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Gittin 90

What is marriage?

Today we find ourselves on the final page of Tractate Gittin, which may also be the most revealing daf of all.

The rabbinic laws of divorce largely derive from the first verses of Deuteronomy 24, which begin like this: “If a man takes a wife and marries her and she fails to find favor in his eyes because he found something indecent in her, then he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand…”

Based on this verse, much of this tractate has focused on the mechanics of how a divorce, and in particular the divorce document, is accomplished: Who can write the get? What should it say? Who can witness it? Who can deliver it? What constitutes receipt? All of this we have explored at length.

But the first part of this verse from Deuteronomy, the part that deals with the reasons a man might choose to divorce his wife, has remained largely undiscussed — until today. And while a solid understanding of the mechanics of divorce is obviously important to ensure everyone’s marital status is unequivocal and to prevent accidental adultery, the question of why someone might seek a divorce tells us a great deal more about what marriage itself means.

In a mishnah that opens today’s daf, Hillel and Shammai are found agreeing that the first part of this verse from Deuteronomy dictates the circumstances under which a man is permitted to divorce his wife, but they have wildly different interpretations of what those circumstances are:

Beit Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he finds out that she engaged in forbidden sexual intercourse, as it is stated: “Because he has found something indecent (ervat davar) in her.” (Deuteronomy 24:1)

Beit Hillel say: He may divorce her even if she burned his food, as it is stated: “Because he has found something indecent in her.”

The debate turns on the meaning of the Hebrew phrase ervat davar. Though the word ervah usually means “nakedness,” in construct with davar (which just means “thing”) the phrase might mean something far less literal than nudity or sexual transgression — it might simply mean something unpleasant. For instance, in Deuteronomy 23:15, the only other place the phrase appears in the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites are chided: “Since the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you, let your camp be holy; let Him not find anything unseemly (ervat davar) among you and turn away from you.” What exactly is an ervat davar in the camp that might cause God’s presence to depart? Rashi suggests it is literal nakedness, whereas Ibn Ezra thinks it means something unseemly in deed or speech.

Similarly, Beit Shammai argues that a man is only allowed to divorce his wife if she has committed a sexual transgression. But Beit Hillel interprets the same phrase to mean a man can divorce his wife if she does anything that makes him unhappy — even if she simply burns his soup.

Beit Hillel’s view makes marriage relatively easy to dissolve. Beit Shammai, in contrast, sets the bar for divorce incredibly high. While the Gemara’s debate about their positions turns on which has the better reading of the Torah verse, there is obviously more at stake than textual interpretation. The basic underlying question is about the very nature of marriage. Do we understand marriage to be so sacred and serious that it is dissolved only when absolutely necessary? (Yes, adultery, for the rabbis, necessitates a divorce.) Or is marriage a partnership that should last only as long as it is happy?

It is not uncommon, in our day, to hear people lament the high rate of divorce, seemingly presuming that divorce is both a new phenomenon and an undesirable one. But if we take Beit Hillel seriously — and we should, because as usual his position is ultimately codified into Jewish law — that might lead us to question both of these assumptions. Divorce existed in the ancient Jewish world, though we don’t really know at what rate. There may have been times when it was high. We also don’t know that divorce was necessarily viewed as a calamity. If Hillel thought burned food was grounds for seeking divorce, it would suggest he didn’t think so. 

None of this is meant to detract from marriage. Tomorrow, we begin Tractate Kiddushin, which is about betrothal and forging a marriage. The word kiddushin is derived from a Hebrew root that means sacred. In Judaism, “sanctity of marriage” is not some florid or hyperbolic phrase — it’s exactly how marriage is viewed, as consecration. But that doesn’t mean it’s always forever. Indeed, one scenario among many we’ve discussed in this tractate is the notion of a preemptive loving divorce — one given by a man who doesn’t wish to leave his wife but wants to protect her in case something terrible happens to him. This is somewhat foreign to our own worldview, and it’s not common today, but this ancient phenomenon can open our eyes to the idea that marriage is sacred and still divorce, in and of itself, is not necessarily a tragedy — and can even be an act of love.

Read all of Gittin 90 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 14th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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