Hanging torah scrolls.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Expulsion from Spain created havoc for the exiles whose lives were entirely
disrupted and overturned in 1492. Adjusting to new conditions often proved to be
overwhelming. As it turns out, one woman, who referred to herself as Hanna,
considered her situation to be untenable once she arrived in
From what she understood, her complicated status was a direct
result of her relocation. Her case was analyzed by Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn
Abi Zimra (Radbaz), a major Sephardi halachic figure who had also relocated in
the Holy Land. This responsum is translated in full and discussed in detail by
Debby Koren [“Divorce Out of Love,” Nashim 21 (2011)].
medieval world provided many options for traders and merchants, and as a result,
many Jewish men were traveling for extended periods of time. In this instance,
Hanna’s husband left Spain for destinations unknown (to her), apparently
arriving in central or eastern Europe; while there, he realized that his wife’s
status back home was rather precarious. Thus he turned to a rabbinic authority
(wherever he was) and proceeded to have a divorce writ drawn up.
a writ of this sort, known as a conditional get, was meant to provide a measure
of security for the wife who was on her own, far from her husband. One never
knew what fate might befall a traveler, for there were dangers on both land and
sea. In order to prevent one’s wife from being declared a chained woman (an
aguna) if her husband disappeared, the option to present her with a conditional
divorce writ made perfect sense. The condition was that if the husband did not
materialize within a certain amount of time, the divorce became
Some husbands left this document with their wives before setting
forth, while others, as in this case, realized they had left their wives without
proper protection and sent the document by messenger.
When Hanna was
asked to explain her dilemma, she stated that her husband journeyed forth with
some colleagues to sell citrons. His cohorts returned to Spain but instead of
bringing her husband back with them, they brought her the divorce writ. This
upset her terribly as she at first assumed that her husband found fault with her
and was divorcing her on this basis.
She calmed down once she understood
that it was meant as a protective action, and that it was in her best interest
to accept it. She was told that she could not marry again for four years, but
was under the impression that this was an addendum of sorts. These developments
occurred not long before the Expulsion from Spain.
The crux of the
problem was that due to the hassle and commotion involved in leaving Iberia,
this poor woman somehow lost the divorce writ.
For some reason, she
assumed that without this document she was now the equivalent of a chained woman
whose husband needed to be located or whose death needed to be documented in
order to release her from her married status. She seemed not to have
comprehended the significance of the conditional divorce or how to determine who
is an aguna. The rabbi forgave her “because women have not learned the law”;
this rabbinic authority proceeded to set things straight.
misunderstood the situation, she declared herself to be an aguna – but she had
never really been one. Although she had lost her get, she was already divorced,
and if she were to find the divorce writ, it would not change her status at
There was confusion regarding the nature of the aforementioned
four-year waiting period. It was not, as the woman thought, something added
afterwards, for such an action was not acceptable. Rather, it reflected the
Ashkenazi custom of waiting four years until the wife may remarry, which was
included by the authorities who drew up this document for her
Since this halachic question was posed after four years had
passed, it already was a moot point.
However one approached the
situation, the divorce had taken effect.
Hanna could now focus on
rebuilding her life; perhaps she even succeeded in finding a new husband in
16th-century Jerusalem. The author is a professor of Jewish history at the
Schechter Institute and the academic editor of