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Rabbinic Court Annuls 20-Year Marriage: Witnesses not Shabbat Observers


Chief Judge of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court Rabbi Eliyahu Abergel.

Chief Judge of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court Rabbi Eliyahu Abergel.
Photo Credit: Musayof Synagogue

In a precedent setting decision, the Chief Judge of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court Rabbi Eliyahu Abergel freed a woman from her aguna status (separated from her husband but unable to marry another) and annulled her marriage, because the witnesses who signed the ketubah were not Shabbat observers.

The plaintiff’s husband had fled Israel to Florida and was refusing to sign a get.

According to Israel’s Channel 2 News, twenty years ago the plaintiff, M., a resident of Jerusalem, who was only 20 years old at the time, married another resident of Jerusalem, who one day abandoned her. A few years later, when she realized he was not coming back, M. hired private investigators to try and track him down, hoping he would agree to give her a get to allow her to remarry. The investigators eventually found the husband in Florida.

With that information in hand, M.’s attorney Shlomo Avitan turned to the rabbinical court in Jerusalem and sought the judges’ help. Chief Judge Rabbi Abergel decided to take on the task. He used his contacts in the Jewish community in Florida and was amazed to discover that the husband had remarried, and has children from his new wife.

Rabbi Abergel tried to convince the fugitive to release his first wife from her aguna status.

“I offered him a few tens of thousands of dollars and various benefits,” the rabbi said. “When that did not help, I tried to just reason with him, but this also did no good. He just decided to make her unhappy. The get was out of the question.”

A Jewish divorce, the get, is constructed as the husband’s releasing his wife from their bond, which usually entails paying her the amount specified in the ketubah, the marriage contract the husband signs in front of two kosher Jewish witnesses prior to the chupa ceremony.

Rabbi Abergel took pity on M., who was sentenced to a life of loneliness by her ex husband.

According to Jewish law, the get must be given willingly and without coercion. Attempts by politicians in various jurisdictions, including New York State, to legislate a means of pressuring Jewish husbands into giving a get were rejected by the rabbinic establishment as incapable of yielding a proper get.

Looking for a creative solution, Rabbi Abergel asked the court staff to obtain the couple’s ketubahh and summoned the witnesses who had signed it at the wedding. The Rabbi questioned them at length and discovered that they are “Eaters of treif food and do not observe Shabbat and the commandments.”

In an unprecedented move, Rabbi Abergel decided to annul the marriage of M. and her runaway husband, on the grounds that the witnesses who signed the ketubah were legally improper. This means that M. and her husband had never really married, and so there is no need for a get to permit M. to marry now.

The rabbinic court judges adopted the decision, as did the Jerusalem High Beit Din, which is the final arbiter in religious Jewish cases, just below Israel’s Supreme Court.

The plaintiff M. was in tears when she thanked the court for her new lease on life. “I’m very happy the court made this precedent-setting decision,” she said. “Now I can remarry at last.”

In the early days of the Second Aliyah, before WW1, it was rumored that then Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook encouraged rabbis who officiated at weddings in communes and outposts where it was clear that fidelity was not foremost on the minds of the young pioneers, to intentionally pick unqualified witnesses for the ketubah—such as witnesses who were related to each other, which is unacceptable according to Jewish law. This was done so that those marriages would not be considered valid, and the offspring of the young brides’ extra-marital liaisons would not be mamzerim, who cannot marry into normal Jewish society.

About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.


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22 Responses to “Rabbinic Court Annuls 20-Year Marriage: Witnesses not Shabbat Observers”

  1. Rachel Furman Stern says:

    Well, this is good for agunot – IF the aidim at their weddings were not Shabbat observant. But what does this mean for secular Jews who are currently HAPPILY married, but the aidim at their weddings were not Shabbat observant? Will there be wholesale "annulment" of those marriages with pressure not to accept those marriages legally in Israel? I am not so sure this a good thing. I fear the ramifications of such a precedent…

  2. Stephen Leavitt says:

    This isn't a new "trick", but is used very rarely, and only in extreme cases, because of the risk and ramifications.

  3. from my understanding of halacha, even if there aren't kosher aiden, and the couple has lived together for a long time, and known as a couple, thay are still considered "married"

  4. Yori Yanover says:

    My understanding is that if the marriage is not challenged your view holds. But here the legitimacy has been challenged, which means the marriage was the fruit of a poisoned tree. So the time lag of an inherently null marriage is immaterial.

    I think there might be a fantastic, imaginative opening here for many other aguna cases in which the husband is being a pig, for the beit din to declare that from his behavior at the end of the marriage we deduce that he entered the marriage not in good faith, and annul the marriage.

    Too cute?

  5. Stephen Leavitt says:

    Marriage ceremonies are generally conditioned with "K'dat Moshe v'Yisrael" it's that second part that gives the Beit Din the possibility to annul the marriage. But it is a drastic measure, and the Beit Din must search for a flaw in the process to annul it retroactively.

  6. Charles Bryan Baron says:

    the flaw is inherently in the legal process. you have a theological system which posits a legal system with a inherent flaw.
    if the law is bad or its consequences draconian it cannot be changed because it is theology.
    for the believer this is not so terrible because he or she elected to believe in the system as a whole
    but when the theology is imposed upon a modern legal system and nonbelievers are compelled to comply the theology fails.
    how a court empowered by a state can justify annuling marriages because a witness put a television on on the sabbath strains logical (as distinct from theological) thought. the saem court would annul the marriage of the witnesses were female.

  7. Charles Bryan Baron says:

    the flaw is inherently in the legal process. you have a theological system which posits a legal system with a inherent flaw.
    if the law is bad or its consequences draconian it cannot be changed because it is theology.
    for the believer this is not so terrible because he or she elected to believe in the system as a whole
    but when the theology is imposed upon a modern legal system and nonbelievers are compelled to comply the theology fails.
    how a court empowered by a state can justify annuling marriages because a witness put a television on on the sabbath strains logical (as distinct from theological) thought. the saem court would annul the marriage of the witnesses were female.

  8. My ex sister in law who was not religious was in that position but she was told that since there were 2 shower Shabbat guests at the wedding who witnessed the ceremony, although they were not officially designated as aidim, the marriage is valid. This loophole was therefore not available to her but could probably be used to help some others.

  9. My ex sister in law who was not religious was in that position but she was told that since there were 2 shomer Shabbat guests at the wedding who witnessed the ceremony, although they were not officially designated as aidim, the marriage is valid. This loophole was therefore not available to her but I see how it could be used to help some others.

  10. Yori Yanover says:

    The law was always problematic, and a challenge for the community to overcome. It's a well know thing that if the wife has a couple of burly brothers, the husband usually gives up faster.

    But every law, whether theological or secular, is written for a particular system of law enforcement, and if the system is curtailed, meaning the rabbis don't have the means to impose serious pressure on the husband, or if a secular judge cannot punish J-walkers, then the individuals suffer.

  11. He is blessed who is a " pursuer of peace"

  12. I am assuming it was the witnesses to the kiddushin and not those who signed the ketubah who were invalidated. Disqualifying the witnesses to the ketubah or marriage contract, while significant inasmuch as a new ketubah would need to be prepared for the couple, would NOT effectively annul the marriage.

  13. Samantha Hulkower says:

    This is great!

  14. Charlie Hall says:

    Didn't Rabbi Moshe Feinstein issue a similar ruling regarding R and C marriages?

  15. What if the rabbi who performed the marriage never mentioned anything about this technicality, and the couple was and still are sabbath observers, would this apply? Why is this an issue now? What purpose does this question serve, or who would benefit. Please enlighten me. I find this totally insulting and pointless. Do these rabbis want to destroy us from the inside of our own traditions?

  16. What if the rabbi who performed the marriage never mentioned anything about this technicality, and the couple was and still are sabbath observers, would this apply? Why is this an issue now? What purpose does this question serve, or who would benefit. Please enlighten me. I find this totally insulting and pointless. Do these rabbis want to destroy us from the inside of our own traditions?

  17. Stan Cohen says:

    Rachel you must remember that things like child support and alimony enforcement are secular issues that do not look at the religious status of a marriage but rather at the secular proceedings and documents produced so those issues can never be skirted. Further, it says in the talmud in tractate ketubah that there are 3 ways a woman is betrothed – by accepting a gift, by having sex and by ketubah. Having sex alone merits lashes which can not be meted out without a sanhedrin. It's the ketubah that actually locks everything up and proves good faith in adherence to alll religious aspects so it's a great day for agunot anddoes not threaten the culturally Jewish married folk at all. It ALSO protects the status of children so they are not turned into mazerot.

  18. This is a fascinating article. I particularly like the bit about Rav Kook encouraging improper marriages to protect the status of future offspring. It brings up some interesting problems though… if one of the people who signed your Ketubah goes off the derech, does that invalidate your Jewish marriage?

  19. Rachel Furman Stern says:

    unfortunately, the Ketubah does NOT protect a woman from becoming an agunah –if it did, we would not have the problem of agunot. This is why the concept of the Halachic Pre-Nup is an important concept which should be supported by all Jews, religious and non religious alike. This Rabbi, however, annulled a marriage, for a good reason. The problem I see is that it sets a dangerous precedent that creates a slippery slope for us…

  20. I think that it is just terrible that they just don't force the husband to give the get, if he refuses then just annealed the marriage that's it!

  21. While we applaud a ruling freeing a clear case of Aguna, we mourn the dreadful precedent of this ruling, which may now be applied as legal precedent in cases far afield from freeing a legitimate aguna. The implications for 75%+ of kosher marriages in Israel, Europe & the Americas is terrifying. An exceedingly bad decision in its public policy implications. The Torah Taliban can now terrorize the vast majority of Jews worldwide.

  22. Zahava Zer says:

    a get should be signed and given over to a lawyer before the wedding. a ketuba is basically a useless piece of paper. rabbis never enforce it, anyway. it takes two to tango, but the majority of the abusers in jewish divorce situations are men. also, who decides that the marriage is "valid"? rabbis? these same rabbis who insist upon "shalom bayit" when the wife comes to them, begging for a divorce because the husband is abusing her and the children? the rabbis do have the ability to change the rules, so to speak. some rav hands down a psak on this, another hands down a psak on that… how many "fences" have been created within judaism to make it easier to follow the religion? a prenuptial agreement is a noble idea, but if some guy refuses to give a get, he's not going to keep his part of the bargain and fulfill whatever was written in that agreement.

    some woman was stuck as an aguna for 50 years until her husband finally died. u mean a bet din couldn't do ANYTHING in all those years? something is horribly wrong with this…

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