A Posted Picture Saves The Day
‘In Order To Avoid Igun…’
A key subject in Maseches Yevamos is agunos.According to Torah law, an agunah may not remarry unless she can prove that her husband died. Poskim throughout the generations have searched for halachic justifications to allow agunos to remarry by proving through various methods that their husband had most likely died.
When R’ Yehuda HaNassi compiled the Mishnah, he did not devote a separate masechta to the subject of agunos. Rather, he included it in Maseches Yevamos, which discusses other tragedies of family life. Poskim in the eras of the Gaonim and Rishonim also refrained from devoting entire sections of their halachic treatises to this subject. The sole exception is the Or Zaru’a(written by R’ Yitzchak, a student of the Ravya, one of the Gedolei Ashkenaz, who lived about 800 years ago), who included a section entitled “Hilchos Agunos” in his work.
At a certain point, it became more common for Jews to work as traveling salesmen. This forced them to leave their homes and communities to embark on perilous journeys of many weeks or even months. If a husband disappeared far from his home, it was often impossible to determine his fate. Questions involving agunos became more prevalent until poskim found it necessary to begin publishing dissertations on this subject.
The first published work was Kuntrus Iguna D’Itsa by R’ Chaim Sabato, which was printed in 5411 (1651) and has since become an indispensable guidebook for all poskim who grapple with this difficult topic. Poskim like the Noda B’Yehudah also devoted entire sections of their collected teshuvos to agunos.
Two hundred years ago, R’ Yaakov Emden (She’eilas Yaavetz I, 32) wrote that countless sefarim on agunos existed in his time. A hundred years earlier, the Chelkas Mechokek (a classic commentary on the Even Ha’azer section of Shulchan Aruch) found it necessary to condense and compile the responsa that existed at his time into a collection entitled Kuntrus Ha’Agunos. Years later, the Pischei Teshuvah compiled a broader collection. In our own generation, an updated compilation has been published byOtzar HaPoskim.
The Egla Arufa
The great importance of helping an agunah remarry can be learned from the mitzvah of eglah arufah. If an unidentified dead body is found, five sages from the great beis din of Yerushalayim are required to measure the distance from neighboring cities to the place where the corpse was found. The closest city must slaughter a calf in atonement. Even if the corpse is found just outside the gates of a city – making the determination of the closest city obvious – five Sages must still measure the various distances. R’ Yosef Bechor Shor (cited by Baalei Tosefos on the Torah, Parshas Shoftim) explains that the five sages measure the distances in order to attract a crowd of spectators so as to publicize the existence of the corpse and increase the amount of witnesses to it so that the man’s be allowed to remarry.
Rebuilding Yerushalayim In Heaven
R’ Menachem Mendel of Pintchov sent a question to the Bach concerning an agunah in which he writes, “Anyone who finds a basis to permit an agunah to remarry is considered to have rebuilt the ruins of Yerushalayim in heaven” (Teshuvos Habach HaChadashos, 64). Similarly, the Chida cites Rav A. Chayun, the author of a responsa permitting an agunah to remarry, who explains that he went to great lengths to permit her to remarry because by alleviating her plight he alleviated the pain of the Shechinah (Pnei David, Va’eschanan).
Since permitting an agunah to remarry is such a great mitzvah, many poskim devoted themselves to this task even at the most inconvenient times of year. The Tzemach Tzedek (59) once collected testimony during Chol HaMoed Pesach. The Noda B’Yehudah (II Even HaEzer, 64) completed a responsa on this topic on erev Shabbos just minutes before Shabbos began. R’ Eliezer Yitzchak of Volozhin wrote a responsa on the night after Tisha B’Av (Chut Hameshulash 2:4), and the Maharsham (1:84) wrote a teshuvah on Tisha B’Av itself. The Maharsham explained that writing this teshuvah on Tisha B’Av was especially fitting since by permitting an agunah to remarry we “rebuild Yerushalayim.”
Many poskim saw permitting agunos as a unique segulah, whose merit could help childless couples and advocate on our behalf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (see Birkas Yosef, E.H. 33; Beis Ephraim: Takanas Agunos 38, et al.). R’ Chaim Pilaji writes, “It seems from the words of the Rishonim and Acharonim that there is a great mitzvah to help agunos remarry in order to alleviate their suffering” (Teshuvos Chaim V’Shalom, E.H. 2, p. 2).
It is interesting to note that Jewish newspapers such as HaMaggid,HaTzefira,HaMeilitzand others would publicize pictures of lost men free of charge in order to help determine their fates and thus help their wives. This became so common that R’ Shalom Moshe Chai Gagin (Teshuvos Yismach Lev, O.C. 18) permitted reading these newspapers on Shabbos for the sake of agunos. Experience had shown that the posted pictures in these newspapers had helped agunos.