The Jewish divorce certificate gave women the right to remarry, but some men used it rule over women
For centuries Jewish religious leaders have insisted that in order for a divorce to be legal, the husband must write a certificate of divorce.
The essential words in the certificate were “You are free to marry any man”.
Jews call this divorce certificate a ‘get’ – it is a Hebrew word unrelated to our English word ‘get’. The husband wrote the get and gave it to his wife. If he was not very literate he might have got a scribe to write it and then he would sign it. But a court didn’t have to be involved.
Jesus told us that the Jewish religious leaders invented many laws in addition to Moses’ Law (see Mark 7:7-13) The Jewish leaders made laws which were their interpretation of what Moses had written. They pridefully thought they always had the right understanding of what Moses said.
The Jewish religious leaders invented their own traditions and one of those traditions was the insistence that a divorce was only legal if a get was issued by the husband to the wife.
I encourage you, dear victim of spousal abuse, to not worry about that tradition. Even if your abusive husband is a conservative or orthodox Jew, you can divorce him by getting a civil divorce. He can bluster as much as he likes that ‘you are still married to him in the eyes of God’ but he will be wrong. You can ignore him and all the conservative rabbis who tell you that you are not really divorced and that you are tied to him financially for ever and you can’t remarry. You can ignore their bluster because all they are relying on is the Jewish religious leaders legalistic and misogynist interpretation of Deuteronomy 24.
You have to abide by the laws of the country in which you live. Your country’s law says that a divorce certificate is essential to make a divorce legal, and that the certificate has to be issued by the court system run by your state or nation. But Mosaic Law did not require either of those things. Moses simply mentioned the get because it appears to have been a custom among men in ancient Israel.
My previous post in this series (Part 3) explained that Deuteronomy 24 has been greatly misunderstood. In Deuteronomy 24, Moses did not say that hardness of heart is grounds for divorce, he only set limitations on the future conduct of men who chose to divorce their wives.
When the Pharisees questioned/ confronted Jesus on the topic of divorce, they were trying to entangle him in a complex debate between different schools of thought in Judaism. The school of Shammai said one thing, the school of Hillel said another thing. Shammaites versus Hillelites.
Jesus did NOT affirm the notion held by the Hillelites that so long as he wrote out a bill of divorce and gave it into her hand, Deuteronomy 24:1 authorised a husband to divorce his wife if he found her objectionable for any reason.
Nor did Jesus confirm the notion held by both Shammaites and Hillelites that a get can only be issued by the husband and a get is essential for a divorce to be legal.
The Jewish use of the get was a custom. But a custom is not the same thing as Divine Law.
Let me emphasise this: A custom is not the same thing as Divine Law.
Assuming that a custom is a divine law causes much confusion and erroneous interpretation of Scripture.
All the Jewish religious leaders insisted that Deuteronomy 24:1 lays down a law – a law which says the husband MUST write a get to make a divorce legal. But they were wrong. They were wrong, and they still are wrong. And I’m not the only one who says that. The very conservative Jay Adams had the same view as I do on this.
As I noted in Part 3, Jay Adams said:
in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, there is no command to divorce, no criteria for determining what is a valid or invalid divorce, nor even a requirement to give a bill of divorce. …
Deuteronomy 24 merely recognizes divorce as an existing, legal process that it regulates.
– “Marriage Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible,” Jay E. Adams, 62.
What can we learn from ancient documents?
Dr David Instone-Brewer has this to say about the Jewish divorce certificate in Old Testament times:
…the right of a woman to a divorce certificate is equivalent of the right of a woman to remarry. In fact, the purpose of the divorce certificate was to help the woman remarry.
The reference in Deuteronomy 24:1 to a divorce certificate is unique in ancient Near Eastern sources. Nowhere outside Judaism is there any reference to a divorce certificate or any other document that would be taken away by every divorced woman.¹
The wording on the divorce certificate is not stated in the Pentateuch but there are good reasons to conclude that it was similar to the wording of standard rabbinic divorce certificates: “You are allowed to marry any man you wish.” This wording can be traced through Jewish divorce certificates and marriage certificates that have survived from as far back as the fifth century BC. … The document would be needed by women, but not by men, because men could marry more than one woman in any case. It would have been a most valuable document for a woman to possess because it gave her the right to remarry. Without it she would be under the constant threat of her former husband, who could claim at a later date that she was still married to him and thus charge her with adultery [if she had married another man].
¹ It is likely that some financial receipt would have been handed over at the time of the divorce, but this would have been needed by the man, not the woman. The dowry, in part or whole, usually had to be repaid to the divorced woman, and presumably some kind of written or witnessed oral receipt had to the man to testify that his debt had been paid. This document or witness testimony would have been very important to the man to prevent his ex-wife from claiming that he had not repaid the dowry.
Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: the Social and Literary Context (Eerdmans Publishing, 2002) 29-29 [*Affiliate link]
Unfortunately because of the way the law of the divorce certificate was interpreted, it actually became a way to stop women from getting divorced.
Side note from Barb: I do not agree with calling it ‘the law of the divorce certificate’. I challenged the idea that verse 1 is a stand-alone law in Part 3 of this series. Back to Instone-Brewer…
The law was interpreted to mean that one could not get divorced without a divorce certificate. This meant that divorce became the prerogative of the husband because he wrote out the divorce certificate. Therefore, a provision that was meant to empower the divorced woman resulted in the enslavement of women who wished to get divorced.
As will be seen in later chapters, there were ways in which a rabbinic court could force a man to write out a divorce certificate when the woman had good grounds for a divorce. However, there was, and still is, one group of [Jewish] women who could not get a divorce. These are those whose husbands are missing, either through misadventure during war or during travel abroad, or deliberately. These women [according to Judaism] cannot remarry unless some proof is found that their husbands are dead. As long as there is a possibility that their husbands are alive, they cannot be divorced without a certificate signed by their husbands. The Jewish world is still struggling with this conundrum.
(ibid p 31, emphasis added, paragraph breaks added for readability)
These Jewish women are called agunah, which literally means anchored or chained. I feel for them in their plight. Agunah Jewish women are separated but still ‘legally married’ by the twisted interpretation of Moses’ words which Jewish religious leaders have hung onto for thousands of years. These women are suffering spiritual abuse because they are trying to comply with what their Jewish religious leaders say about divorce. Agunah women are chained to husbands who refuse to write the divorce certificate.
Most if not all of those husbands are what we would call anti-husbands: they are vindictive men who refuse to write the divorce certificate because they want to punish their wives and make them suffer. Dog in the manger. Greed. Juvenile nastiness. Evil.
In 2018, Hayley Gleeson, an Australian journalist, did a report on Chained Women: The Jewish wives being held hostage in abusive marriages. It was part of the series on Religion and Domestic Abuse by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson.
There are other passages in Mosaic Law where no divorce certificate is mentioned. The Jewish religious leaders all recognised Exodus 21:10-11 as being about divorce, even though no certificate was mentioned. They also recognised Deuteronomy 21:10-14 as being applicable to divorce. David Instone-Brewer documents this, in his book that I referred to above.
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Posts in this series
Part 4: Is this post.
Our FAQ page What about divorce?