Yevamot, Chapter Fifteen, Mishnah One
Chapters fifteen and sixteen deal with the acceptability of testimony concerning a womans husbands death in a case where the death occurred abroad. The consequence of accepting such testimony is that she is allowed to remarry; in cases where the husband had no children she would be allowed to have yibbum with her husbands brother.
The first few mishnayoth of this chapter deal with the wifes own testimony as to her husbands death. Generally speaking a womans testimony is unacceptable and a person cannot testify concerning their own matters. Nevertheless, in this case the wifes testimony about her own husbands death is acceptable because the rabbis did not want the woman to be unable to remarry. We should note that even in our days it is often difficult to ascertain whether someone died. This was a problem during the Shoah (the Holocaust) when nearly all witnesses to a persons death were also dead. Recently, we witnessed this phenomenon in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Verifying victims deaths took months and to a large degree relied on the testimony of those who saw them in the building or those who knew they should have been there that day. Imagine how much more difficult this must have been in the ancient world.
1) If a woman and her husband went to a country beyond the sea [at a time when there was] peace between him and her and [when there was also] peace in the world, and she came back and said, My husband is dead, she may marry again; and if she said, My husband is dead [and he had no children] she may contract yibbum.
2) If there was peace between him and her, but war in the world, [or if there was] discord between him and her, but peace in the world, and she came back and said, My husband is dead, she is not believed.
a) Rabbi Judah says: she is never believed unless she comes weeping and her garments are rent.
b) They said to him: she may marry in either case.
Section one: If at the time the couple traveled abroad there was no discord between the two of them and there were no wars being waged in the area to which they might have traveled, then she is believed to say that he died. The rabbis are suspicious that she might lie if there was discord, because by receiving permission to remarry when the husband was still alive, she would be causing herself to be prohibited to him when he returns. In such a way she could force him to divorce her. In other words, she might have a motive to lie. The reason that the rabbis are suspicious in a case where there is war, is that he might have been taken captive and she mistakenly assumed that he was dead. Therefore, if there was either discord between them or war in the world, she is not believed.
Section two: This section contains the opposites of those in section one.
Rabbi Judah disagrees with the first opinion. He holds that unless she exhibits physical signs of mourning, she is never believed, even if there was peace between her and her husband and peace in the world. The sages respond to Rabbi Judah and state that whether or not she is crying and she shows physical signs of mourning she is believed. Such external signs would be easy to fake in any case and are therefore not material to the verity of her words.