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In Ketubos 10:, Rabban Gamliel seats a lady on a barrel of wine to test her virginity. If wine can be smelled on her breath she is not a virgin, and if not then she is; there is no odour from the lady's mouth, and so she is declared a virgin. A source from Judges, about Yavesh Gilad, is also brought down there.

The barrel of wine test appears anatomically problematic, very easy to repeat and verify, and not something I would expect to have only a peshat. I have searched the internet using Google, and checked obvious seforim, but all the perushim I have found have been literal- with some trying to provide medical justification for why a non-virgin woman would have breath smelling of wine if she sat on a wine barrel, e.g here.

Is there a non-literal interpretation of the barrel of wine test somewhere in Chazal? Does the lady, the barrel of wine, and her breath, symbolize something?

  • Why do you use a pejorative term "anatomically problematic", regarding a procedure performed by Rabban Gamliel? – IsraelReader Aug 21 '18 at 19:52
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    I modified by saying "appears". Read simply, with no perush, it is difficult to understand the mechanism, no? – Daniel Moskovich Aug 22 '18 at 7:46
  • Thank you for your modification. I’m amazed how science has taught us what the ancients already knew; the concept that blood alcohol is discernible in the person's breath. A person ingests alcohol via his stomach, and the alcohol enters his blood stream, which then reaches his lungs, which is then discernible in his breath. This is the basis of the Breathalyzer device. However the ancients knew something else, which was that alcohol can also enter the blood stream via other parts of the body, not just the stomach. – IsraelReader Aug 22 '18 at 11:46
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    If you're looking for someone who understands the Gemara ONLY in a non-literal way, you probably won't find one since this is a halachic gemara and not aggada. That being said, there are meforshim who comment why specifically wine was used and they explain that part of the story in a more aggadic manner. – Gavriel Oct 11 '18 at 11:58
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    Which Meforshim are these? What do they say? – Daniel Moskovich Oct 11 '18 at 14:40
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This bizarre incident is related to the gemara in Yevamot 60b, in which Rav Kahana claims the virgins of Yavesh Gilad from Judges 21:12 were determined as such through their breath while on a barrel of wine.

The Maharsha (R. Shmuel Eidels, 1555 – 1631) understands this scenario as linking promiscuity with drunkenness:

הכתוב שהוא מורה על הזנות ועבירה דבתולות כמ"ש זנות ויין וגו' ותירוש ינובב בתולות וק"ל

This teaches about harlotry and the transgression of virgins, as it is written, "harlotry and wine [and new wine take away from the heart]" (Hos. 4:11) and "new wine will cause maids to speak" (Zec. 9:16), which is easy to understand.

Maharsha appears to argue that a woman who transgresses by getting drunk off wine indicates that she is not considered a virgin; that drunkenness means harlotry. This reading would not consider the non-anatomic claim of barrels, which he seems to support in the scriptural passage linking maids speaking from new wine (read: over barrels of wine).

If you're looking for more explicit symbolism, R. Yaakov Shulevitz, in his commentary Chevruta, links the barrels to the hymen:

הושיבום על פי חבית של יין, ומי שהיתה בעולה, ריחה של חבית היין נודף ממנה, כיון שפיתחה למטה פתוח, ומי שהיתה בתולה, ופיתחה סתום - אין ריחה נודף

They sat them on the opening of a barrel of wine, and the one who was a non-virgin, her breath would smell like the wine from the barrel of wine - meaning to say that her opening below was open, and for the virgin it would be closed, or "her breath did not smell like wine" (Yevamot 60b)

Here, R. Shulevitz seems to suggest a symbolic equivalence (or perhaps a euphemism), in which the virgin's hymen is likened to a barrel of wine, unbroken and preserved. One might further link the color wine to the blood that chazal mark as an indicator of non-virginity, a euphemism for orifices, or perhaps that sitting on a wine barrel allows for an easier inspection.

Whatever the case, if understood literally, it should be noted that a simple reading of the rest of this gemara illustrates that this practice is disturbing. As the scholar Michael Rosenberg writes in his work Signs of Virginity: Testing Virgins and Making Men in Late Antiquity:

The fact that the sage needed to verify the tradition he had received for testing virginity...introduces doubt to the reader's mind. Rabban Gamliel b. Rabbi had "heard" of this tradition, but he had never "seen" it put into practice. If this tradition might not be reliable, what other received practices for determining a woman's virginity might not be reliable?...And the anonymous editorial voice, again in Aramaic (as opposed to the rest of the story), makes this doubt explicit: the reason Rabban Gamliel b. Rabbi added this step in the process, we are told, is because "perhaps this method is not sufficiently reliable." This, Rabban Gamliel b. Rabbi's barrel test is at one and the same time "objective" and anxiety-inducing.

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