Masechet Gittin 14a-20b

hero image

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.

Gittin 14a-b

Our Gemara discusses cases in which a person is sent to deliver money to another person, but he cannot locate the intended recipient.  In such a case, should the messenger return it to the sender, or does the money already belong to the missing person and thus should be given to his inheritors? Aside from the obvious possibilities – that it should go back to the original sender (or to his children if he has died) or that it should go to the children of the person it was meant for – the Gemara also raises the possibility of dividing the money between them or the possibility of shuda.

The suggestion that the money should be divided is based on traditional approaches to safek – situations of halakhic doubt. If we do not know what to do, splitting it between the possible recipients seems logical and fair. With regard to the ruling of shuda we find a disagreement between Rashi and Tosafot. Rashi understands that the obligation of the members of the court – or, in our case, the messenger – is to establish to the best of their ability what the intention of the original sender was. Based on that evaluation of the situation, the messenger is obligated to do what he thinks is most appropriate. Rabbeinu Tam is quoted in Tosafot as disagreeing and ruling that shuda allows the court (or the messenger) to choose either party without concern for the desire of the original sender. Even though the decision appears to be arbitrary, Rabbeinu Tam prefers it over a decision to divide the money; were we to give both sides equal shares, clearly one party would be cheated out of half of what they deserve. If it is given to one person, it is at least possible that the true recipient will be getting what was meant for him.

Gittin 15a-b

It is a generally accepted principle that we listen to the instructions of a shechiv me-ra – a person on his deathbed – and disburse properties and possessions that he owns simply based on his words, without demanding the usual kinyan – formal act of transfer. This ruling is given because we want to free the shechiv me-ra from all of his worldly concerns and ensure that he is at peace to avoid hastening his death.  In point of fact, Rabbi Elazar demands a full kinyan even in the case of someone who was mesukan – ill and in a dangerous state.

To disprove Rabbi Elazar, the Gemara tells a story about the family of Bnei Rokhel whose mother was on her deathbed and requested that her valuable keveinati – a type of jewelry or clothing – be given to her daughter, and her request was fulfilled by the sages after her death. Rabbi Elazar responded in strong language, arguing that this family was known as resha’im – evildoers. The Rashbam explains that because they were resha’im, the sages were not interested in having the sons receiving a valuable inheritance, so through a power similar to hefker bet din hefker – the Jewish courts’ ability to declare an object ownerless (a type of eminent domain) – they transferred ownership to another sibling.

Rashi brings the parallel Gemara in Bava Batra (156b) where Rabbi Elazar explains that the Bnei Rokhel family were considered evildoers because they allowed weeds to grow in their vineyards, something that according to Rabbi Elazar’s ruling was forbidden because of the halakhot of kilayim – the prohibition against planting different crops in close proximity. Rabbi Uziel Moshe Rothstein explains in his Nachalat Moshe that even though most of the sages disagree with Rabbi Elazar’s ruling on that matter, since that was the common practice in his community it was enough to consider them evildoers, and the sages may have applied rules differently to them than to others.

Gittin 16a-b

Our Gemara segues from the discussion of messengers who deliver gittin from the Diaspora to Israel and raises a number of other unrelated issues. These range from a question about the height of a fence that separates between two reshuyot – public and private domains – when there is a height differential between two areas with regard to the laws of Shabbat, to several discussions about laws of tumah ve-taharah – ritual purity and defilement.

In order for a mikvah (ritualarium) to be valid, it needs to have a measure of 40 se’ah of mayim chaim – water that was collected naturally, i.e. water that was not drawn. Such water can be found in natural settings, like lakes or oceans, or collected rainwater that is directed (but not carried) into a place where it can be used for ritual immersion. Of course, regular drawn water is not, in and of itself, tamei (ritually defiled) unless it becomes tamei through contact with a dead animal, person, etc.

One surprising halacha that we find discussed on our daf is the rule that a person who enters a pool of mayim she’uvin – simple water that was drawn, and therefore cannot be used for a mikveh – or has such water poured on him, becomes tamei!  The Gemara in Shabbat (14a) explains that this gezeira (rabbinic enactment) stems from the fact that, in the time of the Mishnah, mikva’ot were often made from collected rainwater that became dirty and developed a bad smell over time. People who went to the mikvah would then bathe or shower in clean mayim she’uvin in order to cleanse themselves after tevila (immersion). This led to people mistakenly believe that it was necessary to both dip in the mikvah and cleanse yourself afterwards to become tahor; eventually many came to believe that the mikvah was unnecessary. To counteract this belief, the sages ruled that washing after the mikvah would make a person tamei.

Gittin 17a-b

Our Gemara describes a time when Rav Yehuda and Rabbah came to visit Rabbah bar bar Hannah while he was ill. After a discussion of halakhot related to messengers who brought a get from the Diaspora to Israel, a Habara walked into the house and took away the light that they had in the room. Rabbah bar bar Chana reacted to this by saying that he would prefer to be ruled by God – or even by the Romans – rather than by the Persians who made life so difficult for the Jews. The Gemara explains that even though there are statements made that God exiled the Jews to Babylonia in order to save them from the difficult rule of the Romans, that was before the Habara came to Bavel. After they came, the situation became much more difficult for the Jews there.

The term Habara is what the Gemara calls Zoroastrians – the Persian priests – who are also referred to as amgushim and magim.  They were an independent tribe who, over time, developed into the priestly caste of the Persian Empire.  They were involved in, among other things, the spread of magic. While the Parthians ruled in Iran and Persia, this group had no special status in society, but with the rise of the Sassanid dynasty – at the beginning of the period of the amoraim – they became the religious leaders. During one of their holidays the only lights that were permitted were those in their temple, and they had agents whose job it was to extinguish all other forbidden lights.

We find quite a few references in the Talmud to the comparative benefits of Roman rule in Israel vs. Persian rule in Bavel. Although there were periods of relative quiet in Israel, the Roman rulers were seen as difficult and oppressive. This was both because the Romans were well organized and involved in every aspect of rule in the lands that they controlled, and because the Jews rebelled against them on several occasions.  When the Roman Empire began to weaken there was also an increase in taxes; the rise of Christianity also made life more difficult for the Jews. In Bavel, on the other hand, Persian rule allowed a much greater degree of autonomy for the Jewish community, at least until the rise of the Sassanid rule in the year 226CE, which brought with it the rise of the Zoroastrian religion.

Gittin 18a-b

Our Gemara asks: From when do we begin counting for a divorce? Rav says the significant moment for the get is when the get is handed over; Shmuel says that it is from the time that the get is written. After some discussion the Gemara concludes that we can begin counting from the time that it is written.

The need to know when we can begin counting “for the get” refers to a period called havchanah (literally “a period of distinction”) – three months from the time that the couple has separated.

This rule appears in the Mishnah in Yevamot (41a), which teaches that a woman whose husband passes away with no children will receive neither yibum nor halitzah for three months after his death. Furthermore, according to the Mishnah, even in non-yibum situations this rule applies, whether the woman was divorced or widowed, whether the first marriage ended after erusin (betrothal) or nisu’in (full marriage).

These three months are essential in order to clarify who is the true father. Were a woman who was already pregnant at the time that her first marriage ended to get married immediately, we might mistakenly think that the child’s father is the second husband, a mistake that can lead to problems regarding forbidden relations (i.e. we will not know who the child’s true siblings are) as well as mistakes in inheritance law. Moreover, the very purity of the Jewish family will be threatened by the fact that children will be unsure about who their father is. By waiting three months, even if the woman is pregnant it will be obvious, and if she gets married it will be clear that the child is the progeny of the first husband and is not a child from the second husband born a month or two early.

Gittin 19a-b

We learn in the Mishnah on our daf that a get may be written with any material: with deyo, with sam, with sikra, with kumus and with kankantum or with anything which is lasting. It may not be written with liquids or with fruit juice or with anything that is not lasting. Furthermore, the get may be written on anything – on an olive leaf or on the horn of an ox if he gives her the ox, or on the hand of a slave if he gives her the slave.

The Gemara defines the terms as follows:

The suggestion that the get may be written on an olive leaf stems from the fact that they are hard and have a blank surface that can be written on or carved into. They also remain intact for a long time without changing their appearance. Writing on leaves was not uncommon in the time of the Mishnah, although olive leaves were not usually used since they are very small.

While several of the commentaries suggest that the example of an olive leaf is brought specifically because it is long-lasting and the get must remain intact for a certain time, from the Rambam it appears that only the ink needs to be long-lasting, since the Mishnah never clearly states the need for long-lasting paper.

Gittin 20a-b

The Gemara on our daf quotes a baraita that understands the need to write a get (see Devarim 24:1) as excluding having it engraved. The Gemara objects that we find with regard to a slave that the document setting him free can be written on a tabla or a pinkas, but not on a kipa or an andokhtri. In response, Ulla quotes Rabbi Elazar as distinguishing between two types of engravinghak takhot, where the letters are created by removing the material around them, and hak yerekhot, where the letters are created by digging out the material where the document is being written.

The cases that are acceptable to the baraita are the cases of a tabla – a tablet or a flat board, and a pinkas (account book). The word pinkas is Greek, and its original meaning was a board on which one could write. The term later came to mean a number of such boards that were bound together to make a small book. During the time of the Talmud, pinkasim came in a variety of shapes and sizes and were made of different materials. It appears that the most popular ones were made of wood covered with a layer of wax that could be written on and erased.

The cases that are rejected by the baraita are the kipa and the andokhtri. The definition of an andokhtri is not clear (nor is it clear how the word is pronounced). Rashi and others explain that it is a type of ornament – some type of woven cloth with pictures on it. The Geonim suggest that it refers to some type of writing that is not done in the normal fashion, for example where weaving a basket from straw or branches creates letters and words. In such a case, the words do not become part of the object itself, but rather sit on top of it.

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 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.