Divorced or chained? The plight of a Spanish exile

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.

Hanging torah scrolls (photo credit: Courtesy)
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 Jerusalem.
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)].
The Mediterranean 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.
Usually 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 valid.
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.
Because she 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 all.
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 husband.
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 Nashim.