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Talmud: God Studies Torah, Too

From a single biblical verse about divorce is spun an edifice of legal wrangling, including a first discussion of what, geographically, constitutes ‘the Land of Israel’

Adam Kirsch
January 05, 2016
Main image: Paramount Pictures
Main image: Paramount Pictures

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

In the weeks since my last column, Daf Yomi readers began a new tractate, Gittin. As its name suggests, Gittin deals primarily with the get, the document that effects a divorce under Jewish law. In focusing on this particular legal document, rather than on divorce in the abstract, the Talmud follows the same pattern as it does in Tractate Ketubot, which deals with the marriage contract. In both cases, the Talmud’s very long and detailed legal code is founded on a brief and seemingly straightforward biblical text. The nine chapters of Gittin are rooted in just one verse from Deuteronomy 24:

When a man takes a wife and marries her and it comes to pass, if she finds no favor in his eyes, because he has found some unseemly matter in her, and he writes her a scroll of severance, and gives it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.

This biblical instruction already makes clear certain ground rules for divorce under Jewish law. Most important, it is a one-way street: The husband may divorce his wife, but the wife may not divorce her husband. Further, the husband does not need any particular moral or legal grounds to issue a divorce. If his wife “finds no favor in his eyes,” for whatever reason, he can dismiss her. This is accomplished by means of a document, the get, which he must write and give to her. But by the time the Mishna was compiled, it was already well-established that neither of these things have to be done by the husband in person, as the Bible seems to envision. Rather, a husband can hire a scribe to write the bill of divorce, and he can employ an agent to deliver it to his wife, or to her agent.

This sets the stage for the first chapter of Gittin. As always in the Talmud, the tractate does not begin, as one might expect or hope, by laying down basic principles of the law. For instance, it does not state explicitly that an agent can be used to deliver a get. Rather, the rabbis take this legal knowledge for granted, and they begin by considering one specific complication that might arise. What if the husband and wife are separated, living in different countries, and the husband hires an agent to deliver the get to his wife? How can the wife verify that the get is valid—that it was written and signed by witnesses in accordance with Jewish law? This is, after all, a crucial consideration for her. If she relies on a flawed get, remarries, and bears children to her second husband, and then the first husband comes and challenges the divorce, her children will be retroactively designated as bastards, mamzerim, effectively shutting them out of much of Jewish life.

The solution to this problem is that “an agent who brings a bill of divorce from a country overseas” must make an official declaration, stating that the get “was written in my presence and it was signed in my presence.” This procedure must be followed if the husband is abroad and the wife is living in the Land of Israel, or vice versa, or if both parties were living in different foreign countries. If both parties are residents of the Land of Israel, however, the declaration is unnecessary. These are the conditions laid down in the mishna in Gittin 2a.

In the Gemara, the rabbis immediately start to wonder about the rationale for these qualifications. “What is the reason” that an agent must make a declaration outside the Land of Israel but not inside it? According to Rabba the reason the declaration is needed abroad is that “the people are not experts in writing a bill of divorce for her sake.” This implies a basic rule about the get, which once again is referred to rather than explicitly stated. A bill of divorce must be written specifically for the husband and wife in question; it can’t be phrased as a general bill to be used by anyone who gets his hands on it. This is a safeguard against mistaken divorces and possibly also against casual ones: Each divorce has to be the subject of a new, custom-made document.

(Later on, in Gittin 4a, we will learn that Rabbi Meir, whose views are usually authoritative, actually disagrees with this rule. In Meir’s view, it doesn’t matter who a get is written for, as long as it is signed by witnesses who know its intended recipient. Thus Meir opines that, if a man found a get in the trash, and it happened to bear his name and the name of his wife, he could get witnesses to sign it and make it a valid divorce.)

In Rabba’s view, this requirement—that a document be written specifically for the husband and wife in question—is not widely known or accepted in the Diaspora. That is why a get originating in a foreign country must be supported by the agent’s declaration that he saw it being written and signed specifically for the woman he is giving it to. But this rationale would seem not to apply in the converse case, when a get is written in the Land of Israel and sent abroad. If Jews in the Land of Israel know the law well, a supplementary declaration shouldn’t be necessary; but the mishna says it is. Why?

This is where Rava’s explanation comes in. According to him, the agent’s declaration is required not because of ignorance of the law but because of distance. A bill of divorce is validated by the signatures of two witnesses. But if these witnesses live in Israel, and the bill is served on a woman living in Babylonia, she will have no way of challenging their signatures if she suspects they are fraudulent. Thus the need for the agent to declare that he saw the document written and witnessed: This is supposed to be additional proof that the get is valid. The Gemara spends several pages turning the question over and over, comparing Rava and Rabba’s views and examining their implications.

Over the rest of chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, the rabbis set down additional requirements for the agent’s declaration. For instance, in Gittin 15a, we learn that the same person must swear to having witnessed the get being written and being signed; if one person sees it signed and a second person sees it written, their testimony is insufficient and the divorce is invalid. With all the care taken over the declaration, however, it is surprising how casually the Talmud defines the actual witnessing. An agent who swears that a get has been written for a specific recipient does not actually have to see the document being written. According to Rabbi Elazar, it is enough if he sees one line of it written down. Rav Ashi goes still further, saying “even if he heard the sound of the quill” as the scribe was writing, it is sufficient.

If the laws for delivering bills of divorce are different inside and outside the Land of Israel, it’s necessary to know exactly what the borders of the Land of Israel are. Surprisingly, I can’t remember this question being asked previously in my Talmud reading. Most of the time, the rabbis seem to take for granted that Jews will know whether or not they are in the land or outside of it. In Gittin, however, they offer some geographical definitions: The Land of Israel is defined as the area west of Rekem, south of Akko, and north of Ashkelon, with the Mediterranean making up the western border. These borders are further refined in the Gemara, with some argument about how much of the Mediterranean and its islands fall within the jurisdiction of the land. What is notable about these lines is that they correspond neither to the biblical descriptions of the Israelites’ territories nor to the modern borders of the State of Israel. Clearly, the definition of Eretz Yisrael has shifted over the centuries.

Finally, the first chapter of Gittin offered a remarkable image of the Talmud’s sanctity. We have previously seen that, in the rabbis’ imagination, figures from the Bible studied the Torah even before it was given; and we have also seen, in Tractate Berachot, that God Himself prays and wears tefillin. Now, in Gittin 6b, we see that God also engages in Torah study. On one occasion, the prophet Elijah appeared to Rabbi Evyatar, and the rabbi asked, “What is the Holy One, Blessed be He, doing now?” Elijah replied that God was studying the Book of Judges, specifically the gruesome episode of the concubine in Gibeah, in which a woman is raped by a gang of Benjaminites, leading to a bloody civil war among the Israelite tribes.

“And what is He saying about it?” Evyatar asked. He must have been surprised at Elijah’s reply: God was saying, “Evyatar, My son, says this, and Yonatan, My son, says that.” In other words, God Himself was reveling in the dialogue and disagreement that is at the heart of the Talmud. Evyatar was troubled, naturally enough, since one would assume that God had no need of contrasting interpretations. He should know what really happened in the Bible, if anyone does. But God cherished both Evyatar’s and Yonatan’s insights, saying, “These and these are the words of the living God”—the famous formula applied to the disagreements of Hillel and Shammai. It seems that God glories in the radical indeterminacy of Jewish thought and the way it allows two competing interpretations to both be right and both be holy.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.