanis applies even where there is a mitzvah to marry her. This is similarly applied to cases of yibum by Shut Chacham Tzvi (1:1) and the Birchei Yosef (Even Ha’Ezer 9).
However, other authorities write that where the mitzvah of yibum applies the concern of katlanis does not apply (Shut Ralnach 36; Shut R. Eliyahu Mizrachi 1:22; see Pitchei Teshuva, Even Ha’Ezer 9 who mentions both opinions). According to this opinion, there will be no proof from the case of Yehuda and Tamar to a regular case of a katlanis.
Note that if a husband does decide to divorce a wife who was widowed twice, Poskim dispute whether someone nowadays can do so against her will, or whether he is beholden to the enactment of Rabbeinu Gershom. While the Chelkas Mechokek (9:1) rules that he cannot divorce her against her will, the Beis Shmuel (9:3) rules that in cases of danger, the enactment does not apply.
Reason for the Katlanis Law
What is the cause of the danger?
The Gemara notes two opinions concerning the reason for the katnalis halacha:
Rav Huna maintains that ma’ayan gorem, meaning that when two husbands of the same woman die, we assume that they died of a sexually transmitted disease carried by the woman. Rav Ashi, on the other hand, maintains that mazal gorem, meaning that the woman is afflicted with bad mazal, bad luck, which caused her husbands’ demise.
One ramification mentioned by the Gemara of this dispute is whether the law of katlanis applies even to husbands who died after kiddushin but before marriage. As noted above, the Shulchan Aruch refers specifically to marriage, nisu’in, rather than to betrothal, kiddushin. Based on the premise of ma’ayan gorem, there is no concern for the transmission of a disease before the marriage is consummated. The Rashba (Meyuchasos 121) indeed rules that ma’ayan gorem, and for this reason he is lenient in cases in which a husband died after kiddushin, but before nisu’in.
The Rema, however, adds that the law applies even before nisu’in, from the time of kiddushin, implying that mazal gorem.
Another ramification mentioned by the Gemara is for somebody who, for example, falls off a tree and dies. Clearly, his demise is unrelated to a transmitted disease, so that if we assume ma’ayan gorem this will not establish her as a katlanis.
The Rashba thus rules that since ma’ayan garam, it follows that if one of the husbands died of an unrelated cause—falling off a tree, or an unrelated illness—this will not constitute a katlanis. According to the Rema, even such cases will fall under the katlanis category. Nonetheless, the Rema mentions the ruling of the Rashba, stating that “some say” that “if one was killed, died through plague, fell from the roof or similar matters, we are not concerned.”
Although the main ruling of the Rema is that mazal gorem, the Vilna Gaon (9:6) explains that the Rema nevertheless cites the ruling of the Rashba, since he wishes to explain why many are lenient on the matter of katlanis, as he concludes: “Therefore, many are lenient about these matters; and we do not protest this.”
The Extent of Bad Luck
Based on the concept of mazal gorem, that the woman’s bad luck brings about her husbands’ death, we find an interesting leniency of the Noda Biyhuda (Shut Noda Biyhuda, Kama, Even Ha’Ezer 9).
Citing the Rosh (53:8), he explains that the concept of “bad luck” refers to a woman’s financial state: since she relies on her husband for her income, her bad luck causes him to die, to ensure that she lives a life of poverty and want. Based on this explanation, he reasons that if a woman is independent and self-sufficient, so that the death of her husband does not imply poverty for her, it follows that the katlanis halacha will not apply. He does not rely on this leniency by itself, but if there are other reasons to be lenient this helps.
Several Poskim mention other leniencies based on the concept of mazal gorem. One such leniency is noted by Shut Sho’el Umeishiv (Tinyana 3:83). If the concept of katlanis relates to the woman’s mazal, it follows that if she moves to the Land of Israel after her first husbands die, she loses her status of katlanis and is permitted to remarry. The reason for this is that a person’s mazal in the Land of Israel is inherently different from his mazal outside of the Land of Israel.
A third leniency is noted by Rav Shlomo Kluger (Chochmas Shlomo, Even Ha’Ezer 9:1), who writes that if a father betroths his daughter to a husband as a minor and her husband died, this does not count toward the katlanis status. The reason is that it is possible that the father’s mazal, rather than the girl’s mazal, is responsible for the death.
Even for cases of death due to plague, the Rivash (as cited by the Beis Yosef) writes that if a significant portion of the city died from the plague, this cannot be attributed to her mazal (based on Bava Metzia 105b).
What is the halacha concerning an elderly husband? Does the halacha of katlanis refer specifically to a husband’s untimely death, indicating that it was possibly caused by his wife, or does it apply even to somebody who dies in old age and after a long and full life?
The Darchei Moshe writes (saying “some say”) that “if one of the husbands was old, he does not count towards making her a katlanis.” The Rema does not rule this in his annotations to the Shulchan Aruch, leading the Pachad Yitzchak (Katlanis) to state that the halacha does not strictly follow this view (it is only one opinion), and one who is concerned should be wary.
However, the Beis Shmuel (9:6) cites the ruling, and many later Poskim, including Rav Moshe Feinstein (Even Ha’ezer 4:43) assume that there is a distinction between a young husband’s death, and that of an elderly man.
Thus, Shut Maharam Shick (Even Ha’ezer 23) rules that if the husband who dies is “extremely old,” this will certainly not count toward the katlanis status. Otzar HaPoskim (Even Ha’ezer 9:1) and the Pischei Teshuva (9:2) note many opinions concerning the age at which a person is considered “elderly” for this purpose, which generally range from 60 to 80. Decisions in actual cases often depend on a range of factors, age being only one of them.
Tendency to Leniency
The Kesef Mishneh notes that in a teshuva (Pe’er Hador 146), the Rambam writes that the entire issue of katlanis is not an actual danger or prohibition, but rather a human reaction (he calls it a form of nichush) of fear and panic prone to strike weak people. Due to this understanding, the Rambam writes that the custom is for women to get married even after the death of two husbands.
The Rambam further states that this is all the more correct for young women, for whom remaining single for the rest of their lives will involve both extreme emotional pain and a strong concern that they might fall into sin. The Rambam adds that this was also the practice of the batei din of the Rif and R. Yosef HaLevi, and that this is also the custom in Egypt.
Also citing the Rambam, Maharam Alashker (no. 79) writes that “in all cities of Sefard we permit a young katlanis to marry, lest she turn to promiscuity.”
The Or Zarua (738) likewise writes that the issue of katlanis for the third husband is not a full prohibition, but is rather a “concern,” a chashash be’alma, which one is not obligated to observe. He proves the point from the case of Abaye, who was not concerned to marry a twice-widowed woman, and from the general custom to not be concerned for the matter.
Moreover, the Terumas HaDeshen (no. 211) writes that even God-fearing sages are not careful about this matter, and that rabbinic authorities do not enforce it. The Beis Yosef raises the difficulty of this ruling in the light of Poskim such as the Rosh, who writes that we coerce her third husband to divorce her, and notes that even the Rambam—in his halachos—forbids a katlanis to marry lechatchila.
The Beis Yosef proceeds to note that perhaps people rely on the Or Zarua, as noted above. He adds that since many rely on this, we can say that “Shomer Pesa’im Hash-m.” Especially nowadays that Yisrael is few in number, we must marry when we can.
Shulchan Aruch rules that if a woman married twice and both her husbands died she is considered a katlanis – a woman who kills her husbands, and out of concern that her mazal is causing their deaths we do not permit her to remarry.
Husbands who are Sinners
An additional question discussed by Poskim is the matter of husbands who are sinners. The first source for this matter is the commentary of the Ramban on the episode of Tamar and Yehuda: the Ramban writes that since Tamar’s husbands sinned, their deaths cannot be attributed to Tamar, and therefore she did not have the status of a katlanis.
The question of husbands who were not pious in their ways is taken up by later authorities, who address concrete cases in which a woman was widowed twice from husbands who were not observant Jews.
Rav Shlomo of Skole, the Beis Shlomo, suggested that this categorization is appropriate only if the husbands were not sinners but if the husbands were sinners it is more logical to assume that it was their mazal that caused their deaths and therefore she does not acquire the status of a katlanis.
Rav Meir Arik, the Minchas Pitim, cites as proof to this position the statement of Ramban regarding Tamar. Ramban writes that although Tamar’s first two husbands died she did not acquire the status of a katlanis since they were sinners. Accordingly, Rav Mordechai Yaakov Breish, the Chelkas Yaakov, ruled leniently on behalf of a woman whose first husband died in a car accident and the second in a plane crash because it was clear that the husbands were not observant and we can assume it was their mazal that caused their deaths rather than hers.
Rav Chaim Halberstam, the Divrei Chaim, disagreed claiming that we have no way to know with certainty that it was the husband’s mazal, even if he was wicked, rather than hers that caused his death. He demonstrates this principle from a Gemara which relates the vision of R’ Elazar ben Pedas in his dream where Hashem asked whether he wants the world to start again from the beginning and perhaps he will be born with a better mazal. Tosafos demonstrates from this that at times a person’s behavior may not be able to overcome his mazal. Divrei Chaim explains that although it is clear that a person will be rewarded or punished for his behavior, nevertheless, a person’s mazal can cause a delay in the payment of that reward or punishment. Therefore, concludes Divrei Chaim, even if the husband was wicked we cannot say with certainty that it was the husband’s mazal that caused his death.
We have seen that the matter of a katlanis, marrying a twice-widowed woman, involves much halachic discussion, in which many factors and circumstances can be relevant. These include the question of how the woman’s husbands died, the age at which they died, the matter of whether they were righteous or sinful, and even the age of the woman in question. Furthermore, when the katlanis is a young woman, Poskim have an even stronger tendency toward leniency. Of course, all concrete cases must be referred to expert authorities who are capable of weighing up the halachic sides of the matter with the requisite gravity.