Gittin 2

Gittin 2a ~ A Very Determined Envoy

גיטין ב,א

המביא גט ממדינת הים צריך שיאמר בפני נכתב ובפני נחתם

If an envoy brings a Get to Israel from abroad, he must declare "it was written in my presence and signed in my presence" (Gittin 2a)

In the first chapter of Gittin, we address the laws that apply to an envoy (שליח) who is charged with bringing a Get, a Jewish Bill of Divorce, to a woman living overseas.  Such cases were clearly prevalent, so much so that they open this tractate, devoted to the rules of divorce.

For many hundreds of years, these messengers carried out their religious duties and delivered the Get, but did so without much recognition in our literature.  Today, one such envoy will be recognized for perhaps the most arduous trip ever undertaken to deliver a Get. That trip, which began in 1830, was from London to Sydney, Australia, and back again. It covered over 27,000 nautical miles and took close to thirteen months. The trip is detailed in Jeremy Pfeffer's book From One End of the Earth to the Other, from where the following information is taken. 

Book Cover, Pfeffer.jpg

Rabbi Aaron Levy of Lissa

The envoy who undertook this daunting trip was Aaron Levy, born in 1795 in western Poland. He arrived in London in 1811, where he taught in cheder and worked as a calligrapher and sofer. At the time, many convicted of crimes were sentenced to exile in Australia. Of the Jewish population of Australia, which numbered about 1,550, about 44%  - some 684 (!) - were convicts. Rabbi Levy was to find one of those convicts - a serial counterfeiter who used many aliases - by the name (or rather a name) of  Samuel Levi. Levi had been sentenced to death in London for repeated crimes of  counterfeiting, but the sentence had been commuted to transportation for life in 1808.  Samuel had left behind his wife in London, and now, after some 29 years of marriage, she wanted to obtain a Get and divorce him. Here is the charge to Levy, as recorded in the notes of the London Bet Din:

On 23rd Mencachem Av 5590 [August 12, 1830] there appeared before us...a woman Mindela who is commonly known as Minka bat Yehuda Leib, and she appointed R. Aaron ben R. Yehuda of Lissa to be her agent to receive a Get from her husband Samuel who is commonly known as Long Zanvil ben Mordechai ben Meir who lives in Sydney on the sea coast in the State of South Wales...And let it be known that after discussing the matter the Gaon, Head of the Bet Din, and the Bet Din determined that the above R. Aaron, who is the agent for receipt (שליח לקבלה) of the above woman, will first effect the Get as an agent of accept acceptance before a Bet Din and witness to the handing over [of the Get].  And after he has received the Get from him with the intent of receiving, he will instruct the man to appoint him as his agent of delivery (שליח להולכה) and execute the Get as is required for an agent for transmission.

The kind of agency that Rabbi Levy used was not common. Usually the envoy was acting on the husband's behalf to deliver a Get to his wife. Here however, Levy was acting on the wife's behalf to receive the Get from her husband. Once Levy received the Get, it would immediately take effect, even if the good rabbi never made it back to London. In addition Rabbi Levy would have to act as a Sofer and write the Get, and convene a Bet Din in Australia to verify the procedure.  But first he would have to find Long Zanvil.

R. Levy left for Australia on August 17, 1830 and arrived some three months later, on December 21, 1830.  While there, he managed to track down Long Zanvil and convinced him to give a Get to his estranged wife. He then wrote the Get, and found five Jewish laymen: three to to act as a Bet Din and two to witness the handing over of the Get from the husband to the Rabbi. Rabbi Levy stayed in Sydney for five months, during which time his skills as a Sofer were put to good use. He sold a new Sefer Torah to the community, which he likely wrote himself, and repaired mistakes in several others.  

In early May 1831, Levy set sail to London, with a cow, a gift from the Jewish community of Sydney, which would provide him with fresh milk during his long voyage.  He arrived home after four months at sea, and a couple of weeks later the London Bet Din convened a session to formally hand over the Get to Minka. Here is what happened, as recorded in the notes of the London Bet Din

On the 27th of Tishrei 5592 [October 4, 1831], further to what is written above, the Gaon, Head of the Bet Din, executed the Get in accordance with the law of an agent for transmission...And when the agent gave the Get to the woman Mindela, who is commonly known as Minka bat Yehuda Leib, he declared "I wrote the Get with intent (לשמה) and the witnesses also signed it before me with the intent for the purpose of divorce.

Some Questions about the Voyage

A number of questions remain about the trip.  Here are a few of them:

  1. Why did Mindela wait for over twenty years before asking for a Get?
  2. Who financed the voyage, which cost about 100 pounds, which is over $15,000 today?
  3. Why did Rabbi Levy undertake the voyage without knowing where Long Zanvil was living, and whether he was prepared to give a Get

Jeremy Pfeffer, the author of the book that details the trip, believes that there had to have been some communication between the couple, and that the voyage was likely financed by Rabbi Levy himself. Pfeffer writes:

To the best of our knowledge, he was not related to any of the parties involved nor did he receive any great monetary renumeration for the mission. Putting our contemporary cynicism aside, we may believe that his motives were simply altruistic; there was a wrong that needed to be corrected and he alone could do so. And so we may fairly conclude that he undertook the mission to Australia simply for its own sake and for the sake of Heaven, לשמה ולשם שמים.

Two years after his return from Australia, Rabbi Levy was appointed to the London Bet Din where he served as Dayan and Secretary. His mission, now all but forgotten, is a wonderful example of a rabbi doing the right thing to help a women obtain a Get. יהי זכרו ברוך.

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Gittin ~ On Divorce, Then and Now

From Salon.com

From Salon.com

Today, those learning in the one-page-of-talmud-a-day daf yomi cycle begin a new tractate, called Gittin. As its title suggests, it is focussed on the laws of divorce. So let's look at divorce in the western world.    

Divorce in the Western WOrld

As you can see in the chart below, the current average rate of divorce in the countries that make up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is about two per thousand people; in the US the figure is almost three per thousand, while in Israel the figure is just below the OECD average. As you can see, in many countries the rate is lower than it was in 1995, but in nearly all it is much higher than it was way back in 1970.

Crude divorce rate, 1970, 1995 and 2012. From  OECD Family Database.   

Crude divorce rate, 1970, 1995 and 2012. From OECD Family Database.  

THE CHANGING RATES OF DIVORCE IN THE US

 In the 1970s there was a surge in the divorce rates in the US (and throughout the industrialized world), and in 1977 the sociologist Amir Etzioni issued a dire prediction. If the rates of divorce continued to rise as they had done over the preceding years, "not one American family" would be left intact by the 1990s. But by 1981 the divorce rates levelled off (and more couples were choosing to live together without getting married). By 1998 the divorce rate was 26% lower than it had been in 1979. (This data is found in Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz.)

No party can oblige continuance in contradiction to its end and design.
— Thomas Jefferson, in Norma Basch, Framing American Divorce. University Of California Press 2001.

In the US, statistics on rates of marriage and divorce are published by the National Center for Health Statistics, which is a branch of the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.  The latest data for the US were published in 2010. These point out that the probability of divorce depends on the length of the marriage. Sadly the probability of divorce increases as the duration of the marriage increases.  The probability of a marriage of five years or less ending in divorce is about 20%; the probability of a marriage of twenty years ending in divorce is a massive 48%.  And second marriages fare a little worse: by ten years of marriage 32% of those married for the first time will have divorced in the US, compared to 46% of those in their second marriage.

Divorce rates in the US. Source:   The New York Times  .

Divorce rates in the US. Source: The New York Times.

Divorce in Christianity, The UK and the Colonial US

The Church essentially forbade divorce for most of its history, basing itself mostly on Mark 10:9: "what therefore God has joined, let no man put asunder." This left its mark on attitudes towards divorce. (We came across one example of the difficulty in obtaining a divorce when we examined King Henry VIII and his plight to get one of his marriages annulled.)  In the United Kingdom of 400 years ago, a divorce required a special Act of its Parliament; this, and its cost made it available only to those with money and privilege. It was only in 1857 that a new law was passed that removed divorce from the control of the Church and made it a civil affair. But husbands and wives were treated very differently by this new law. A husband could obtain a divorce on the grounds of his wife's adultery. But for a wife to obtain a divorce, she had to prove both adultery and an additional "matrimonial offense". The early colonists in the US had similar laws; divorce was allowed only in cases of adultery, habitual drunkenness, desertion, cruelty, or impotence. What we call today "no-fault" divorces have only been around since the 1970s.

JEWISH DIVORCE, THEN AND NOW

It is challenging to get a good count of the rates of divorce in the Jewish communities around the world.  One of the rare examples of such data can be found in Jeremy Pfeffer's book From One End of the Earth to the Other, which examines the London Bet Din in the first half of the nineteenth century, and its relationship to the Jewish convicts deported to Australia. (We will return to this fascinating book in our next post.) Pfeffer examined in great detail the marriage and divorce records of the London Bet Din, and discovered that between 1805 and 1855 there were 347 divorces. This turns out to be about one divorce per thousand married Jews, and he notes that the current rate of divorce is "an order of magnitude greater." In fact the current divorce rates in England and Wales are about twelve per thousand married persons, "and there is no reason to suppose that it is significantly lower amongst present day English Jews." 

The indissolubility of marriage is a main principle of English law, asserted without any exception or reserve in the formularies of the Church, in which the parties pledge themselves, either to other, that they will live together so long as they both shall live, and until death shall part them.
— Hector Davies Morgan (of Trinity College Oxford). The Doctrine and Law of Marriage, Adultery and Divorce. 1826. p214

Divorce Rates and Religious Committment

Another study published over 30 years ago reviewed the relationship between rates of divorce and levels of religious commitment. It was based on the 1981 Greater New York Population study which sampled over 4,000 Jewish households, and it made the following observation:

As one might expect, we see the lowest rate of divorce among the Orthodox. In comparison, we see a slight rise among the Conservative, a doubling among the Reform, and a quadrupling for those who do not identify themselves as members of the major denominations. It is the Orthodox community that is most frequently held up as the most effective transmitter of traditional Jewish family values, and these results are consistent with our thesis of a relationship between Jewish commitment and divorce. 

Further support for these findings can be found in more recent work from Focus on the Family ("a global Christian ministry dedicated to helping families thrive"). They report the following relationships between faith affiliation and divorce rates:

Of course we have no idea about whether the lower rate of divorce among active Protestants, Catholics and Jews is because religious practice increases marital harmony or, as a cynic might claim, peer pressure makes those who are more actively religious are reluctant to divorce. Still, a 97% reduction in the divorce rate in those who are "actively Jewish" is pretty impressive.

As we have noted, it took many centuries for secular societies (even in countries that are deeply Catholic) and the church to allow for more equitable divorce laws. For most of that time, Jewish divorce law was in some aspects the most enlightened of any society.  It allowed for divorce on the grounds of incompatibility, but at the same time allowed only the husband to control the process. If he did not wish to divorce, no divorce could take place.   But the last great change to Jewish divorce law was over 900 years ago, when Rabbenu Gershom forbade a man from divorcing his wife against her will. It is probably time for orthodox Judaism to take another look at the issue

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