Welcome to Tractate Gittin, in which we will explore the practical procedures for enacting a divorce.
In Judaism, the marital bond is sacred, parallel to the covenant between God and Israel. The divine covenant, of course, is most severely violated through idolatry, and the marital covenant through adultery. Both represent the ultimate betrayal.
But a covenant, however serious and binding, is not necessarily eternal. More than once in the Torah, God came close to nullifying the covenant with the people of Israel, though it ultimately held. Likewise, in the Jewish view, if a marriage is not working, it need not continue, but it must be legally dissolved. That is the subject of Tractate Gittin: to make sure that the parties of an ended marriage are lawfully sundered. As we might expect, the rabbinic discussion of this topic is rooted in the Torah, which is fairly terse on the subject of divorce:
A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house. (Deuteronomy 24:1)
The phrase the Torah uses for a bill of divorce, sefer kritut, means a document of severance. The rabbinic word for it, get, comes from a root meaning to engrave and means, essentially, a legal document. The plural, gittin, is the name of this tractate. This, then, is the first rabbinic requirement for a divorce: drawing up a document certifying the dissolution of the marriage. Because divorce has important financial ramifications — the woman is now liable for her own financial needs, and she also reclaims property that belonged to her before the marriage but was in her husband’s possession — the sages required that the get be properly dated and bear the signature of two witnesses.
The rabbis derived a second requirement for divorce from this passage in Deuteronomy: The bill must be handed to the wife. Proof of divorce is especially important for her because she cannot remarry without it. (He, of course, technically can since men were allowed to have multiple wives, though this seems to have been very uncommon among the rabbis). It is around this second requirement that our tractate opens with a long mishnah that discusses delivery under exceptional circumstances:
One who brings a get from a country overseas is required to state: This was written in my presence and it was signed in my presence.
In this case, the wife lives in the land of Israel and her husband, who is abroad, sends a messenger with a bill of divorce. If this sounds cruel, the answer is that it might be — or it might not. We know from elsewhere in the Talmud that sometimes husbands did this if they felt they were in danger of dying, to ensure their wives could marry other men in the event they did not return home but there was no proof of their death. In any case, this mishnah states that the agent delivering the document is required to tell the soon-to-be ex-wife that he personally witnessed the signing of the get, and that it is legally binding. Why he is required to do this is a subject immediately taken up by the Gemara, which offers multiple suggestions (more on that tomorrow).
The mishnah gives us a rare sketch of the boundaries of what the rabbis considered to be the Holy Land, bordered to the south by Ashkelon, to the north by Akko, and to the east by Rekem. (The Mediterranean was the western border.) Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel now suggests that this halakhah might even apply to one who brings a bill of divorce not across international lines, but from one district of the country to another, though the mishnah lands on its original position that this leniency, that a single witness can deliver the get, applies only when delivery comes from abroad (or, vice versa, if she lives abroad and he lives in the land of Israel). Later on our daf, the Gemara raises a concern:
This is a matter of forbidden sexual relations, and the general principle is that there is no matter of testimony for forbidden sexual relations that can be attested to by fewer than two witnesses.
We are reminded here of what is at stake in getting divorce right. Not only does it have significant financial consequences, but if the woman remarries and then the divorce is called into question, she may be liable for adultery — a crime so great it carries a capital sentence. This is the worst possible outcome, and should be avoided at all costs. For this and many other reasons, it is crucial to ensure divorces are completely legal and unassailable. But human circumstances are rarely clean, and so complications often arise.
Digging through those complicated scenarios will occupy us for the next three months, and it will require us to always consider what is at stake for all parties: financially, legally and emotionally. While we’re at it, we’ll enjoy a few detours, as we often do in the Talmud, including a journey through one of its most famous stories: the rabbinic account of how the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Welcome to the new tractate.
Read all of Gittin 2 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 18th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.