Gittin 79

Which kingdom is more legitimate?

As we’ve learned, the requirement to date a bill of divorce helps provide clarity as to when a divorce comes into effect. But in a world in which there is no single calendar, will any dating system do?

If a man wrote the date on the bill of divorce using a calendrical system that counts years in the name of a kingdom that is not legitimate, or he wrote the date in the name of the kingdom of Medea, or in the name of the Greek Empire, the bill of divorce is not valid. 

As Talmud scholar Dr. Josh Kulp explains, it was standard practice to date documents according to the ruling empire. During the Roman period, for instance, when the Mishnah was written and compiled, it would be invalid to date a get according to the empires of the Greeks or Medes, because they were no longer ascendant. The mishnah seems to forbid the use of calendars from what it describes as “illegitimate” (likely meaning defunct) kingdoms and then provides two examples.

The Gemara, however, reads the mishnah a bit differently:

What is a kingdom that is not legitimate? The Roman Empire. And why is it called a kingdom that is not legitimate? Because they have neither their own script, nor their own language.

While it is unlikely that the authors of the Mishnah would be so bold as to insult the Roman Empire, in which they lived, by declaring it illegitimate because it had no alphabet of its own, the rabbis in Babylonia, protected by time and distance, reread the mishnah to included them on the illegitimate list — even though the Roman Empire had not yet fallen in their day. And they probably got some pleasure from delivering this jab at an empire that had caused their people so much misery.

But the Talmud does not seem to think that the mishnah is banning the use of all non-Jewish calendars. In fact, the opposite, as Ulla teaches:

For what reason did the sages institute that the date should be written according to the years of the local kingdom in bills of divorce? Due to the need to maintain peaceful relations with the kingdom.

In other words, when dating a get, the rabbis want people to use a non-Jewish calendrical system, and specifically the one that was used by the local ruling authority. Why? Following the customs of the powers that be was a way to keep the peace — perhaps because the rabbis feared that using the Jewish calendar instead might be interpreted as a rejection of local rule or even a step toward rebellion.

Several centuries later, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Divorce 1:27) suggests a more nuanced approach. Namely, when needed to gain favor from the local authority, bills of divorce should be dated according to their calendrical system. However, if the local custom is to date a bill of divorce according to a non-local authority, it is acceptable to do so:

It has already become the universal Jewish custom to date gittin from the time of creation (i.e., using the traditional Jewish calendar), or from the crowning of Alexander the Great, which is the accepted means of dating for legal documents. If one dates according to the years of a contemporary kingdom, it is acceptable only in the country over which that kingdom rules.
Today, gets are dated according to the Jewish calendar. However, because of the principle of dina d’malchuta dina (the law of the local authority is the law), Jews are obligated to get a civil divorce before getting divorced Jewishly. In this way, we follow the laws (and calendars) of the communities in which we live, demonstrating our good citizenship, before turning to our own particular customs, rituals and calendar.

Read all of Gittin 79 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 3rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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