“Get” with the Program

Were any Karaite Divorce Documents were Found in the Cairo Geniza?

Were any Karaite Divorce Documents Found in the Cairo Geniza?

I’ll start by expressing the same shock that most of the Jewish community felt last week upon learning of the arrests of three NY Orthodox rabbis. According to sources in the linked article, these rabbis, ran a ring in which “Orthodox wives seeking divorce ma[de] payments to the rabbis—-in some cases up to $100,000.” Apparently, the rabbis “then facilitated the divorce, often through violent means, with the rabbis hiring thugs to beat the Orthodox Jewish husbands into” agreeing to grant their wives a religious divorce document, commonly called a “get.”

The Karaite halakha actually makes an occurrence like this virtually impossible.

First some background – both Karaites and Rabbanites agree that a woman may only have one husband. (Deut. 22:22.) So if a woman is legally married to one man, she cannot get married to another man without first obtaining a valid divorce. According to the Torah, if a man no longer wants to be married to the woman, he shall write her a bill of divorce (Hebrew: sefer kritut; English: Book of Separation/Cutting Off) give it to her and send her out of his house. (Deut. 24: 1.) This bill of divorce is usually referred to by its Yiddish name, “get.”

If a man refuses to give this document to his wife, she is still legally married to him (in a religious sense) and cannot marry anyone else. So a problem arises: what happens when a man refuses to grant his wife a religiously valid divorce? In the Rabbinic tradition, the Talmud and the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah specifically permit beating the husband until he signs the necessary divorce documentation. [1.]

In the Karaite tradition, in certain circumstances a bet din can actually provide a woman a “get” in the absence of her husband’s signature. According to one of my sources in the Karaite community in Israel, the last time a Karaite bet din provided a woman a “get” without her husband’s signature was 1965. So, it does not happen often these days – and I have no clue how often the Karaite community issued such divorces historically. But, nevertheless, in the extreme case where a man fails to grant a religiously proper divorce, it is possible for a Karaite bet din to issue the divorce document -making it unnecessary for the bet din to sanction a beating. Moshe Firrouz, the Chief Hakham of the Karaite community, touched on this issue in a symposium last year.

As an aside, in the Rabbinic tradition, if a woman is not properly divorced and has children with another man, her kids are considered mamzerim (i.e., products of an impermissible relationship) and are forbidden from entering the assembly of God. (Deut. 23:2.) The word mamzer only appears twice in the Tanakh and is not expressly defined anywhere; but the historical Karaites argued that the word mamzer was a reference to a foreign nation or a group of people, as can be seen both by the context of Deuteronomy 23 and Zechariah 9:1-7. That is, the historical Karaites generally disagree with the Rabbinic view that a mamzer is the product of an impermissible relationship. Interestingly, Rashi interprets the word mamzer in Deuteronomy to refer to a “bastard” (i.e., product of an impermissible relationship) [2]; whereas, he interprets the word mamzer in Zechariah to refer to a group of people.

Halakhic differences aside, here’s to hoping that men fulfill their religious obligations by granting their wives a proper divorce.

*  *  *

1. I linked that article explaining the Rabbinic halakha because I’ve learned a tremendous amount from the rabbi who wrote it; I thought others might benefit from his perspective on the issue, regardless of whether they agree with him or the alleged actions of the arrested rabbis.

2. I don’t think “bastard” is the best translation of “mamzer,” because in English we think of a “bastard” as someone born out of wedlock.  But this is not the Rabbinic meaning of the word mamzer; regardless I use “bastard” because that is what appears as Chabad’s translation.


Filed under Divorce & Get, Karaite Studies: The State of the Field, Moshe Firrouz

21 Responses to “Get” with the Program

  1. maurice

    I am a “chained” man according to Orthodox tradition as my former wife would not accept the get. I received a get from the Conservative movement. The Orthodox can be very creative when they want to be. Still people look to them as authorities of all things Jewish.

  2. Z.

    Thanks for the information and thoughtful reflection!

  3. Ya`aqov HaDani

    As requested, here’s one primary source on the matter:

    Qaraite Hakham Binyamin Al-Nahawandi (Iran, Mid-800s CE) on Court-Ordered Divorce:

    “He who says, ‘I refuse to feed and support my wife,’ must be compelled to divorce her and pay her the full amount of her marriage contract, as it is written: ‘He shall not diminish her food, clothing, and cohabitation. And if he do not fulfill these three for her, she shall go free’ (Exodus 21:10-11). If he weds her and is found to be incapable of cohabiting with her, the choice is up to her; if she is willing to go on living with him, she may do so; if she is not, she may demand her divorce on the basis of the biblical verse just quoted. If he weds her and cohabits with her, but does not give her full support, he must divorce her and pay her the full amount of her marriage contract. If he divorces her, he must pay her the full amount of her marriage contract, and he cannot repossess any gift which he has given her… He who says, ‘I refuse to feed and support either my wife or my sons and daughters, either during my lifetime or after my death,’ has no legal standing whatsoever.”

    Source: Sefer Dinim, translated by Leon Nemoy in “Karaite Anthology”, Pages 27-28.

    Also, just a point about the term “Mamzer”: Qaraite commentaries mostly concurred with the view it is to be applied to the child of a forbidden relationship. What they disagreed with was the use of the term for the child of a non-Rabbinic divorce.

    • Thanks for the site to the historical Karaite view.

      As to the term Mamzer, there are many interpretations of the word historically. Some of the Karaite views of the term are cited in Zvi Ankori’s Karaites in Byzantium, p. 72 note 40, p.76 note 46.

      According to Ankori, there seems to be one Karaite who held the view that a mamzer was someone with a sexual defect.

      The Karaite Jacob ben Reuben had 6 views of what Mamzer includes (or might include) – if I understand the Hebrew footnote properly.
      1) Heretical foreigners who became Jews
      2) Someone whose mother is known but father is unknown>
      3) Children of forbidden relationships
      4) A person born from a relationship during Nidah
      5) A specific unnamed non-Jewish nation.
      6) Any Non-Jew who converts to Judaism
      7) People who are not from the seed of abraham.

      The Septuagint:
      Deut. 23:3 Offspring of a prostitute
      Zech. 9:6 foreigner.

      Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 3:9 64c
      Rabbi Abbahu said, What is a mamzer? A foreign blemish (mum zar).

      And of course the Babylonian Talmud tends toward the view that a mamzer is the child of any sexual act for which the death penalty is liable. (Mishnah Yevamot 4:13.)

  4. Thomas Winchester

    From your understanding of divorce I know that I am not a Karaite, but rather only a true believer in Torah (believing ‘only’ the first five books are from the Creator). Even Jews believe that the rest of the Tanakh is only dream, vision, or spirit inspired. I would concede that ‘possibly’ some of them might be. But it takes an entire lifetime, or more, to truly grasp all that Torah has to offer. My choice allows me an entire lifetime to study the classical Hebrew language and its etymology to increase my understanding of only Torah and not get involved in petty religious disputes. I understand the need to look at everything all religions have to offer (and I have) before a person can reach this conclusion. The Creator does not want blind faith, but a working, studious, and open mind that puts into practice his ways of righteousness and justice; not the ways of religion (a creation of men).

    • Zvi

      Anyone who believes they can lead a complete holistic life according to the Torah alone, without making any logical inferences from some of its Text or the Tanakh’s Text on how to conduct oneself in situations and circumstances not explicitly covered in the Torah are deluding themselves. These individuals also tend to kid themselves that they do not follow any traditions either when this is not the case in point of fact.
      Heck, even the Samaritans who insist they adhere solely to the Torah created their own religion — including many traditions, of course — in their quest to interpret the Torah and live by it as they view it.

  5. Ilon IshHaHarim

    Actually maybe people will start to wake up and ask the right question. Who voted the Rabbinate and the Second and Post Temple ideologies as Lords and Shepherds ad infinitum. I know the Torah calls for a Cohen Levi or Shofet to adjudicate in tough cases, but I didn’t know they had to have a Smicha which has been artificial for about a little over two Millenia.

    And this is what you get. A power structure that rivals anything in the Islamic religious world. They have Sharia , we don’t have Torah, we have an ideology. Its a known fact that it took a while till they everybody playing ball with them, in areas such Kippot or Teffilin or Chicken and Milk, and this violence you see here is the lack of fear of us regular members of Am Israel cause what can we do. They play politics with the Gov just like they accused the Sadducees of doing with the Romans but doing business with a gov that does not have Torah as its constitution is somewhat similar.

    These self appointed leaders of “Torah Jewry” really its “Talmud Jewry” cant agree between themselves, some set up dynasties. And basically the Torah doesn’t obligate us to them in the least. Its time to be rid of this religion called Judaism ,its gotten as bad as Hellenism, which though they decry claim all the same that a Sefer Torah written in Greek has the same Kedusha. Enough with this worm eaten structure. Its one thing if they assist the people in dialoguing on how to observe somethings and yes external teachings count. But for starters say, nobody is gonna stop me from having chicken and milk as chickens dont give me. Its all BS their fences and mindfields around the Torah. Admit that a cheeseburger is not against the Torah as specified and there is not good reason to obey these reprobates on such things because they are so neurotic.

    • Zvi

      From my experience debating and arguing with even non-ultra Israeli Rabbanites, they are still in the deepest stage of their sleep. The waking will happen after our lifetime, but there is no telling when exactly. Orthodox Judaism will keep on playing an important role on the Jewish scene for several more centuries, at the least.

  6. This is all so silly. I could understand this kind of nonsense from Christians, but it amazes me that this sort of thing goes on in Judaism.

    The discussion in Matthew where the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce, they imply that Moses allowed divorce for ANY reason (which is true if you read the Torah) but Jesus places a restriction on divorce to only one reason, marital infidelity. So I can understand Christians no accepting their host society’s laws on divorce, and making up their own system. But since the Torah allows divorce for any reason, I would think Jews would just accept any divorce issued by the State. I’m flabbergasted to find the opposite. Christians accept the divorces issued by the State, and Jews have made up their own system that contradicts the Torah. Its amazing how backwards people tend to behave from the beliefs they pretend to hold.

    • Hi James,

      You wrote:

      “Moses allowed divorce for ANY reason (which is true if you read the Torah)”

      Please provide a source in the Torah for this. I am not trying to argue with you, I just want to see what your reasoning is.


      On Sun, Oct 20, 2013 at 6:41 PM, A Blue Thread

      • Well, I don’t see any rules about divorce in the Law other than “If a man divorce his wife, he must give her a written divorce document” (Deut 24) and that “her former husband who divorced her must not take her back” after she has been with another man, and that a priest cannot marry a divorced woman (Leviticus 21:7) and the statutory rapist if allowed to marry the girl he had sex with is never allowed to divorce her (Deuteronomy 22:19). The vows of divorced woman are not annulled (Numbers 30:9) as the vows of a married woman may be annulled by her husband.

        Other than that, where are the rules saying divorce can only happen in certain circumstances? Deut 24:3 if the “husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce” — he could detest her for any reason. This is pretty lenient.

        Thus in Matthew and Mark’s gospels, the Pharisees are found (ironically, reasoning like Karaites by the very text of the Law) as follows:

        Matthew 19:3 “The Pharisees also came to him, testing him, and saying to him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?'”

        And when he gives his answer, they reply in verse 7 “They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?'”

        Their logic is very clearly that sense Moses simply says give her a document of divorce, but doesn’t give any rules about what circumstances allow for divorce, divorce is allowed for any reason.

        • BTW, everyone is welcome to comment here and I am happy that you are approaching this topic with care. I just want to make sure that the Jewish nature of this blog is preserved. So, please be mindful when you are commenting about Christian topics.

        • The point of divorce though is that it says that the man shall write her a “get” (or sefer kritut). The rabbinic tradition is focusing on this “writing” aspect. Regardless of the reason for divorce (and whatever reasons you think divorce is possible), the Torah provides a mechanism for divorce. That is why the Rabbanites make sure that the man actually writes the document.

  7. Ezra

    Sean-what is the source for permitting a Beit Din to give a get on behalf of the recalcitrant husband? Doesn’t the plain meaning of Deut. make clear that the husband write a bill of divorce and give it his wife in order to effectuate the divorce?

    • Hi Ezra,

      That is a great question, and it is something I too struggle with. There is actually a biblical example of a “court-ordered” divorce (in loose-terms). See Ezra 3:9-10

      Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have transgressed and have taken pagan wives, adding to the guilt of Israel. 11 Now therefore, make confession to the Lord God of your fathers, and do His will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the pagan wives.”

      (In the above case, the marriage was forbidden from the start, so I acknowledge that it makes for a stronger case of “court-ordered” divorce than in most marriages today.)

      From a textual perspective, the Karaite view is something like this. The text is formulated as a “When X, then Y” commandment. (We can discuss later, what the “X” really is, but this is the general structure of the commandment.)

      The issue is what to do when the man does not fulfill his obligation to do Y, even though X has occurred.

      In the rabbinic tradition, the woman is chained until the man writes the get. And in truth, I cannot say they are wrong from a textual perspective. (I note, though, if these forced gittin are not handed by the husband to the wife – as the text seems to require – but are handed to a third party who then hands it to the wife, the text would not be fulfilled.)

      Some in the Karaite tradition view marriage as a contract. If the man does not fulfill his contract, it can be voided. Others suggest that the *purpose* of the sefer kritut commandment is to allow the woman to have proof that she is no longer married, so that she can marry again. (The purpose is clearly not to keep her chained.) As a result, the bet din gives her that proof. In this light, I cannot say the Karaite view is wrong either.

  8. Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs

    With so much ADDED to Torah…meaning the rules and regulations adopted as law – that do NOT appear in the 5 books, but are either invented, added to, devised, or interpreted, are a far far cry from what Torah actually says or DOESN’T say. When Torah does command something – fine. But when it doesn’t and others choose to fill in the spaces….this I have an issue with!

    The Torah does not specify what the woman can or must do to initiate and complete a divorce. This aspect has never been fully addressed. That the men have taken that silence – and silence it is – and never thought to develop a methodology for the women to effectively effect the divorce with the same degree of intensity – and rules – is just one more “addition” that is not necessarily the intention.

    When Moses serves his guests the meat and dairy meal…. only by revising the story, reinterpreting what Moses said, by changing or adding a timeline, the meat and dairy LAW somehow is embellished. Chickens don’t breastfeed….so how does that account for a “commandment” to be constructed that basically FILLS IN THE SILENCE – but is contrary to what is in Torah?? No mention of waiting 6 hours – an invented rule.

    If Moses’ wife performed as the mohelet for their son….how did it become a no-no for women to perform rituals? Another invented rule.

    That men have imposed rules that are additions to Torah is disturbing. Torah says you cannot add or detract…., Detracting from Torah – in my view – is when you add laws that fill in the silence but are not conducive to including ALL Jews. If men believe they have a problem with lust….let them work on their problem. But to concoct rules that the women are expected to abide by which are additions to Torah – which basically punishes the victim and frees the perpetrator…is NOT Torah. On a 98 degree day, SHE is “commanded” (really -by Hashem???) to completely cover her all her hair, wear clothes more suitable for a chilly day (long sleeves, high collar, long skirt, stockings, etc,) while HE can wear a light comfortable tee shirt, shorts if he chooses, and a tiny kippa! While SHE is assumed to NOT be the one with those “thoughts”…it is SHE who is punished (sweating) …HE – the very one WITH the thoughts is unburdened – comfortable. I don’t remember reading this injustice in Torah. Nor do I recall Torah saying men should not hear a woman sing or that they can’t lein Torah ……… as SO many of these invented and contrived rules and regulations keep women at bay, it is interesting that the get gets as much attention as it does…..


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