Rabbinic and Post-Rabbinic Divorce

Over time the rabbis increased the wife's power in a marriage, yet maintained the absolute right of the husband to grant a divorce.

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The rabbinic qualifications took several different forms… :

Enlarging cases of prohibition of divorce: One example of the absolute prohibition of divorce involved the wife who had become insane and would thus be unable to take care of herself. Another was of a wife taken captive: the rabbis obligated [the husband] to send even the dowry money to ransom her. A third example was a child-bride.

Embellishing [and making more complex] the formalities: ….The standard process of divorce was so exact and so detailed that those in attendance had to be experts at it. The real purpose of the complexity was to bring the couple into contact with the rabbinic court whose members understood their function as extending far beyond that of interpreting the law; they used their offices to try to effect a reconciliation. Furthermore, a significant effect of this procedural change was ultimately to undermine the notion of absolute right. In practice as well as in the popular mind, the husband now had to look to the rabbinic court for sanction.

Enlarging the husband's financial responsibilities [toward a divorced wife]: These responsibilities, incorporated into the ketubah (marriage contract), entitled the wife to a return of her dowry and any property she had brought with her into marriage, plus support until she remarried…. The Talmud did not formalize the standard ketubah text. It did establish a minimum level of recompense; beyond that, it allowed many variations. Throughout the ages, there have been examples of tailor-made ketubot. In several recently discovered ketubot that are more than 1,000 years old, the wife stipulated that her husband must grant her a divorce if he takes a concubine. It is clear that some women negotiated their own conditions for a viable marriage.

[Enlarging the] wife's rights of consent: The theoretical right of the husband to "put away" his wife, continually eroded throughout rabbinic times, was formally limited by the halakhic [legal] decree of Rabbenu Gershom of Mayence early in the 11th century. From that point on, a woman could not be divorced except by her consent. The woman's will now carried legal force.

When a Wife Can Initiate a Divorce

Although the rabbis did not have the will or the strength to make a takkanah (a formal rabbinic decree) that would have granted the woman greater equality in divorce matters, nevertheless they did try to protect her and to limit the situations in which she was vulnerable to abuse. Some grounds entitling the wife to sue for a divorce were quite sensitive to her needs, among them her sexual satisfaction. In the case of the husband's refusal to meet her conjugal rights, if she did not want to exercise her option for divorce, he could be fined, week by week (Ketubot 61b-62b)…. Impotence was also legitimate grounds for divorce, with the burden of proof upon the man (Yevamot 65b)….

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Blu Greenberg

Blu Greenberg is the founding president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She was also the Conference Chair of both the first and second International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. She is the author of Black Bread: Poems After the Holocaust, How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, and On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition.