Divorce is a mitzvah, albeit one that we hope not to fulfill. All efforts should be made to save a marriage before resorting to divorce.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
Among the many mitzvot (Torah commandments) included in the Torah portion “Ki Teitzei” Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19) is the mitzvah – yes, mitzvah! – of divorce. Judaism realizes that not all couples are compatible or meant to be together, and yes, when appropriate, divorce is acceptable and legitimate. Let’s learn about some of the issues and concepts in Jewish divorce.
In the past, when a husband refused to divorce his wife after being ordered to do so by the Jewish courts, he would be subject to various sanctions in order to pressure him into granting the divorce. Such penalties included monetary punishments, beatings and social ostracization. In some places, thugs would take the recalcitrant husband to sleep in a grave in order to “hint” to him about what would happen should he continue to deny his wife a divorce.
With the exception of Israel, however, there is no place in the world nowadays where the Jewish community could take such drastic measures in order to persuade a husband into divorcing his wife when demanded. In Israel, the rabbinical courts, working in partnership with the state, have the power to send a recalcitrant husband to prison until he divorces his wife.
The rabbis were very sensitive to the plight of women going through the divorce process and instituted a number of enactments that gave women even more rights and protection than even the Torah had given them.
For example, they banned the unilateral divorce of a wife who took ill and could no longer take care of herself and they required husbands to ransom their wives should they be taken captive. The latter wasn’t truly obligatory until the rabbis made it obligatory! In fact, the rabbis made the rules of divorce so complicated that it actually acted as a deterrent to divorce, at least in order to allow the court to “buy time” and try to repair the marriage.
Here are some of the rules and requirements for a divorce to be valid. First of all, the divorce document, known as a “Get,” must be written by a sofer, a ritual scribe. A Get must be written at the start of a divorce proceeding. It may not be pre-written with blank spaces in order to simply fill in the names of the parties and the date, as is the case with a Ketubah, a marriage contract.
(Indeed, most Ketubot are premade, standard forms that the rabbi merely fills in to specify the couple getting married. It need not be written specially in honor of the couple. Not so the Get. Writing can only begin once divorce is confirmed with no possibility of reconciliation. The names, dates and location must be filled in as it is written. No blank spaces allowed.)
The wife must physically accept the Get. If the husband and wife are not present as the Get is being written, the Get may be delivered to the wife anywhere in the world where she may be. Witnesses must see her receive and accept the Get. A woman may remarry 90 days after receiving a Get. The 90-day wait is to ensure that she is not pregnant, and if she is, to be certain who the father is.
Cool factoid: The Hebrew letters of “Gimel” and “Tet” only appear together in the word “Get”. There is no other word in the Hebrew language where these two letters are side by side.
There are very few offenses that qualify for unconditional divorce. One of them is adultery. Although it is equally reprehensible whether it is the man or the woman who commits adultery, when a woman commits adultery, however, the marriage is generally deemed to be over, and the couple must divorce. Another legitimate request for divorce is if the couple remains childless for 10 years. This is learned from the example of Abraham, who took a second wife after remaining childless with Sarah for 10 years. Since nowadays taking a second wife is not permitted, a spouse who wants to divorce in order to try and have children with a new spouse is entitled to do so. Of course, an abused spouse can demand a divorce as well.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, divorce is a mitzvah, albeit one that we hope not to fulfill. All efforts should be made to save a marriage before resorting to divorce. The sages tell us that the altar of the Temple sheds tears when a couple divorces. May God bless us with happy and healthy marriages!
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.
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