How much faith can we put in the statement of a person regarding his family status? The Mishna (134a) taught that a person is believed to say “this is my son,” and a share of the inheritance will go to him. A person is not believed, however, to say “this is my brother” and none of the other brothers who deny the relationship will have to share the estate with him, although the one who admits the relationship will have to do so.
Our Gemara discusses a case where a man who is on his deathbed is asked “who should your wife go to?” – essentially whether she will fall to yibum or can she marry anyone. The man’s answer – according to the reading in our Gemara – was “she can marry the kohen gadol.” The Gemara discusses whether we can accept the man’s assertion that his wife will not be a yevama.
It is clear that the statement “she can marry the kohen gadol” is an exaggeration, inasmuch as at that time there was no operating Temple (although Rav Ya’akov Emden wanted to suggest that he meant that she could marry an important person in the community named Kahane). Nevertheless, this statement is odd, since a widow who is not a yevama can marry an ordinary kohen, but not a kohen gadol. The Ramah and others suggest that in our case the marriage was an eirusin – halakhic engagement – and the marriage was never consummated.
Most rishonim , however, understand that the couple was married and that the man was saying that his wife would not fall to yibum, either because he had children (Rabbeinu Gershom) or because he had no brothers (Bartenura). According to this approach, the statement about a kohen gadol was simply an exaggeration meant to emphasize his point.
An alternative reading in the Gemara leaves out the kohen gadol aspect and talks just about being permitted to a kohen. One version has this as a question – “Can she marry a kohen?! I divorced her!” – while according to another approach he was saying that she could return to her father’s home, where she could eat teruma, if her father was a kohen.