Gittin 19

The talmudic art of stenciling.

We have already learned that get must be signed by two witnesses in order to be legally valid. Today’s daf asks an important question: What if the men available to serve as witnesses are illiterate? How can a document be legally signed if the witnesses cannot write their own names? 

Over the course of the extensive discussion, the Talmud cites five potential solutions. In order: 

1. Reish Lakish asks whether a literate person can write out the names of the witnesses in red dye and have them trace it in another type of ink.

2. Rav suggests that the court creates a stencil of their names, puts it over the contract and then has the witnesses fill it in with ink. 

3. Shmuel suggests that the court writes out the names of the witnesses in lead (i.e. in pencil), and then has them trace it in ink. 

4. Rabbi Abbahu suggests that the court can write out the names of the witnesses using a solution of water in which gall nuts have been soaked, and then has the witnesses trace it in ink. 

5. Rav Pappa suggests that the court can write out the names of the witnesses in saliva (which ideally dries clear) and then has the witnesses trace their names in ink over it. 

These solutions seem to assume that someone has read the document to the witnesses, so they know exactly what they are attaching their names to. Assuming that they understand what they are signing their names to, and only have trouble forming the letters of their names, these five rabbis offer different strategies for signing.  Four of these solutions involve some kind of “under-writing” in an invisible or semi-permanent mode of writing. Only Rav’s solution offers some kind of “over-writing,” filling in a stencil placed over the document. And it is Rav’s proposed solution which takes legal effect.  

It is taught in beraita in accordance with Rav: Witnesses who do not know how to sign, one tears a blank paper for them, and they fill the gaps with ink.

Apparently, in order to count as “signing,” the witnesses must be able to attach their names to the document without tracing over words already on the document.  

Remarkably, no one proposes what might seem to us like the most obvious solution — to find different witnesses who can sign their names independently! The Talmud next explains exactly why: 

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: When is this statement said? For bills of divorce. However, for bills of manumission and for all other documents, if they know to read and to sign, they sign, and if not, they do not sign.

Rabbi Elazar says: What is the reason of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel? So that the daughters of Israel should not be deserted. 

It turns out that in most legal situations, the witnesses must in fact be able to sign their own names unaided. But Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel and Rav make an exception in the case of divorce in order to facilitate prompt divorces. These rabbis worry that, in the case of legal roadblocks — such as not finding a literate witness — a husband trying to divorce his wife might just give up and desert her, leaving her an agunah, an abandoned wife, in limbo and unable to marry someone else. To avoid this problem and minimize the risk of agunot, they allow witnesses to be illiterate. 

Read all of Gittin 19 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 4th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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