According to the Torah, when a man wishes to divorce his wife, he must first write his wife a writ of divorce, known as a get. This requirement, with all its attendant inequities and injustices, makes an unexpected appearance in today’s daf.
The mishnah reads:
One may construct side posts from anything, even a living creature, provided that it was properly attached to the entrance of the alleyway. But Rabbi Meir prohibits using a living creature as a side post.
The text then continues with a similar dispute:
Even a living creature imparts ritual impurity if it was used as the covering of a grave. But Rabbi Meir deems it pure. Likewise, one may write women’s bills of divorce on anything, even a living creature. But Rabbi Yosei HaGelili invalidates a bill of divorce written on a living creature.
The mishnah opens with a ruling concerning what materials made be used to construct side posts, the symbolic markers used to demarcate an alleyway so that one may carry within it on Shabbat. But as happens frequently in the Talmud, the text leaps unexpectedly to the question of what materials may be used to create other things, including a get.
The Gemara goes on to discuss the permissibility of writing a get on any surface at all, eventually rejecting Rabbi Yosei HaGelili’s stringency. Continuing the associative style of the mishnah, the Gemara advises what can be written in the document. Specifically, the rabbis forbid a husband to place any conditions on the woman shortly to become his ex-wife:
And the rabbis explain that this phrase: A scroll of severance, is required to teach that a bill of divorce must be a matter that severs all connection between him and her. As it was taught in a baraita: If a man says to his wife: This is your bill of divorce, on condition that you will never drink wine, or on condition that you will never go to your father’s house, that is not severance; the bill of divorce is not valid.
What is the purpose of allowing anything – even food, as we see later on the page – to be used as a writing surface or a boundary marker? And what is the connection between Shabbat boundaries and divorces?
On the first question, the Talmud seems to be trying to make a difficult situation as easy as possible. In the case of the side post, there may be situations in which one needs to delineate a private space on Shabbat but the typical materials are not available, such as when traveling or camping (more on that in tomorrow’s daf). If only an animal is available, one could tie that animal to the existing structure and make a symbolic wall out of it.
As to the second, both these subjects involve demarcation. In the matter of the Shabbat eruv, we are separating between public and private spaces. In the matter of a get, the separation is between husband and wife, demarcating the boundary between married and divorced.
In the latter case, once a couple makes the difficult decision to part, the Gemara wants to make sure that nothing stands in the way — particularly for the woman, who cannot remarry without having a get in hand. That scroll of divorce is her ticket not only to freedom, but to the rights that come with it. And protecting a newly divorced woman was of such importance to the rabbis that they allowed a get to be written on whatever material was available.
While we still have a long way to go in making sure that women’s rights in Jewish divorce proceedings are truly protected, the rabbis of the Talmud were way ahead of their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Let’s hope that in the case of Jewish divorce, it’s not too much longer before true equality comes to fruition.