We have already learned that the Sages found leniencies in situations where a woman whose husband disappeared would remain an aguna (literally “anchored” to her dead husband), and accepted the testimony of a single witness to allow her to remarry. The Mishna on our daf reports that this ruling was not always widely accepted. Rabbi Akiva relates that on his travels to Bavel he was in Neharde’a where he met a man named Nehemya ish Beit D’li who asked him to relay a tradition to Rabban Gamliel in Israel that his grandfather, Rabban Gamliel HaZaken had allowed such testimony to be accepted. Upon hearing this Rabban Gamliel rejoiced and put this ruling into practice.
The Mishna relates a story where a group of people who were traveling left one of their party behind in a pundak – an inn – when he became ill. Upon their return they inquired as to their comrade’s health, and the pundika’it – the woman who was in charge of the inn – responded that he had died and that she buried him. Based on her word, the Sages allowed his widow to remarry.
The Gemara relates that in this last case, the pundika’it was a non-Jewish woman, who was believed based on the fact that she was mesiha lefi tuma – she was telling a story, and she did not realize that she was offering testimony. The believability of a mesi’a lefi tumo is accepted by the Sages because we assume that the person telling the story has no vested or personal interest, and no reason to lie.
The power of this statement can be understood from the fact that aside from her being non-Jewish, the term pundika’it – a woman innkeeper – is often used in Aramaic to mean a prostitute, with the assumption that a woman servicing travelers often made herself available to them as well (see also the Radak’s commentary to Sefer Yehoshua 2:1, where he explains that Rahav HaZona, with whom the Israelite spies found refuge, was an innkeeper).
In our case Tosafot emphasize that the pundika’it was considered mesiha lefi tuma because, as explained by the Gemara, she burst into tears upon seeing the friends of the dead man, and only afterwards did she respond to their specific questions.