Gittin 81

Rumor has it.

Malicious speech, or lashon hara, is considered a serious sin in Judaism. Leviticus 19:16 outlaws it in the same breath as standing idly by the blood of your neighbor. And in Tractate Arakhin, Rabbi Yishmael compares it to the three cardinal sins of murder, idolatry and sexual immorality. That is why we are urged not only to refrain from spreading gossip, but even to listen to it. 

But if that’s the case, why should gossip be considered a factor in rendering a halakhic decision? Amazingly, that’s just what we find on today’s daf. The discussion begins in the mishnah:

If one wrote a bill of divorce to divorce his wife and reconsidered (and did not give it to her), Beit Shammai say: He has disqualified her from marrying into the priesthood. And Beit Hillel say: Even if he gave the bill of divorce to her conditionally and the condition was not fulfilled (and therefore the bill of divorce did not take effect), he did not disqualify her from marrying into the priesthood. 

The debate here is whether a woman whose husband merely wrote a get but did not deliver it would be barred in the future from marrying a priest, who is forbidden from marrying a divorcee but is permitted to marry a widow. Hillel, unsurprisingly, takes the more lenient position, ruling that as long as the woman is not actually divorced, she can still marry a priest. Shammai takes the more restrictive view and rules that she can’t.

In the Gemara, the conversation then takes an interesting turn.

Rav Yosef, son of Rav Menashe from D’vil, sent a query to Shmuel: Our teacher, instruct us. If a rumor circulated that so-and-so the priest wrote a bill of divorce to his wife, but she is still residing under his roof and attending to him, what is the halakhah

Rav Yosef asks this question of his teacher Shmuel: If there’s a rumor that a priest divorced his wife but she’s still living in his house and “attending to him” (wink, wink), should we believe it? And if so, should the marriage be broken up because a priest cannot marry a divorcee — even a woman he was married to previously? Here’s Shmuel’s response:

She must leave, but the matter requires investigation (before he is forced to divorce her). 

Seemingly, the answer is yes: We do give credence to the rumor, at least enough that we force the couple to live apart while looking into whether the priest did in fact divorce his wife while continuing to have relations with her. But is that actually what is being investigated? The Gemara continues:

If we say that (the investigation is) whether we can abolish the rumor or we cannot abolish it (that cannot be the question). But isn’t Neharde’a the place where Shmuel is the halakhic authority, and in Neharde’a they do not abolish a rumor? Rather, it’s whether people in that place refer to giving a bill of divorce as writing. 

The Gemara rejects the possibility that the investigation is into the credence of the rumor itself, noting that Shmuel is the authority in a community where rumors are not abolished (i.e. disproven) and therefore can be taken into account when rendering a halakhic decision. Rather, the investigation is into whether giving is the same as writing. We’re told in the above case only that the priest wrote the get, but does it follow that he actually gave it to her?

The Gemara answers: Yes, as if it is discovered that they refer to giving as writing, then perhaps they are saying in the rumor that he gave her the bill of divorce (and so there is concern that she is actually divorced).

If we’re talking about a place where people use the term “write” in reference to a get to mean “give,” then the rumormongers may well be saying that the husband not only wrote the get but also gave the get. And so there’s grounds for thinking the wife was divorced but is still cohabitating with her priestly ex-husband, which isn’t permitted. 

So what now? Does the couple have to split up based on this rumor that they are living and/or sleeping together while possibly divorced?  

The Gemara asks: She must leave? But doesn’t Rav Ashi say: We are not concerned for any rumor that circulates after marriage? 

Rav Ashi reminds us that we do not pay attention to rumors about couples after they are married. Once a couple is married and living together, rumors about the validity of their union are no longer taken seriously. So while word on the street might tantalizingly lead to questioning the sanctity of marriage (especially in priestly families), the Gemara rules that, at least in the case of marriage, halakhic decisions shouldn’t be made on the basis of what one happens to hear. 

Read all of Gittin 81 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 5th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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