Gittin 5

What is witnessing?

We have already learned that, in order to dissolve a marriage, a man must give his wife a written bill of divorce. He can write the bill of divorce himself or pay a scribe to write it, but it must be written specifically for the dissolution of this marriage. Though it would make his job easier, a scribe can’t stockpile a bunch of divorce documents and then fill in the names later. 

Once he has the divorce document in hard, the soon-to-be-ex husband can hand it directly to his soon-to-be-ex wife or (given that it’s likely an awkward or painful situation) send it via messenger, who serves as his legal agent. But when an agent from across the sea gives the woman the bill of divorce in court, as we learned in the mishnah a few days ago, they must be able to declare:

It was written in my presence and it was signed in my presence. 

The Gemara explains that the agent needs to have witnessed the writing and signing of the divorce decree because the husband might later contest its legitimacy. There needs to be witnesses to the process who can accurately report on what happened. 

But what does it mean to witness the writing of a divorce document? The Talmud today recounts several episodes which shed light on this question. 

First, we get a story that offers us a dispute about how carefully the agent must watch the scribe as they write:

Bar Haddaya sought to bring a bill of divorce. He came before Rabbi Ahai, who was appointed over bills of divorce. Rabbi Ahai said to him: “You are required to stand over each and every letter.”

He came before Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi and they said to him: “You are not required (to observe this).”

These rabbis disagree on what it means to actively witness, with Rabbi Ahai requiring a level of attention that Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi think is unneccessary. But all of these rabbis seem to assume that the witness is in the room with the scribe. 

Next we get a story that suggests that maybe the agent doesn’t actually have to be in the room for the writing of the whole document.

Rabba bar bar Hana brought a bill of divorce, half of which was written in his presence and half of which was not written in his presence.

He came before Rabbi Elazar. Rabbi Elazar said to him: “Even if he wrote only one line of it for her sake (in the presence of the agent), he is no longer required (to pay attention).”

The Talmud is filled with stories of Rabba bar bar Hana’s fantastical travels, so it makes sense that a husband would ask him to serve as an agent for his divorce — the home of the soon-to-be ex-wife is probably just another stop along his journey. But that kind of travel is exhausting. If Rabba bar bar Hana needed to take a nap halfway through witnessing the writing of a get, according to Rabbi Elazar, that would have been fine.

Finally, we get a statement from Rav Ashi, who insists that the act of witnessing can be done not only visually but aurally. 

Rav Ashi said: Even if he heard the sound of the quill and the sound of the scroll.

The Talmud’s discussion here is an important reminder that we can’t just assume that we know what various terms mean based on our own contexts. Even a seemingly obvious term like witnessing could indicate various things and it’s important that we stop and interrogate exactly what it means. After all, a marriage — and a divorce! — are at stake.

Read all of Gittin 5 on Sefaria.

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

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