The opening mishnah of Tractate Gittin discusses a situation where an agent delivers a get (bill of divorce) to a woman in the land of Israel from her husband who is overseas. As we have learned, in most instances, rabbinic law requires two witnesses in order to establish a matter, but in this case one agent is adequate, provided he testifies: “This bill of divorce was written in my presence and it was signed in my presence.” This is adequate proof the get came from her husband and was intended for her.
As a matter of practicality, there is a logic to support this decision. In rabbinic times, traveling across the seas to foreign lands involved time, risk and expense. Perhaps for this reason, the rabbis allowed a single messenger to deliver a get, but required that he testify to its authenticity. The Gemara, however, suggests another motivation:
The sages were lenient with her due to the possibility of desertion.
A deserted wife (agunah) is one whose husband has disappeared without dissolving the marriage. Because she is not divorced and there is no evidence that her husband has died, she is unable to remarry. (In modern times, the term agunah also refers to a woman who is stuck in a marriage because her husband is maliciously unwilling to present her with a get.) In the case on today’s daf, if the get is not accepted on account of arriving with only a single witness, it is possible that the woman would become an agunah because her (ex-)husband believes the divorce went through. To avoid this scenario, the sages were lenient and approved the get delivered by a single messenger.
But is that really what is going on here? Now the Gemara presents another view that suggests otherwise:
Is this ruling a leniency? It is a stringency, since if you require two witnesses to testify with regard to the bill of divorce, her husband cannot come to contest and invalidate it, as his testimony will not be accepted against that of the two witnesses. However, if only one agent brings the bill of divorce, the husband can come and contest and invalidate the document.
If a lenient ruling helps make it easier for the divorce to go through, then this rule may actually be a stringency. How so? If we accept the divorce on the word of only one witness, we open the door for the husband, upon his return, to claim that the document was not valid and that he and his wife are still married. And so, by accepting the word of the messenger, we have made it more difficult for the divorce to be finalized.
So is it a leniency or a stringency? The Gemara does not resolve the debate.
Consider for a moment that the answer might be both. It’s true that making it easier for the divorce to go through is a leniency because it legally releases a woman from a marriage that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists. And it is also a stringency, because accepting the word of a single messenger opens the door for a legal objection should the husband return and claim that the document was not valid.
The Gemara will continue the conversation about how, under various circumstances, a get is authenticated, so we will look at a lot of these kinds of scenarios. We might immediately find ourselves applauding or condemning the rabbis for being either strict or lenient. If this is your response, I suggest you always take a moment and ask yourself: Why are they being lenient? How are they being strict? What competing values are at play here?
Doing so might not change your ultimate response to what you have read, but it might cause you to reflect in new ways about the rabbis’ motivations and the competing values they frequently juggle. And isn’t that what the Talmud is about in the first place?
Read all of Gittin 3 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 19th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.