Ketubot 55

Did he mean to divorce her?

On yesterday’s page, we read a mishnah about adjustments to the ketubah payment. In general, a man may revise the payments upward of what is required — 100 dinars for a widow, 200 for a virgin — but he may not revise them downward. (Rabbi Yehuda allows a man to reduce the payments below the accepted minimums by soliciting a document from his bride stating she has already received half from him, but Rabbi Meir strongly disagrees.) With regard to ketubah payments above the minimum, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya says this in the mishnah:

If she is widowed or divorced after marriage, she collects the total (extra large) amount, but if she is widowed or divorced after betrothal, a virgin collects 200 dinars and a widow 100 dinars. This is because he wrote the additional amount for her in the marriage contract only in order to marry her.

In the course of debating whether or not the halakhah actually follows Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya in this, the Gemara raises a more general question: Do we follow to the letter what a person says? Or can we allow ourselves to act on what we think might be behind their words? Can we assume we know the intentions of the groom, even if they are not stated explicitly in the ketubah?

It was stated: Rav and Rabbi Natan differed with regard to this issue. One said the halakhah is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, and one said the halakhah is not in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya.

It may be concluded that Rabbi Natan is the one who says the halakhah is in accordance with Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, as we have heard that Rabbi Natan follows (the position of) assessing (intentions). As Rabbi Natan said: The halakhah is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon Shezuri in the case of a person in danger.

There is a lot left unstated here, and one must recognize the discussion Rabbi Natan is referencing to understand his position. He is talking about the case in which a man writes a get (divorce document) but does not instruct anyone to give it to his wife. The view expressed on this daf is codified in the Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 141:16:

“One who says, ‘Write a get for my wife’: The get is written out and put in the husband’s hand, and it is not given to the wife until he instructs it to be given to her. When is this the case? When the husband is healthy (i.e., under normal circumstances). In a case where he is in danger, and he is a person who has fallen ill quickly and it has progressed to a serious state in a short matter of time, one who is taken prisoner, even for a matter of money, one who goes to sea or away in a caravan … it is written and given to his wife, for it is known that his intention is to give it to her.”

In the first case, where the husband is healthy, we don’t assume he wants to give the get to his wife until he explicitly says he is ready. Perhaps he hasn’t definitively decided to go through with the divorce. However, in a case where the husband’s life is changing dramatically — he is taken captive, seriously ill, or has set out on a long journey from which he may not return — we assume he intends to follow through.

Although the Shulchan Aruch doesn’t say why, it seems that this divorce is designed to protect the woman, perhaps from levirate marriage should he die or from becoming an agunah should he be unable to return to her. (Incidentally, this passage makes clear that in some circumstances divorce was not the result of a failed marriage — quite the opposite, it was a loving gesture.)

The larger question that hovers in the background is this: In what cases can we assume we know a person’s intention, and in what cases do we need to check with them explicitly? If someone misinterpreted a person’s instructions and delivered a get on his behalf when that wasn’t his intention, it could cause chaos and unnecessary pain.

However, if the person intended for the get to be delivered and it wasn’t, this too could cause problems — especially when that get was designed to protect his wife. Holding to the presumed intention of a person is slippery and difficult. And for those giving instructions: Think carefully about how you phrase those instructions, and whether your intentions are obvious or need further clarification.

Read all of Ketubot 55 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 30th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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