Gittin 21

Mobile courtyard.

On today’s daf, we read two statements of Rava:

Rava says: If he wrote her a bill of divorce and placed it in the hand of his slave, and he wrote her a deed of gift with regard to the slave, and then she acquired the slave due to the document — she is divorced immediately by the bill of divorce that is in his hand. 

And Rava also says: If he wrote her a bill of divorce and placed it in his courtyard, and he wrote a deed of gift with regard to the courtyard, and then she has acquired the courtyard — she is divorced immediately by the bill of divorce in the courtyard.

At first glance, these statements are parallel: In rabbinic law, a husband has the right to gift his wife a slave or a courtyard. And if the husband places a legally written and signed bill of divorce in the courtyard, or in the hand of the slave, and then presents a deed of gift to his wife, according to Rava, she acquires the get as a part of the gift and the couple becomes divorced at the same moment. 

The Gemara takes issue with the first statement:

The slave is considered a mobile courtyard, and a mobile courtyard does not acquire property.

A courtyard is a fixed, dedicated space. When a get is placed within, it becomes part of the courtyard and is passed on to the wife as part of the gift. A slave, however, has the ability to move and therefore, the Gemara argues, cannot acquire property in the same way. So if the husband places the get in the hand of his slave, the slave does not take possession of the get and it does not transfer to the woman as part of the gift. This poses a problem for Rava.

But only for the moment, as the Gemara relates:

The halakhah taught by Rava applies in a case where the slave was bound.

If the slave is tied up and unable to move, they are no longer mobile. In this state, they are more analogous to a fixed courtyard and able to take possession of the bill of divorce. By limiting the case to a situation in which a husband ties up his slave, the Gemara resolves the problem and Rava’s first teaching can stand.

On the ethical level, this discussion leaves much to be desired. Is this the proper way for a man to divorce his wife — by gifting her a courtyard or slave and the bill of divorce along with it? And if he chooses to go with the slave, the slave must be tied up so they are unable to move? 

But the rabbis here are not discussing the ethics of divorce, or treatment of slaves, they are dealing with the legal transfer of a get. They are not condoning such behavior, rather they are considering the consequences if the husband chooses to act in such a manner.

If a husband places a bill of divorce in the courtyard and gifts it to his wife, the bill of divorce is transferred to her along with the property. A slave is also a piece of property, so one might think that the same rule applies. But a slave is not an inanimate object. A slave does not acquire an object simply by placing it in their hand. Why? A slave has agency — they can move around and they can put the object down. And so an object that they are given to hold does not transfer with them to the new owner.

In this discussion, we are told that the slave is a “mobile courtyard.” At first glance, it’s a strange term. Is there such a thing as a courtyard that moves? Doesn’t the term courtyard imply immobility? But we are not dealing with a nonsensical oxymoron here. We are dealing with legal categories. Under many circumstances, slaves fall into the category of courtyard and the property laws that apply to courtyards also apply to slaves. Not so here, because they move. So the rabbis create the category of mobile courtyards. This is not to suggest that people are courtyards or that there are courtyards that move, but to deal with the fact legally slaves are in some ways like courtyards, and in some ways not, in that they move. 

For Rava’s statements to both be true, a slave has to be fully courtyard-like. And when is this the case? Only when the slave is bound and unable to move.

Read all of Gittin 21 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 5th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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