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Two very common words for document in Rabbinic Hebrew are “get” and “shtar.” “Get” is used for all kinds of documents – e.g., “get shichrur” (a freed slave’s writ of emancipation), “get chov,” (an IOU), etc. Colloquially, though, “get” is a writ of divorce.

Tosafos (Gittin 2a) cites Rabbeinu Tam, who explains that a divorce document has 12 lines of text in accordance with the gematria of “get” – which equals 12. Some authorities – like the Maharsha (1555–1631), the Maharam Shiff (1608-1644), and the Elyah Rabbah (1660-1712) – understand Tosafos to be explaining why a bill of divorce is called a get as opposed to a shtar (The Tosafos Yom Tov [1579-1654] understands Tosafos differently.)


Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) questions Tosafos’ explanation on two grounds: First, he notes that other documents are also called “get,” yet they don’t contain 12 lines. Second, “get” is not the only possible word whose gematria is 12 (there’s “dach” or “haz,” or “tag”).

After citing Rabbi HaBachur’s questions, Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Algazi (1680-1757) writes that he heard a different explanation for why a divorce document is called a “get”: The schism between husband and wife is best reflected in this word whose two letters never appear next to each other in that order anywhere in the Bible!

The earliest known source for this explanation (which is also offered by the Vilna Gaon) is Sefer HaChaim by Rabbi Chaim of Friedburg (1520-1588), the oldest brother of the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609). He writes that because G-d dislikes divorce so much, He made sure the letters gimmel and tet never appear next to each other in that order in the Bible.

Rabbi Meir Mazuz writes that even though there are other combinations of two letters that never appear side by side (such as gimmel-kuf and samech-tzadi), those other combinations consist of letters pronounced through the same parts of the mouth. Gimmel and tet are pronounced through different parts of the mouth.

Moreover, he notes that other two-letter combinations are difficult to pronounce, so they were not in the running for becoming the word for a divorce document. Finally, Rabbi Mazuz writes that gimmel and tet are the earliest letters in the alphabet that are incompatible with one another (see also Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, Taama DeKra, to Deuteronomy 24:1).

Rabbi Yehoshua Boaz (1518-1557) in his commentary Shiltei HaGibborim (Mordechai, Gittin 1) cites a non-extant Midrash that refers to some sort of gem called getta in a far-off island that is able to ward off people. Based on this Midrash, he explains that a bill of divorce – by which a married couple officially repel one another – is appropriately called a get.

Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839) cites another tradition about this gem according to which it actually attracts people, not repels them. In order to determine which tradition is more accurate, Rabbi Sofer turns to a work by Rabbi Avraham the Physician of Portleon (also called Shiltei HaGibborim), which discusses different gems and their charms. It mentions a stone known as “gagate” that, if rubbed, is said to attract straw. Thus, Rabbi Sofer concludes that the getta stone has the power to attract, not repel.

Accordingly, Rabbi Sofer explains that all legal documents are called “get” because they bring people together (e.g., lenders and borrowers, buyers and sellers, etc.). Rabbi Sofer writes that it isn’t clear why “get” would also mean a bill of divorce, which is why the explanation about it having 12 lines had to be proffered.

Tosafot Chachmei Anglia (Gittin 2a), Orchot Chaim (Hilchot Gittin), Kolbo (76), the glosses to Rabbi Yaakov Margolis of Regensburg’s Seder HaGett, and the Levush (Even HaEzer 125:11) all explain that “get” is an expression of breaking or cutting. These sources cite a no-longer-extant passage from the Yerushalmi that uses the word in this way. Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1835) similarly suggests that “get” is an expression of erasure (see Rashi to Berachos 56a).

The scholarly consensus, meanwhile, is that “get” is a loanword, borrowed from the Akkadian “gittu,” meaning “a (single-column) document.”

The late Rabbi Eliezer Herstik writes that some believe the word “ghetto” is derived from “get” (chased away). Another popular theory is that it is derived from the Italian “borghetto” (small part of a city), which is, in turn, derived from the German “burg” (fortress, city, town), the equivalent of the English “borough.” Others explain that “ghetto” derives from the Venetian “getto” (metal foundry), as near the Jewish ghetto in Venice there was such a factory. Finally, others claim “ghetto” is derived from the Latin “Aegyptus” (i.e., Egypt, where the Jews were first ghettoized).

Another common word for document in rabbinic literature is “shtar.” Rabbi HaBachur has two separate entries for shin-tet-reish in Meturgaman, his lexicon of Targumic Aramaic. The first is an Aramaicization of the Hebrew shin-tet-reish, which means policing or enforcing the law (“shoter”), while the second consists of examples of shtar in the sense of document. He thus understands the two meanings of this root to be separate.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, however (to Exodus 5:6), believes the two words are related. He explains that a shtar is called so because it is a creditor’s best means for presenting his grievances and enforcing his dues.


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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.