Divorce is a mitzvah — albeit one we hope to never have to fulfill.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
Among the dozens of mitzvot listed in the Torah portion of Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19), is the mitzvah of…divorce.
That’s right, divorce is a mitzvah — albeit one that we hope to never have to fulfill. In this article, we will take this opportunity to review the Jewish divorce procedure.
Although the word “Get” is used to refer to the divorce document, it is actually not the word that the Torah uses for it. The Torah calls the divorce document a “sefer kritut” which means “a book (or document) that severs.”
The word Get probably evolved from the Sumerian word “gid” or “gidda” which means “document.” There is also the Akadian word “gittu” which was likely the forefather for the word ”Get” which is the word used in the Talmud.
A Get must be handwritten by a specially trained scribe. It also may only be written after the husband issues explicit instructions that he wants to divorce his wife. As such, a Get may not be written in advance by leaving blank spaces for the couple to fill in with their names as is done with a Ketuba, a marriage document.
Other requirements include: the Get document to be a fresh and clean scroll without previous erasures. So too, it may not be past or post-dated. The Get must be written and given of the free will of the husband and placed in his wife’s hands, preferably by the husband though an agent can be used for this purpose if need be.
Although in theory, according to biblical law at least, a man can divorces his wife against her, the rabbis required that the divorce be mutual. A husband who is required by the Jewish court to divorce his wife but refuses to do so will face communal and congregational penalties. In the State of Israel, the rabbinical courts have the power to sentence a husband to prison in order to “encourage” him to grant his wife a Get.
A woman whose husband refuses to issue the Get, thereby leaving her in an essentially non-existent marriage, is known as a “mesorevet get” (“a woman refused a divorce”). However, the more common term, though not completely accurate, is “Agunah” (“a chained woman”).
A civil divorce is not adequate from the perspective of Jewish law. Just like there is a Jewish way to be married, until the Jewish way to divorce has been completed, the couple is considered to be fully married. Therefore, any remarriage after a civil divorce, without a Jewish divorce, would render a woman an adulteress and any further children would be “mamzerim” – illegitimate.
Not many people know this, but while all rabbis may officiate at a marriage, very few rabbis are authorized to officiate a divorce. Certification to preside over a divorce takes years of study and specialization often resulting in only one or two rabbis in an entire city permitted to do so. One reason for the rigorous training is because even a minor detail done incorrectly could invalidate the divorce resulting in the disasters mentioned above.
Before the divorce ceremony begins, the couple is questioned about their willingness to go through with the divorce. The rabbis must be convinced that both of them fully agree to be divorced.
An interesting and exacting detail regarding the Get is determining the exact names of the couple, as well as their nicknames, along with the names of their fathers. If a name is so much as spelled incorrectly or a nickname is left out, the Get is usually invalid.
The wording of a Get is slightly different for Ashkenazim and Sefardim.
The husband must verbally appoint the scribe as his agent to write the Get. Furthermore, the supplies used to write the Get must belong to the husband as well, and therefore, the scribe transfers ownership of the paper, quill and ink to the husband. The husband then verbally appoints the witnesses.
After the Get is written, it is inspected ensuring that all was written according to exact specifications. The witnesses read the document and sign it.
The ceremony concludes with the Get being put into the wife’s hands as the husband declares, “This is your divorce. Accept this document of divorce and with this you are divorced from me from here on. You are now permitted to marry any man.”
The wife accepts the Get and walks a few feet with it in her hands. The Get is then cut up and filed in the beit din (court) archives. The man and woman are both given an official document which certifies that they have undergone a halachic divorce.
May we never have to fulfill this “mitzvah” and those who have…may it be a bright and beautiful new beginning.
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