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Gett in Shape

In the discourse about divorce in Tractate Gittin, the Talmud gives us closure when love expires

Dovid Bashevkin
August 14, 2023

Tractate Gittin is written backward. The tractate about the Jewish divorce document, known as a gett, begins with a discussion about sending a gett overseas. Not a word about more basic questions: How do you write a gett? What is a gett? It is only on the final page of the tractate that we find the beginning: Under what grounds is divorce permissible. And for those who have ever been through a divorce of any kind, maybe the structure of this tractate provides a poetic lesson of sorts. Divorce turns life upside down—the beginning becomes an ending, and the ending becomes a new beginning. And that is why Tractate Gittin has long been my favorite tractate in the entire Talmud—don’t tell my wife, no need to worry her—because it teaches us how to find meaning and purpose even when life feels backward.

If love is real, it cannot just disappear. After the commitments of marriage, there needs to be a mechanism to unwind and honor the union that was created. That is the principle at the center of Jewish divorce. What drives Tractate Gittin is not the question of separate or joint tax filings or even the ever-important question of custody, but rather the question of fashioning a halachic instrument that can create closure to the relationship. In fact, the biblical term for divorce, keritut, best translates as “closure.” We honor love by providing a formal, serious mechanism to address how to rewind it.

Closure in the modern world, absent of religiously significant rituals, can be hard to find. In Chip and Dan Heath’s fascinating book The Power of Moments, they tell a story about a widow who struggled to move on after the passing of her husband. She couldn’t bear to take off her wedding ring. So, they devised what they called a “reverse wedding,” where she was asked to respond to all her wedding vows but in past tense. Instead of “will you be faithful in good times and bad,” she was asked “were you faithful in good times and bad.” A ritual was needed to address her lingering feeling about moving on: “Am I ready? Is it OK for me to be ready?” Endings need rituals, too.

In many ways, a gett also functions as a “reverse wedding.” And the difficulty of unwinding the miracle of love may also help better explain the backward nature of this tractate’s beginning. The entire opening of the tractate describes a couple who live apart, requiring the husband to send the divorce document overseas. It’s a strange situation to begin the discussion of divorce. The Talmud makes it clear that in order to ensure the gett is able to be delivered without the husband questioning the document’s validity, the agents who bring the document need to recite a special formula of testimony. “It was written in front of us and it was signed in front of us,” the agents say upon delivering the gett from a far-off land. Why do they need this added testimony? There are residual concerns, the Talmud explains, that the husband may step forward and question the validity of the gett. This question occupies the first six pages of the tractate. Why spend so much time on such a remote scenario?

Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes offers a moving theory that highlights the difficulty of achieving closure. “All of these issues,” he explains, “are a cover for something much deeper—the emotional difficulty of truly severing the connection between the man and his wife.” We are concerned about residual claims about the husband because of the enduring strength of love itself. “The underlying reason for the husband’s hesitation is not animosity,” Brandes explains, “on the contrary, it is because of the remnants of the positive connection of love, which make it difficult for him to decide on the divorce.” We honor the power of love by insisting on closure.

This tractate, however, is not just about marital divorce. It is easy to study Talmud and assume all of the disparate stories and ideas were haphazardly flung together. That is not the case. It is always important to pay careful attention even to the stories that are cited within a particular tractate. There’s a meaning waiting for us to extract it. As the 19th-century Hasidic master Rav Tzadok explains, “and I received from my teacher, that all of the disparate sayings within the Talmud even if they seem random, are truthfully placed within the tractate and are deeply relevant to the context in which they are shared.” And so, buried in the fifth chapter of the tractate are stories that retell the events leading to the destruction of the Temple. Traditionally, these are read on Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the destruction of our Temple. Why are they housed in Tractate Gittin? Because Gittin is not just about divorce between a husband and wife; it also retells the marital rupture between the Jewish people and God. If our relationship with God should ideally be seen as a marriage, then when God becomes distant, it feels like a divorce.

Tractate Gittin is about finding meaning in absence. When a relationship unwinds, a new beginning needs to be discovered within that ending. It is the white space in the foliage of life. In fact, the first tosafos in the tractate explains that the reason why a gett is always exactly 12 lines parallels the four lines of white space that always separate the different books of the Torah. And the four lines of white space that separate between Genesis and Exodus, Exodus and Leviticus, and Leviticus and Numbers totals of 12 lines—so that is why a gett document is always exactly 12 lines. (It’s a longer story why we don’t count the four lines of white space separating Numbers and Deuteronomy). Divorce is the breakup between the black text and the white space. And a get finds its very meaning within that white space, the absence.

Maggie Smith, a renowned poet, garnered national prominence for her poetry reflecting on the absences and ugliness within life. After her divorce, she wrote a moving poem titled “At the End of My Marriage, I Think of Something My Daughter Said About Trees.” This is how it goes:

When a tree is cut down, the sky’s like
finally, and rushes in.
Even when you trim a tree,
the sky fills in before the branch
hits the ground. It colors the space blue
because now it can.

When a broken relationship crowds the letters of our life, divorce creates the white space to see the sky.

Look closer at the tractate. There is a story that begins in the first chapter and quietly and somewhat inexplicitly weaves its way through the entire tractate. Most would hardly even notice it. A certain rabbi named Geniva was tormenting another rabbi, Mar Ukva. Unsure how to respond, Mar Ukva bears his torment in silence while quietly praying for a resolution. Geniva is finally taken to prison. This story appears in the first chapter, on the seventh page of the tractate. It finally concludes nearly 60 pages later when Geniva is finally walking to his execution. In between the beginning and the end of this story, twice—on pages 31 and 62—the Talmud shares a dialogue about the propriety of according Geniva honor given that he is a Torah scholar:

Rav Huna and Rav Chisda were sitting together and Geniva passed by them. One said to the other: Let us stand before him, as he is an enlightened scholar. The other said, shall we stand before someone who is so quarrelsome?

Geniva is a scholar with terrible interpersonal relationships. His character is deeply flawed. He knows a lot but doesn’t treat others well. And in the marriage between what we know and how we treat others, what our Torah says and how it informs our life—Geniva is internally divorced. The language the Talmud uses to describe Geniva’s character is bar palguh (בר פלגאה)—literally translated as a fighter. But the word palguh can also mean “half.” His scholarship is divorced from his character—he only has half. Genivah is all letters and no white space. All trees, no sky. A half a person—all scholarship, no character. He’s a walking divorce. Tractate Gittin manifests within one individual.

The tractate ends with haunting imagery. “Whomever divorces their wife,” the Talmud states, “even the altar in the Temple sheds tears.” The Temple’s altar of course is an inanimate object. Why of all of the objects affected by divorce is the altar singled out?

Bringing sacrifices on the altar in the Temple, made God’s presence tangible and real. The first time Abraham offers a sacrifice, the Torah describes that it was to commemorate the experience of God’s palpable presence before him. The altar represents the experience of standing before God’s presence. A divorce, however, creates absence. Normally we associate religious experiences with being before someone’s presence. A God, a leader, the Temple. When we stand before holiness we feel a religious presence. Absence feels like the negation of such a relationship, as if any possibility of having a connection has been lost. Our tractate and this passage teach otherwise. We can forge religious presence even through absence. Like an empty chair reminding everyone who is unable to be present in the room. Interestingly, in the Torah portion that describes the daily sacrifice, the korban tamid, every letter in the aleph-bet is present except the letters gimmel and tet—the letters that spell gett, divorce. If even the altar, the symbol of divine presence, weeps, it is a reminder that even our experience of absence can yield divine presence. Even when life feels backward, we can look toward the white spaces of our lives and begin something anew.

הדרן עלך מסכת גיטין והדרך עלן

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.