This tractate deals primarily with complicated cases that test the Torah’s dictate that if a man dies childless, his younger brother is obligated to marry the widow (Deut. 25:5-6). Mingled with these discussions are the consideration of many other situations involving widowhood, divorce, and remarriage.
If a woman traveled abroad with her husband, and there had been peace between them, and peace in the world, and then she returned and stated, “My husband died,” then she may remarry. [If she said,] “My husband died” [in a case where they were childless], she may marry his brother. If, however, there had been a fight between him and her, or a war in the region, and she returned and stated, “My husband died,” then she is not believed. Rabbi Yehudah says, “She is never to be believed unless she appears weeping with her clothing torn.” They [i.e., the sages] said to him, “Either way [i.e., with or without the show of grief] she can remarry.”
Rabbinic law generally required two witnesses to verify a change in status, such as a married woman becoming a widow. Women were generally excluded from giving testimony. Furthermore, relatives and other people who had a personal interest in a case were also excluded from testifying. For all of these reasons, it was a great leniency that the rabbis accepted the solitary testimony of a woman to the death of her husband, and allowed her to remarry on that basis. However, even this leniency had limits. If there was prior evidence of discord between the couple, or they had been passing through a war-torn region, then there would be reason to suspect that the wife may have been less than thorough in the verification of her husband’s death. She may, for example, have seen him wounded and assumed that he had died of his wounds, having been unable to return to him on the battlefield. Rabbi Yehudah demanded an external show of grief from the widow before trusting her testimony, but the sages rejected the need or indeed the significance of such exhibits (which were presumably weeks, if not months, after the death).