Gittin 36

For the betterment of the world.

For several days now, the Gemara has been unpacking a series of mishnahs that concern legal decisions the rabbis made “for the sake of tikkun olam.” This phrase has a variety of meanings. For some, it has mystical implications grounded in our adherence to mitzvot, while others use it to describe social justice efforts. But in the context of these mishnahs, the term means something more akin to how the great talmudist and translator Marcus Jastrow understands the phrase: “For the sake of the social order.”  

The mishnah on Gittin 34 taught that one of these rabbinic decisions is the requirement that witnesses sign a bill of divorce. On today’s daf, the rabbis question this:

The mishnah taught: And the witnesses sign the bill of divorce for the betterment of the world. For the betterment of the world? It is by Torah law (that they must sign), as it is written: “And subscribe the deeds, and sign them, and call witnesses” (Jeremiah 32:44).

The mishnah stated that the requirement of signatories was a rabbinic edict aimed at upholding the social order. But the Gemara offers a prooftext from Jeremiah that suggests witnesses are in fact necessary on a divorce bill. This prompts two questions. First, are witnesses actually biblically required? And second, what does this requirement have to do with the betterment of the world?

To address these questions, the Gemara cites this teaching:

Rabba said: No, it is necessary according to Rabbi Elazar, who says: Witnesses of the transmission of the bill of divorce effect the divorce.

Nevertheless, the sages instituted signatory witnesses for the betterment of the world, as sometimes the witnesses die, or sometimes they go overseas.

According to Rabbi Elazar, according to Torah law, a divorce bill does not need to be signed by witnesses because it is, in effect, self-authenticating. It is the witnesses who testify to the divorce bill’s transmission to the wife that are necessary — not the signatories to the bill itself. Nevertheless, the rabbis’ instituted the requirement of signatories because sometimes the witnesses aren’t available and the divorce could be contested. So for the sake of social order — i.e. tikkun olam — they mandated the bill be signed by witnesses. 

But there’s another interpretation. A beraita tells us that witnesses didn’t write their full names, leaving some ambiguity as to who they were and whether the document was legitimate. This in turn required locating the witnesses in question or finding a copy of their signature for authentication purposes. In the face of this, Rav Yosef proposes the following interpretation of the mishnah:

They instituted that the witnesses must specify their full names on bills of divorce for the betterment of the world.

In other words, the requirement in the mishnah is for a complete signature. By providing more complete information about the witnesses, their identity could be more easily validated, which betters the world and grounds social order. 

Requiring witnesses on a bill of divorce seems quite distant from the concept of acts of lovingkindness and generosity, concepts more commonly attached to the idea of tikkun olam today. But today’s daf gives us a sense for how this amendment to Jewish law provides benefits for divorcing women and makes the world a better place.

Read all of Gittin 36 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 21st, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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