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The Grammar of a Get and Its Function as a Shetar

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The correspondence between a classic shetar (contract) and a get is intriguing and the subject of great debate. On appearance, a get is a standard shetar kinyan, a contract of acquisition, purposed to affect the release of a woman. However, many halakhot suggest that it doesn’t function as a classic shetar but rather constitutes a written communication of marital release, referred to by many as shiluach bi-khtav (release in writing).
According to the latter view, the divorce isn’t effected contractually by the crafting and issuing of a formal document. In theory, the woman could have been divorced by verbal communication of release. However, this manner would have been crude and uncivilized. Instead, the Torah commands that the communication of separation be written in a document and delivered to the woman.
This question is reflected in three important global issues about a get.
Firstly, the unique requirement to draft a get lishma — oriented for the specific purposes of divorcing a specific woman launched by the husband’s instructions — reflects a possible gap between a get and a classic shetar, which may be written generically.
Secondly, there may be independent rules which govern the manufacturing process of a get which don’t apply regarding drafting a standard shetar. This may indicate that the process isn’t the formal creation of a shetar, but rather expressing written communication a process which may begin at the point of drafting the get. More so, though contracts must be legally obtained by the recipient through an act of transferring kinyan, the Ketzot famously argues that a get must be merely symbolically deposited in the hands of the woman but not necessarily acquired by the woman.
Finally, the role of eidim (witnesses) for a get may be significantly diminished in relation to their central function in a classic shetar. The Mishna in Gittin (86a) validates a get without any signatures (at least mi-deOraita, by biblical law) and this may reflect a unique condition of a get (see the second view of Rashi to that mishna). These halakhot all indicate that a get may not serve as a formal contract, but rather as written communication of release.
This definition of a get as written communication of release may be reflected in several fascinating syntactical issues unique to the text of a get. Typically, a shetar documents the legal activity from the standpoint of the witnesses. Hence, the event described in a shetar is prefaced with the word “eikh” (literally translated as “how”) which grammatically introduces a narrative which the witnesses themselves are observing concerning the litigants. The Rif and the Rambam present the syntax of a get as including the word eikh, similar to a standard shetar.
By contrast, the Rosh (in a teshuva quoted by the Tur in Even Ha-ezer 126) claims that unlike a classic and formal shetar, the get should not contain the word eikh but should be written as a first-person communique from the husband. He explains that a get is a husband’s communication directly to his wife, rather than the recorded voices of the eidim who witness the proceedings of the husband and wife. This responsum of the Rosh reflects the discrepancy between a formal contract and a get, which may be a written release and not a formal contract.
An additional question may surround the inclusion of the phrase “Harei at muteret le-khol adam,” “You are hereby permitted to anyone,” within the text of the get. The actual text of a get elaborately describes the process of divorce, which should render a frontal inclusion of the phrase harei at muteret unnecessary. The Mishna (86a) does refer to the phrase “Harei at muteret “as “gufo shel get,” suggesting that it constitutes the core (literally, guf means body) of the get. However, a different mishna (ibid, 26a) doesn’t list this phrase among the critical components of a get (which must be drafted with lishma intent).
Tosafot (26a) provide two solutions which pivot upon the issue of how vital this language is to the actual get. From the Rambam’s comments, it appears that the language isn’t necessary at a de-Oraita level. Presumably, as a formal contract, the get — whose overall text greatly elaborates the effects of geirushin — would not require inclusion of a direct communication from the husband about the release of the woman. If, however, the get isn’t a formal contract but a written communique from the husband, it may require a direct communication of this release in the form of “Harei at muteret le-khol adam.”
The question of whose voice is contained within a get — the husband’s or the witnesses’ — may also impact even minute details about the manner in which the eidim sign a get. The Yam shel Shelomo claims that typically, with regard to shetarot in general, the witnesses need not include the actual word “eid” at the conclusion of their signatures. After all, the entire shetar is their affidavit, and merely signing their names at the end of this shetar declaration suffices. However, he asserts that eidim who sign a get must conclude their signatures with the actual word eid in order to demarcate their signatures from the overall get. As the overall get is the recorded communication of the husband, the eidim must differentiate the final section of the get — their signatures — by underscoring that they aren’t merely extending the text of the shetar (which is authored by the husband), but affixing their signatures - a new grammatical component. This position of the Yam shel Shelomo, distinguishing between the grammar of a get signature and the grammar of a general shetar signature, is parallel to the Rosh’s distinction between a shetar, which is centered on the word eikh, and a get, which doesn’t incorporate that word.
In a similar vein, the Cheishek Shelomo claims that eidim who sign a get should not preface their signatures with the term “Ne’um” (literally translated as “So speaks”), which would imply they are the speakers of the get. As the get is the recorded voice of the husband, the eidim should not preface their signatures to a get with a phrase which may contradictorily suggest that they are the speakers. This grammatical adjustment is also in line with the aforementioned views of the Rosh and Yam shel Shelomo.
Conceivably, the nature of a get and the question of whether the text represents the recorded voice of the husband or the affidavit of the witnesses may influence the structural role that eidim to a get can play. The Mishna in Gittin (86b) implies that a get can be written on multiple columns of one piece of paper — possibly unlike a mezuza, for example, which must be drafted on a single column. This appears to clash with a statement of Rashi in Sota (18a, s.v. Al) that all halakhic documents must be condensed onto one column or else Halakha considers them separate.
The Or Zarua claims that indeed multi-columned documents whether ritual such as a mezuza or contractual such as a shetar aren’t integrated and are halakhically considered as separate records. However, a get may be written on multiple columns since the signatures at the end of the final column will integrate the entire document. Does this suggest that the entire text of a get is indeed the voice of the eidim, hence their signatures are the conclusion of the entire document and can unify the entire document into one text? Had the voice of the get been considered the written communication of the husband, the signatures separately affixed to one column of this communication may not have integrated the entire document into one text.
A similar unifying effect of the signatures can be detected in a comment of the Ra’avad about a multilingual get. Commenting on Hilkhot Geirushin 4:8, in which the Rambam disqualifies a multilingual get, the Ra’avad argues and validates it based on the signatures. As long as the witnesses understand the various languages, their singular signature (which is obviously unrelated to language since it is a name) validates the get. Again, if the text of the get is the husband’s recorded communication, one could question whether the various languages can be ratified by a separate and unrelated signature of the eidim. It would appear that the Ra’avad, like the Or Zarua, views the get as an affidavit of the witnesses. As long as the signing witnesses understand the various languages of the get, their concluding signature creates one coherent text.
Finally, there is an interesting statement recorded by Tosafot (87b) in the name of Rav Yosef Bonfils or Rav Yosef Tov Ilem (one of the earliest Rishonim) which may identify a get as a more formal shetar, unlike the positions of the previous Rishonim, who view the get as the recorded communication of the husband which is merely signed by the eidim.
The conclusion of the get includes a phrase, iggeret shibbukin, which loosely translates as “letter of release.” Rav Yosef Bonfils instructs that the word iggeret must be preceded by a vav to connect it with the previous text of the get. Writing the word iggeret without a conjunctive vav may suggest that a get is merely an informal letter (iggeret) rather than a more formal shetar. Including the vav makes it clear that this phrase is merely qualifying the entire earlier section of the text which frames the get in more formal terms.
Is this a manner of associating a get with a formal shetar, as opposed to a more informal letter which contains written communication? If so, then his comments would be discrepant with those of the above Rishonim, who did view a get as an informal recording of the husband’s communication.