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Sunday, 17 January 2016

Standing up for the chained wife

Daf Yomi Gittin 33

King David’s army was very successful in its efforts to protect and secure the People and the Land of Israel.  Nevertheless, wars are brutal, and occasionally soldiers would be captured by the enemy.  In order to avoid issues with husbands who had gone missing and their wives who would consequently be unable to remarry; David instituted that all soldiers divorce their wives prior to going out to battle.  Upon their return, they would remarry.  That is in fact the justification he employed when he consorted with Batsheva; although she had a husband, technically they were not married. 

Indeed, the issue of missing husbands has been a problem since the beginning of days.  Most of the time, it wasn’t due to the battlefield.  In ancient times, communication wasn’t easy; and people would travel for business for extended periods of time.  If a husband failed to return, what was his poor wife to do?  Even if years passed, she remained ‘chained’ to him and unable to remarry until word of his demise or whereabouts would eventually arrive. 

Mishnah: If a man sent a gett (bill of divorce) to his wife and then caught up with the messenger or sent an agent to catch the messenger to say, ‘the gett I gave you is null and void,’ it is voided.
Originally, the husband could simply convene a beth din (court of law) in another place and void the gett.  However, Rabban Gamliel decreed that such a procedure may not be done, for the benefit of society.
Gemara: What does ‘for the benefit of society’ mean?
Rabbi Yochanan says: To avoid illegitimate children.
Reish Lakish says: To avoid chained wives.
Rashi explains: A husband who would originally want to torment his wife would not go to the hassle of tracking her down to void the gett.

Unfortunately, wife-chaining didn’t only happen when a husband went missing.  Sometimes, a man could be around the corner and simply refuse to sign the divorce papers, effectively chaining his wife, until such time that he came around and did the right thing.  In the case of our Gemara, the husband offers the gett – no doubt in exchange for whatever he can get from the wife in terms of finances and child custody rights – and then decides to revoke the gett whilst in transit.  Rabban Gamliel’s decree made it that much harder for the husband to act nefariously.

It is a sad but true reality that divorce can get ugly.  One of the ‘tools’ used by wicked husbands throughout the ages was the withholding of the gett.  Over the centuries, the Rabbis made various attempts to resolve issues of igun – chaining.  In the early eleventh century, Rabbeinu Gershom instituted a number of decrees around marriage.  One of the decrees was about acceptance of the gett.  While biblically, the husband must give the gett to effect the divorce, Rabbeinu Gershom decreed that rabbinically, the woman must be prepared to receive the gett, in order for the divorce to be effective.  This institution levelled the playing field somewhat; no longer could the husband use the gett as a ‘bargaining chip’ any more than the woman.

Nevertheless, the problem of igun remains until today; and, more often than not, it is the husband who is acting maliciously and refusing the gett.  Our Gemara underscores the Rabbis’ concern for the chained wife and our commitment to doing whatever we can to alleviate her pain and suffering.

In Temple times and other points in our history when the beth din had complete legal power, the court would employ physical force to a recalcitrant husband who refused to give the gett.  Nowadays, of course, that would not be acceptable; but other methods of coercion are still utilized.   If a man refuses the instructions of the beth din, his name will be publicised and blacklisted in the Jewish community.  He would not be able to join a shul, called to the Torah, or even counted in a minyan.  His business affairs would be boycotted and he would be completely ostracised from the community.

With the advent of instant communication and social media campaigns, our ability to ostracise a recalcitrant husband has reached new heights.  Businesses and employers of such individuals have been picketed, making it very difficult for the man to continue in his wicked ways.  No doubt, every situation has two sides to the story; but the Rabbis always felt that we must do whatever we can to alleviate the plight of chained women, and never allow anyone to use religion as an excuse for tormenting another individual.

Sadly, in every major Jewish community, there are a handful of these contemptible individuals still lurking in the shadows.  Joining a campaign to stop the abuse is a huge mitzvah.  Anything you can do to alleviate another person’s suffering, particularly when wicked people use G-d as an excuse, is righteous and Heavenly rewarding.  May you never shy away from standing up for those who are oppressed, especially by those who act nefariously in the name of G-d!