The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.
The first Mishnah in Masechet Gittin opens with the rule that a person who is a messenger to bring a document of divorce – a get – from a community in the Diaspora to Israel must be able to attest that the document was written and signed in his presence. Most of the rishonim (including the Ritva, Ramban, and Ran) explain that the masechet begins with this rule rather than with the basic halakhot of gittin because it is a rabbinic enactment, and the sages preferred to open with a rabbinic enactment – which was close to their hearts – rather than a biblical law, which they will get to later in the masechet. Another suggestion is that the sages preferred not to begin with a discussion of the dissolution of a marriage, which is a disturbing topic, and chose instead to focus on an enactment that was made to protect the woman from a contested divorce.
The popular term for a divorce document – a get (and, in plural, gittin) – is not a word with a biblical, or even a Hebrew source. It is apparently borrowed from the Assyrian gittu, which means a contract or document of any sort. From the Assyrian the word became widely used in neighboring languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic. In the Talmud the word is used by the sages both in its original meaning – a contract of any sort – as well as the specific sefer keritut – a contract given by a man to his wife to end their marital relationship and effect a divorce.
The unusual origins of the word have led the commentaries to suggest a wide range of explanations for its source, including a reference to a midrash that there is a rock in the ocean that is called Gata which has the power to keep other stones from approaching it, and the point that nowhere in the written Torah do we find the letters gimmel and tet (which are the two letters that make up the word get) juxtaposed – a fact that points to the separation that accompanies divorce.
As we learned on yesterday’s daf, a person who is a messenger to bring a document of divorce – a get – from a community in the Diaspora to Israel must be able to attest that the document was written and signed in his presence. Two reasons for this are suggested by the Gemara. According to Rabbah, it is because Diaspora communities are not all aware that the get must be written for this specific situation, and we must ascertain that it was done correctly. Rava suggests that the reason for this is because in the event that a question arises about this document, it will be difficult to find people who can recognize and attest to the authenticity of the witnesses’ signatures.
Our Gemara examines Rava’s explanation and asks why it suffices for the messenger to state that the document was signed in his presence, since ordinary kiyum shetarot – in other cases where a contract needs to be verified – require two witnesses to do so. The Gemara explains that we follow the position of Reish Lakish, who rules that a legal document that contains witnesses’ signatures really does not need to be verified, and the requirement to do so is of rabbinic origin. Given the desire of the sages to save the woman from possibly becoming an agunah – a woman who cannot get married because she is “chained” to her husband – they were lenient in this case and permitted a single testimony to suffice in verifying the signatures.
The idea of kiyum shetarot is a function that is carried out today by a notary whose job is to ensure that the contract that is brought before him is valid. Although the basic requirements of Jewish law recognize any signed contract as valid, due to a concern that the defendant will attempt to undermine the plaintiff’s case by questioning the contractual agreement between them, the sages established a requirement to assure the truthfulness of the contract either by having witnesses attest to the signatures or by comparing the signatures to other confirmed signatures.
As we have learned on the previous dapim, a person who is a messenger to bring a document of divorce – a get – from a community in the Diaspora to Israel must be able to attest that the document was written and signed in his presence. Two reasons for this are suggested by the Gemara. According to Rabbah, it is because Diaspora communities are not all aware that the get must be written for this specific situation, and we must ascertain that it was done correctly. Rava suggests that the reason for this is because in the event that a question arises about this document, it will be difficult to find people who can recognize and attest to the authenticity of the witnesses’ signatures.
In an attempt to show that Rava’s reasoning is correct, the Gemara quotes the statement made by Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel in the Mishnah that even me-hegmonia le-hegmonia within Israel there is a need for the messenger to state that the get was written and signed in his presence. The Gemara responds that Rabbah accepts Rava’s position that in situations where there will be difficulty in finding witnesses to authenticate the signatures we will require the messenger to attest to the signing of the get; Rabbah adds an additional concern about gittin that are written in the Diaspora.
The hegmonia mentioned by Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel refers to a province within a larger country. The Gemara tells of a city called Asisiyot that was divided between two hegmoniyot, creating a situation whereby people could not travel between the two sides of the city easily.
The boundaries of the land of Israel have changed many times over the years. Even when the Romans ruled the entire land of Israel, the land was divided between hegmoniyot that were overseen by Roman officials, who established different laws and rules that applied only within their areas of influence. At one point, Israel was divided into three parts: Palestina Prima, Palestina Secunda and Palestina Tertia. A personal disagreement between the rulers of these hegmoniyot could shut down movement between them.
Our Gemara continues the discussion of the need for a messenger who travels from another country to the land of Israel to deliver a divorce to attest that it was written and signed in his presence. The story is related that when a man named bar Hadaya was asked to deliver a get, Rabbi Ahai who was the memunah a-gitay – the individual in charge of divorces – instructed him to pay close attention as each and every letter of the get was written so that he would be able to testify at the time of delivery. When he asked Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi about this, they told him that he was not obligated to do so, and, in fact, that he should not do it even as a stringency she-lo le-hozi la’az al gittin ha-rishonim – lest people question whether earlier gittin that were not written this way are valid.
Several of the commentaries ask whether the idea of she-lo le-hozi la’az al gittin ha-rishonim limits our ability to add any clarifications or other changes when writing a get lest doing so casts aspersions on earlier divorces. Given the fact that Rabbenu Tam and other rishonim did make such changes, this seems most unlikely. One answer offered is that the very requirement of having the messenger attest to the validity of the get is itself a stringency, so nothing should be added to it. The Rama suggests that we distinguish between situations where we are clarifying something that is unclear, which is permissible, and simply adding additional stringencies, which would be forbidden.
The concept of a memunah a-gitay stems from the fact that writing a get involves many specific details with regard to which much care must be taken, since an error that appears to be small may very well disqualify the get. Given the gravity of issues of marriage and divorce, together with the severity of a situation of a woman remarrying based on an invalid get, in organized communities a specific individual was appointed who specialized in such matters. This remained the case throughout the generations, where only special batei din dealt with issues of divorce.
Rabbi Evyatar in Israel sent a message to Rav Chisda in Bavel, telling him that gittin sent from Bavel to Israel do not require the messenger to attest that the get was written and signed in his presence. The Gemara‘s first suggestion in explaining this ruling is that Rabbi Evyatar must agree with Rabbah (see daf, or page, 3) and believe that the potential problem is that the court where the get was written may not know how to write the get properly. Since the Babylonian Jewish community was knowledgeable, this would not be a problem. In response, the Gemara points out that even Rabbah accepts Rava‘s concern that in places far away from one another we fear that no witnesses will be available to verify the signatures on the get (see daf 4). Finally, the Gemara explains this is not an issue because of the large number of people who travel from Bavel to Eretz Yisrael.
From many sources it appears that during the early part of the period of the amoraim there was a large movement of people who moved from Babylonia to Israel. Most of Rabbi Yochanan‘s students in Israel were originally from Bavel, and we find many other Babylonian students and sages in Israel, as well. We cannot be certain of what the impetus was for this migration, although it is likely that the growth and development of the yeshiva headed by Rabbi Yochanan – the acknowledged leader among the sages at that time – played some role in it. Although there was no violence against Jews in Israel during this period, it was, nevertheless, a period of high taxes and political unrest throughout the Roman Empire. Therefore, it was difficult for people who moved there from Bavel to find means of support for themselves, and even more difficult to support their families left behind in Babylonia. Since the tradition in Bavel – as opposed to Israel – was for men to get married at a young age and continue to learn Torah afterwards, those students who chose to move to Israel were perceived by many sages as having abandoned their wives and children, a decision for which those sages criticized them.
In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit www.steinsaltz.org or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.