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The Gemara says that if a woman gets married, then her husband dies; then marries another guy and is widowed from him; then once more; we then assume something about her is causing her husbands to die (three makes a pattern). The woman is considered a קטלנית, katlanit ("killer woman"), and should not marry again.

The Gemara then has two possible explanations to what's going on here:

  • Whatever is going on with this woman is metaphysical ("karma", "mazal", whatever), in which case this halacha would apply even if the first husband died of lightning strike, the second of shark attack, and the third of ... well, pick your favorite absurdity.
  • There's something medical/biochemical that this woman causes in her husbands. If so, the halacha would only apply if all three died of natural causes.

My understanding is the Gemara is saying "don't try to over-diagnose; even if you don't understand the mechanism, if it's consistently dangerous, stay away!"

Nonetheless, out of curiosity, are there any known medical conditions that could explain the phenomenon?

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Is the woman not suspected of foul play, at any stage? –  AviD May 11 '11 at 20:04
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AviD, the Gemara says it's something about her body coming into intimate contact with his that's causing the problem. No foul play. (Could be something like she's a carrier for tuberculosis but not affected by it or the like, but not that she's trying to kill her husbands!) –  Shalom May 11 '11 at 20:28
    
Interestingly, I was just reading a story like this from long ago. jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14422-tobit-book-of –  avi Nov 19 '11 at 16:14

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Short answer: Any STD.


Basis for answer:

This is discussed in the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch; Even HaEzer, Siman 9.

It seems (based on reading the commentators on the above) that there are 2 approaches in the Gemara and both are considered as valid in Halacha.

  1. Medical approach

The woman has a disease (what we'd call a STD) which results in her marital partners dying. No specific disease is named; since any STD would qualify.

If this is the cause, then she only becomes a Katlanit if her husbands die early or drop dead; but not if some of them are killed or die of old age.

This type of Katlanit is taken seriously, since "danger is more serious than prohibitions", and some Poskim would insist that the 3rd (or more) husband divorce her.

Some commentators draw a parallel with brothers or cousins who die soon after Brit Mila; since there's clearly something medical happening.

  1. Metaphysical approach

The woman does not have any medical conditions, and her husbands may die or be killed.

The reason could be one of bad Mazal or that she is destined to marry a particular person, and the other husbands or getting in the way, so to speak, and have to be disposed of.

This type of Katlanit is not taken as seriously, with the Rema (ibid 9:2) going so far as to say that "people are lenient and marry such a Katlanit" and that the husband cannot be forced to divorce her.

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Danny I'm not disagreeing with anything you wrote. Most doctors would tell you the case of "brothers all dying from circumcision" is most likely a case of hereditary hemophilia; I was asking which disease this one was most likely to be (and yes it could certainly be an STD, but do any of them fit the description more than others?) –  Shalom May 12 '11 at 20:18

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