Ever since the Creation of Adam and Chava, marriage has been both a mitzvah and a mainstay of Jewish life. A nuclear family provides a basis of stability and is the best way to raise children in a path of Torah and mitzvos. However, the Torah recognizes that not all marriages succeed, and therefore Judaism sanctions divorce when needed. The purpose of our discussion is not to determine when divorce is warranted or appropriate, but simply to define how it is accomplished once both parties have agreed.
By Torah law a man divorces his wife by handing her a get (pl. gittin) or by placing it in her property. In Mishnaic times all documents were called gittin, but the term is used mostly to describe bills of divorce. One reason is that a get consists of twelve lines, and the gematria (numerical value) of the letters which spell get (gimmel = 3 and tes = 9) is twelve. The text of the get, which has not changed since Talmudic times, is simply a termination of the marriage in clear legal terms. The only variables in gittin are the names of the husband and wife, the location where it is written, and the date.
Is Bais Din Required?
In general, there is no need for a couple to involve Bais Din in the divorce proceedings. However, without exception, the process must be conducted by a competent rabbi to ensure that it satisfies all halachic requirements. In most cases, both the husband and wife are present. If they are already separated and living far apart, the husband may appoint a shliach (agent) in his stead. In such cases, the shliach appears before the Bais Din and performs the divorce by handing the get to the woman.
One of the most prominent features of the get is that it must be lishmah, meaning that it must be written with this specific couple in mind. That is why every get is written from scratch, and no preprinted boilerplate forms can be used. The letters are written the same way they were a thousand years ago – with a quill dipped in ink.
Before the writing begins, the rabbi ascertains a few key points. The first is that the husband authorizes the get, without any coercion at all. Then, the rabbi makes sure that the names of both spouses are recorded properly, including any nickname that they are called. The name of the city or town must also be transliterated into Hebrew, which can be a complicated task. Can you spell Cincinnati in Hebrew? None of these details are taken lightly, because the Talmud stresses we must leave no room at all for someone to cast aspersion on the authenticity of a get after it has been given.
When the writing is completed, two witnesses sign below the twelve lines. Their signatures are nothing like the usual autographs; they must write their names in clear Hebrew letters using a quill, which requires some expertise. The completed get is checked several times to makes sure it is free of any error.
The Final Step
The paper is folded into a square so that it can fit completely into the woman’s hands. Standing opposite his wife, the husband holds the get a few inches above his wife’s cupped hands and says “this is your get” and drops it in. The woman clasps the get and takes a few steps away, and the divorce is complete. Although the entire process is quite technical, understandably the atmosphere may be emotionally charged, especially as the couple face each other for the last time as man and wife. It is very common for one or both spouses to have a friend or rabbi present to lend emotional support.
Immediately after the get is given, the rabbi takes it back and reads it one more time to demonstrate its accuracy. Then, he does a surprising thing. Using a knife, he slits the back of the get with the mark of an X. He does not return the get to the woman; instead, she is given a letter from Bais Din stating that she is divorced and may remarry. The reason for this custom is that in Talmudic times, the government forbade all religious documents, so keeping a get was actually a dangerous idea. From then on, women were issued an official letter instead of keeping the get.
A Final Word
After the divorce, the rabbi informs the woman of two important points. The first is that she may not marry a Kohen, and the second is that she must wait three months before remarrying anyone. Lastly, we wish both man and woman much success in their new phase of life.