Gittin 15

Half measures.

In the first mishnah of Tractate Gittin, we learned that a messenger who brings get from overseas must attest that it was both written and signed in that agent’s presence. Today, we begin chapter two of our tractate with the following mishnah that seeks to clarify what happens if only one of those factors holds true. 

One who brings a bill of divorce from a country overseas and says: “This bill was written in my presence but it was not signed in my presence.” Or: “It was signed in my presence but it was not written in my presence.” Or: “All of it was written in my presence and half of it was signed in my presence (i.e., he observed the signing by only one witness).” Or: “Half of it was written in my presence and all of it was signed in my presence.” — In all these cases the document is invalid. 

If one agent says: “It was written in my presence,” and one agent says: “It was signed in my presence,” — it is invalid. If two agents say: “It was written in our presence,” and one says: “It was signed in my presence,” — it is invalid. 

According to the mishnah, in all these various cases, the bill of divorce is invalid. The Gemara immediately jumps in with a fairly obvious question: Why do we need all these examples? After all, the very first mishnah of the tractate told us that an agent coming from overseas must attest that a divorce bill was written and signed in their presence. It should be obvious that anything less than that renders the document invalid. 

The Gemara answers its own question:

If from that (i.e., the first mishnah alone), I would say: He is required (to issue this statement). But if he did not say it from the beginning, the divorce is nevertheless valid after the fact. This mishnah teaches us that the bill of divorce is invalid unless both parts are stated.

The first mishnah only stated that an agent bringing a get from overseas must attest that it was written and signed in their presence. It says nothing about the validity of the get itself. One might then think that if the agent neglected to make the required attestations, the divorce is nevertheless valid. The Gemara is suggesting here that the second mishnah is needed to tell us that it isn’t. 

Consider the probable context here. First, we have a husband and wife living in different countries. Because they are separated by such a great distance, messengers are needed to pick up the get from the husband and deliver it to the wife. Sometimes the distance might be so great that two agents are needed — one to receive the get from the husband and another who ultimately puts it in the hand of the wife.

Next, we have the matter of the agents. A messenger coming from abroad who is bringing a get to a future divorcee is likely to be delivering documents to other individuals in that same location. And it’s possible that such items might get mixed up inadvertently if one is not careful. (True story: I once delivered an inhaler with an identical prescription to my own to a student in Israel and had to triple check to make sure the name on the medication was hers and not mine.) 

So it’s not surprising that the mishnah would require an agent who may have been carrying multiple documents to make absolutely sure they are delivering the right one. This is done by requiring the initial agent — the one who receives the get from the husband — to attest that they saw the document written and signed so that when they hand it over, either to the woman herself or to her agent, they can be sure she’s getting the document intended only for her and not someone else. 

With a matter as serious as the delivery of a get (or a prescription medication), half measures won’t do. 

Read all of Gittin 15 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 31th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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