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Talmudic Semiotics: I Write Your Name

In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi’ study, a premodern post-modern analysis of what exactly constitutes writing, in the physical act of making indelible marks on surfaces. Plus: Need to deliver a ‘get’ to your wife but out of paper? Talmud says: Write it on a slave!

Adam Kirsch
January 12, 2016
Sony Pictures Television
Sony Pictures Television
Sony Pictures Television
Sony Pictures Television

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

As we saw last week, the subject of Gittin is not just divorce, but specifically the get—the legal document by which a divorce is effected. According to the Bible, a husband can divorce his wife (but not vice versa) by writing “a scroll of severance” and giving it to her. In this week’s Daf Yomi reading, the rabbis raise a series of questions about how this scroll is to be written, and in the process they end up questioning the very nature of writing itself. What does it mean to write? Does it require the use of certain materials, or is the “idea” of a text independent of its physical makeup? If so, what kind of being does a text have? These are the very questions that continue to perplex literary theorists today.

The rabbinic approach to such issues is not metaphysical—as it was for Derrida—but pragmatic. In Gittin 19a, the mishna lists the types of ink that can be used to write a bill of divorce. As regularly happens, the terms used in the mishna are not clear to the Aramaic-speaking rabbis of the Gemara, and they have to be translated: For instance, “sam” in Hebrew is “samma” in Aramaic, and in English “arsenic.” However, the list given in the mishna is not meant to be exclusive. What matters about ink is not its chemical composition but its permanence: Anything that leaves an indelible mark can be used to write a get.

Ordinarily, the text of the get would be written by a scribe. But the get also requires the signatures of two witnesses, and in Talmudic-era Jewish society many people, probably most, didn’t know how to write. This raises another philosophical question: What does it mean to write your name? If someone else writes it down first in temporary ink, and then you write over the letters in permanent ink, have you actually signed your name? Rabbi Yochanan says no, but not for the reason you might expect. The problem is not that the signer was writing mechanically, without true understanding of the letters. It is perfectly OK to use a cut-out stencil and have the signer fill it in with ink, which is also a mechanical procedure. The problem, rather, is that if you write in ink on top of ink, you are not writing directly on the parchment or paper; and to Yochanan, this means “it is not writing.” Writing, by this definition, means making a mark directly on paper, even if you don’t know what the mark means.

Another variation on this issue comes up in Gittin 20a. Can a bill of divorce be chiseled in stone? The answer depends on what kind of chiseling is involved. If you cut away the surrounding stone in order to leave raised letters, this is not considered writing, since you have not actually imprinted the letters in the surface, only allowed them to appear. If, on the other hand, you incise the letters into the stone, so that they are not raised but cut out, this is considered writing. Once again, it is clear that what matters to the rabbis is not intention so much as the physical trace of the writer’s hand.

This distinction leads to the question raised in Gittin 20a. We know from last week’s reading that a get has to be written specifically for the man and woman in question. In Gittin 26a, the rabbis clarify that a scribe may write the legal boilerplate in advance, but he must fill in the names and date of the divorcing parties specifically for them. Say, however, that a scribe has a completed get that he wants to use for a new customer. Can he go over the ink a second time, effectively “rewriting” the document with the new divorcing couple in mind? After all, the Gemara points out, this technique is allowed in writing Torah scrolls, in a very particular circumstance. Say the scribe needs to write the name of God but while writing it thinks he is actually writing the word “Yehuda,” yet he leaves out the dalet so in fact he does write the letters of God’s name. In this case, the writing is correct but the intent is deficient; and the scribe can fix this by going over the word a second time with a pen, keeping the proper meaning in mind. Why not do the same for a get? According to the rabbis, this is acceptable: If the intention is proper, the mark made by the writer doesn’t have to be original.

It is when we get to the question of the substrate—the material on which the get is written—that things become really strange. Ordinarily, a legal document would be written on paper. But the mishna in Gittin 19a holds that a get can be written on “anything,” including an olive leaf or the horn of a cow. This leads to discussion in the Gemara, where the rabbis clarify that these items are acceptable because they can be given to the wife, as the Bible requires. But this means that anything that can’t be transferred is not usable. So, an olive leaf still attached to a tree cannot be used for a get, because you would have to cut it off in order to transfer it, and the Bible doesn’t envision cutting off as part of the process. Likewise with the horn of a cow: If you do inscribe your get on a cow’s horn, you can’t cut off the horn, but must give your wife the whole cow. This leads to further debates: What about a plant growing in a perforated pot? Is this technically part of the ground or a separate item?

Finally, the rabbis pursue this principle to its logical conclusion: You can even write a get on the flesh of a slave. After all, a slave is property, and if you give the slave to your wife you have effectively given her the document. The rabbis are not unaware of the practical problems with this device. Writing on skin is easy to erase (thus you would have to use a tattoo), and a slave might get up and walk away, taking the get with him. But they do not seem repelled, as we would be, by the implicit reduction of a human being to the status of an object. The moral world of the Talmud, like its intellectual outlook, can be challengingly foreign.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study, click here.

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

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