Gittin 9

Full faith and credit.

The U.S. Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit Clause requires states to honor the “public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state.” States are not at liberty to pick and choose which acts of another state to respect and which to ignore. 

Things were not so cut and dried for the ancient rabbis when considering ostensibly secular statues and regulations. Though Jewish law generally requires respect for the law of the land in which Jews reside, the rabbis were loath to accept certain actions of non-Jewish authorities as binding. 

We get a taste of this complexity on today’s daf, which address two sets of circumstances: witnessing signatories who were Samaritans (a group similar to, but distinct from, Jews) and documents drawn up by non-Jewish courts.

In a mishnah that we will encounter in full tomorrow but which is quoted by the Gemara on today’s daf, we learn the following:  

Any document that has a Samaritan witness on it is invalid, except for bills of divorce and bills of manumission. 

What’s the rationale here? As we’ve seen many times already in our study of Daf Yomi, the early rabbis were deeply suspicious of the Samaritans, an ancient group that shared ancestry with Jews but had a distinct scriptural canon. According to Chanokh Albeck, a 20th century professor of Talmud at Hebrew University, the early rabbis believed Samaritans to be untrustworthy on financial matters, so those types of documents signed by Samaritans were unacceptable. However, in ritual matters like divorce, Samaritan practice was sufficiently similar to Jewish practice that their signatures were binding.  

Makes sense. Except that another mishnah also quoted on today’s daf seems to teach the opposite: 

All documents that are produced in gentile courts, even though their signatories are gentiles, they are valid, except for bills of divorce and bills of manumission.

Kind of strange, right? Here, gentile court documents are deemed to be generally legitimate, except for bills of divorce and manumission. It’s the exact reverse of the situation with Samaritans, where we accepted their involvement with bills of divorce and manumission, but rejected them for other documents.

What’s the logic of this? A bill of divorce is a religious document governed by halakhah. Since only Jews are bound by halakhah, non-Jewish witnessing is of no relevance. The Samaritans were accepted as witnesses to bills of divorce solely because their religious practices around divorce were considered sufficiently similar to Jewish practices. And while bills of manumission aren’t necessarily religious, Rashi finds that they’re sufficiently similar to bills of divorce that they’re treated the same way. 

Documents pertaining to non-religious matters are a different story. It’s easy to imagine that practicalities played a role here. Had the rabbis deemed legal engagements with gentiles uniformly unacceptable, it would have undermined commercial relations and left Jews economically isolated. But when it came to ritual matters, the rabbis were protective of their territory.

This remains a live issue today. The Reform movement in the United States has followed a stream of Reform tradition dating back to the Napoleonic Era and held that a civil divorce document is sufficient for a Jewish divorce, but Reform Jews elsewhere are less certain. Conservative and Orthodox Jews continue to hold secular divorce documents insufficient to separate the couple. As Professor Deidre Butler notes, such divergences impact not only how Jews interact with secular authorities, but how various Jewish communities interact with each other.

Such balancing acts are inherent to Jewish engagement with the outside world. Sometimes, external legal sources are binding and probative, giving them currency in Jewish decision making. At other times, especially in religious matters, non-Jewish perspectives are deemed irrelevant. Our daf is just one example from one period. But even today, we make choices like these.

Read all of Gittin 9 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 25th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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