Way back in Tractate Yevamot, we encountered several discussions about child brides. There are many reasons why parents would want to betroth their very young daughter, including making sure she was taken care of if the parents themselves died while she was still a small child.
But what if, after the betrothal takes place, the fiancé decides to divorce his child bride? Is he permitted to do so? And if so, how might divorcing a minor girl differ from divorcing an adult woman? A discussion on today’s daf explores these questions. Here’s the mishnah:
In the case of a minor girl who said to an agent: “Receive my bill of divorce for me,” it is not a valid bill of divorce until the bill of divorce reaches her possession. Therefore, if the husband seeks to retract his decision before his wife receives the bill of divorce, he can retract it, as a minor does not designate an agent.
Earlier in Tractate Gittin, we learned that both the husband and the wife can appoint agents for sending and receiving a get. And on Gittin 32, we learned that a husband who has sent a get with an agent and has second thoughts can change his mind and intercept the messenger, invalidating the get before it reaches his wife and preserving the marriage.
Today we learn that a husband who seeks to divorce his child bride and then changes his mind can not only invalidate it before it reaches her, but doesn’t even have to worry about intercepting a messenger, since a minor girl — different from an adult woman — cannot appoint an agent to receive her get. Why not?
To answer that question, the Gemara embarks on a fascinating discussion about child development — namely, the capacity of a minor child to act in her own interest:
And anyone who is unable to safeguard her bill of divorce is unable to be divorced. The sages taught: A minor girl who knows how to safeguard her bill of divorce can be divorced, and one who does not know how to safeguard her bill of divorce cannot be divorced. And which is the minor girl who knows how to safeguard her bill of divorce? It is any minor girl who safeguards her bill of divorce and something else.
The Gemara immediately asks:
What is this saying? Rabbi Yohanan says that this is what it is saying: Any minor who safeguards something else due to her bill of divorce.
Two hallmarks of a child’s level of maturity are whether she has the capacity to take care of her possessions and recognize the difference between two similar items. At age three, my grandson went through a phase during which his favorite thing to do was to throw various objects out the window of a moving car: a toy, a food wrapper, a gasoline receipt. All were essentially the same to him, and he certainly didn’t take care to safeguard the items. A little girl at a similar developmental stage was not, in the rabbinic reckoning, old enough to receive a get — because she’d be as likely as not to throw it out the proverbial window.
And why would a minor girl even be in a position to accept her own divorce document? Likely, it means there’s no one else to do it for her, which would happen if her father is deceased or missing. (Anticipating such circumstances may indeed have prompted her parents to betroth her at such a young age in the first place.) In this case, there is absolutely no benefit to the girl from being divorced, and it could even place her in a precarious and dangerous situation.
Protecting a girl so young she doesn’t possess basic understanding becomes so enshrined in halakhah that not only does the Gemara disallow her from being divorced if she lacks capacity and there’s no one to accept her get in her place, but the medieval commentators question whether she can be divorced even if her father is alive. (Rashi here to Gittin 64a; Rambam, Mishneh Torah Divorce 2:19; Shulchan Aruch Even Ha’Ezer 141:6.)
While as modern readers we might struggle with the idea of child marriage in the first place, there’s a logic to the thinking of the rabbis who act to keep the child bride protected by safeguarding her status as a married girl and entitled to the support that entails.
Read all of Gittin 64 on Sefaria.