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Parshat Ki Tetzei: Grounds for divorce

Elul 5783 | August 2023

Those who study daf yomi (a daily folio of Talmud) have just finished the Tractate Gittin and moved on to Kiddushin. Since both the final mishna of Gittin and Parshat Ki Tetzei deal with what constitutes valid grounds for divorce, let’s discuss the issue.

The mishna’s discussion is based on a verse in our parsha: “If a man takes a woman as his wife, in the event she does not find favor in his eyes because he has found something indecent about her, he writes her a bill of divorce and gives it in her hand and sends her from his home.”[1] According to Beit Shammai  a husband may only divorce his wife if he discovers “something indecent,” meaning she has been unfaithful. Beit Hillel agrees that there must be “something indecent” but explains that this can be anything improper; the example in the mishna is that she burned his food. Alternatively, focusing on the phrase “in the event she does not find favor in his eyes,” Rabbi Akiva teaches that a man who finds another woman more attractive than his wife has valid grounds for divorce.[2]

The institution of marriage

At first glance it may seem like Beit Shammai has the most faith in the institution of marriage. They view marriage as an inviolate, paramount value and are almost catholic in their opposition to divorce. Beit Hillel and Rabbi Akiva seem to place less value on marriage, which could explain why they justify expelling a woman from her home on grounds many people would find unreasonable.

On second glance, it seems that each of them has a different definition of what constitutes a marriage. Beit Shammai doesn’t have many expectations; she just can’t cheat. The most basic, and perhaps only, commitment that is important in a marriage is to remain sexually faithful. Beit Hillel sees marriage as a partnership, perhaps even a financial arrangement. Each party gives, each party receives. The woman gets food, clothing, and sexual relations – meeting her physical needs and providing her with security. The man gets someone to do the housework, cooking perhaps the most basic of all. Therefore, if a woman burns the food her husband has a right to feel that she has not fulfilled her part in the contract.

In contrast, Rabbi Akiva has much higher expectations from marriage. He expects fondness and affinity. From his point of view, if a man finds another woman more attractive (or perhaps if he’s even looking for someone else) something is critically wrong with the marriage covenant between the two.

These explanations mirror three explanations for the verse in Melakhi concerning divorce: “‘For rejected is divorce(d)’ said the Lord, God of Israel.”[3] One interpretation is that it’s obligatory to divorce a rejected woman, because her actions are detestable. This parallels Beit Shammai’s grounds for divorce. Another opinion is that it’s obligatory to divorce a rejected woman because it’s inappropriate to remain tied to a woman who is unloved. This seems to align with Rabbi Akiva’s explanation.

A third interpretation states that God detests a man who divorces his wife and sees it as a breach of the covenant of marriage. It seems that such a man is trying to get out of his obligations to his wife. A man who divorces his wife and ceases to provide for her has broken his side of the partnership agreement. The focus on mutual obligations indicates that this opinion somewhat aligns with that of Beit Hillel.

There are practical halakhic repercussions related to the different justifications for divorce in the mishna. The grounds for divorce affect a woman’s eligibility to receive the money her ketuba stipulates her husband must pay upon divorce; there’s a significant difference between a divorce based on Beit Shammai’s interpretation and grounds justified by Beit Hillel or Rabbi Akiva. One of the reasons the sages established the ketuba was to give a framework for the dissolution of marriage and “so that he won’t deem it easy to expel her” (see the blog on Parshat Vayetze). When a man divorces his wife because she strayed, she bears the responsibility, so she is ineligible to receive her ketuba.[4] In such a case divorce is encouraged, since she broke the marriage contract and he is prohibited from having further relations with her.

Conversely, when a husband feels his wife hasn’t “met expectations,” for example she messes up his dinner or is no longer attractive to him, she is not considered at fault and is eligible to receive her ketuba.[5] While the Torah allows a man to divorce his wife if she “does not find favor in his eyes” or he thinks there’s something improper about her, it does not encourage it and this should not be seen as a justification for such behavior on his part.

[1] Mishna Gittin 9:10; Devarim 24:1.

[2] TB Gittin 90a

[3] Malakhi 2:16; TB Gittin 90b – see the different versions of the gemara and Rashi.

[4] See Mishna Sota 1:5

[5] Mishna Ketubot 7:6 described various grounds that justify denying a woman her ketuba.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.