I’ll admit it: I’m a fan of romantic comedies. We all know the formula: Two people improbably destined for each other “meet cute,” fall in love, complications arise and then, when hope is all but lost, reunite — just in the nick of time.
Gittin chapter four begins on today’s daf with a discussion of what happens if a husband, having sent a get with a messenger to his soon-to-be ex-wife, changes his mind. Can he, like our prototypical rom-com hero, swoop in and save the day?
The mishnah relates:
In the case of one who sends a bill of divorce to his wife with an agent, and he (the husband) reached the agent, or where he sent another agent after him, and he said: “The bill of divorce that I gave you, it is void” — then this bill of divorce is hereby void.
Similarly, if the husband reached his wife before the bill of divorce reached her, or in a case where he sent an agent to her, and he said, or had the agent say, to his wife: “The bill of divorce that I sent to you, it is void” — then this bill of divorce is hereby void.
If your mind works like mine, you’re probably thinking this: Hurrah! If the husband or an agent manages to intercept the delivering agent or the wife before the get is delivered, the document is void and the marriage is saved.
But it’s not always a fairytale ending:
However, if the husband stated his intention to retract, once the bill of divorce had entered her possession, he can no longer render it void.
Once it is in the woman’s hand, the divorce is final. And so, if the husband doesn’t manage to catch the messenger in time, there’s no happy ending.
Now the mishnah asks: What if the husband, realizing that he can’t outrun the messenger with the get, tries to void the get in front of a Jewish court in another city? There’s an answer for this, too:
Initially, such a husband would convene a court elsewhere and render the bill of divorce void. Rabban Gamliel the Elder instituted an ordinance that one should not do this, for the betterment of the world (tikkun olam).
What does Rabban Gamliel mean, “for the betterment of the world?” As we have seen, when the talmudic sages use the phrase tikkun olam, they mean something different, and less cosmic, than what it usually means in either a kabbalistic or modern Jewish context. It generally means a tweak to the law to make society run well.
To understand Rabban Gamliel’s ruling more fully, we need to understand why a husband might send a get, and then attempt to cancel it.If you, like me, have been reading the mishnah through romcom glasses, then the rabbinic answer to this question will be a letdown: The rabbis are concerned that a husband might be dangling a get over his wife’s head in order to torment her. Here’s how the Gemara on this mishnah opens:
The mishnah does not teach: He reached the agent after pursuing him (higi’o); rather: He reached (higi’a) the agent. And even if he reached him incidentally, (the bill of divorce is void with his statement). And we do not say he intends only to vex his wife.
Here, the Gemara parses between two forms of the Hebrew verb “arrive,” making a distinction between a person who intercepts the agent on purpose, and a person who encounters the agent by chance. Whether the get is invalidated verbally by a husband who deeply wishes to do so and has managed to intercept the messenger, or whether the husband expresses a desire to invalidate the get by having “bumped into” the messenger by chance, the result is the same: If it hasn’t reached the woman yet, the get is voided. By explicitly noting that we don’t assume that the husband “intends only to vex his wife,” the rabbis recognize that both things can happen: The husband may be trying hard to undo a divorce, or he may be trying to torment his wife. In either case, a divorce is not affected based on the husband’s intent; it is only his actions that matter.
With this understanding that a man might send a get to his wife solely to cause her distress, since presumably she knows it is coming and is on pins and needles awaiting the end of her marriage, the rabbis seek to protect the woman from frivolous divorce. (In the tenth century, Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz issued a critical ruling that a woman could not be divorced against her will, but in the time of the Talmud, she could.) Hardly the makings of a feel-good romcom, but rather an unflinching look at the often messy and painful reality of human relationships.
And what of Rabban Gamliel the Elder’s ruling that a husband cannot void a get in another city “for the betterment of the world (for the sake of tikkun olam)?” On tomorrow’s daf, the Gemara relates:
Rabbi Yohanan says: This is for the benefit of potential children born from an adulterous relationship.
Reish Lakish says: For the betterment of deserted wives.
A man cannot void a get in another city, possibly without his wife’s knowledge, lest she be under the misapprehension that she is legally divorced, remarry (an accidentally adulterous relationship), and bear children who would be considered mamzers. Or, according to Reish Lakish, she might end up becoming an agunah — not really divorced but not really married, either — and thus unable to leave her dead marriage.
While the romantic comedy version is lovely on the screen, all of us — including the rabbis of the Talmud — know that life is usually not like that. The rabbis therefore put laws in place to protect women by both allowing divorce that isn’t final to be voided, and making sure that divorce, when effected, really is final.
Read all of Gittin 32 on Sefaria.