What does it mean to improve the world?
We learned in the mishnah yesterday that originally, a man who sent his wife a get and then changed his mind could quickly convene a court elsewhere and annul the get before it reached her. But then Rabban Gamaliel instituted a decree that men should not do this, because of “tikkun olam,” which literally translates to something like “improving or correcting the world.”
The Gemara on today’s daf asks: What problem in this world is Rabban Gamaliel’s decree coming to fix?
Rabbi Yohanan says: This is for the benefit of children born from an adulterous relationship.
If the husband annulled the get once it was already sent but the woman didn’t realize it had been annulled, received the get and remarried, then the children of this second marriage are mamzers, the product of a forbidden sexual relationship — because she is still technically married to the first husband.
Reish Lakish says: It is for the betterment of deserted wives (agunahs).
Reish Lakish argues that the problem Rabban Gamaliel was trying to fix was more immediate — the situation of the women themselves who can now never be certain whether their divorces are valid unless they were literally in the room from start to finish. And given that the Talmud insists that divorce is initiated and enacted only by men, a woman may not be able to control whether or not she is in the room.
The Gemara is next going to explore which later rabbis’ opinions align with those of Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish. The rabbis conclude that Rabbi Yohanan’s opinion aligns with that of Rav Nahman, a generation younger, who argued that a divorce can be annulled in the presence of two witnesses.
And two people do not generate publicity, it is possible that she does not hear. And since she does not know, she will go and marry, and there are mamzers.
And as for Reish Lakish, the Gemara concludes that his opinion aligns with that of the younger Rav Sheshet, who argued a bill of divorce can actually only be annulled in the presence of three men:
And since three do generate publicity, she does hear and know, and she would not marry. But there is a betterment of deserted wives.
Allowing a man to quietly annul a get he has already dispatched to his wife would mean that even after a woman has received her get, if she was not present for the writing and transmission, she is not really free to remarry. Instead, she would constantly be on tenterhooks, waiting to hear if the divorce was annulled before it got to her. Only a public and well-publicized annulment will do.
This dispute has real implications for how divorce functions, and what kinds of lives women can lead after their husbands initiate divorce. But it also offers us a lens into a different dispute: What does it mean to better the world?
Rabbi Yohanan insists that to improve the world is to make it better for the next generation, for our children to be safe, healthy and fully integrated into the Jewish community. Reish Lakish, on the other hand, argues that improving the world means to make the world better right now — for those who are already living in it. It’s not enough for the woman’s future children to be of clear status, she herself must be free right now. But whether the goal is to improve the world for those alive in it now or for the next generation, both rabbis agree with Rabban Gamaliel’s original decree: We must act now to improve the world.
Read all of Gittin 33 on Sefaria.