Gittin 66

Demonic divorce.

The mishnah on today’s daf describes how a man can authorize a get for his wife from inside a pit:

One who was thrown into a pit and he said that anyone who hears his voice should write a bill of divorce for his wife — those who hear him should write it and give it.

The mishnah imagines a scenario in which a hostile government (for example) throws a man into a pit (presumably functioning as a prison) as punishment for some crime and he does not know if he will live or die. If this man does not want to leave his wife an agunah, he might try to secure a divorce from within the pit. Even if passersby don’t know the man and he is too far away for them to see him, if they hear his voice asking for a divorce, they should comply, and theget is valid. 

The rabbis of the Gemara ask what to them is the obvious question about this mishnah: If we can’t see the man in the pit, how do we know that he is really … human? 

But perhaps it is a demon!

Perhaps it’s no unfortunate person but a demon in the pit, causing mayhem by initiating divorces for random couples. How can we know there’s really a stranded husband down there?

Rav Yehuda says: where they saw that he has human form.

Rav Yehuda suggests that we can tell a demon by their body shape: Maybe the passersby were far away, but if they could see that the resident of the pit looks human, they can assume he is a human. But not so fast!

But they (demons) too can appear this way!

If demons can look human, then body shape can’t help us differentiate husbands from demons. The Gemara thus proposes a different mechanism for distinguishing between the two: 

Where they saw that he has a shadow.

But they also have a shadow.

Where they saw that he has the shadow of a shadow.And perhaps they too have one? Rabbi Hanina says: Yonatan my son taught me they have a shadow but they do not have the shadow of a shadow.

Apparently, demons can be visually distinguished from humans not by their bodies but by examining whether their shadow casts a shadow, which, as Rosencrantz points out in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is “of so airy and light a quality” that it is almost nothing. Of course, when it comes to someone at the bottom of a pit, this can be difficult to determine.

So should we worry about whether a disembodied voice or even a visibly human man in a pit is really a demon? Apparently not. But even if they are a demon, the Gemara concludes by deciding that the divorce they initiate might still be valid. Why? Because in the rabbinic system, demons can serve as legal actors, and because it is better to err on the side of caution in freeing a woman who might otherwise end up an agunah. As the discussion concludes, 

A sage from the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: During a time of danger, one writes and gives a get even though they are not familiar to him.

Read all of Gittin 66 on Sefaria.

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

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Verbal confirmation.

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