Mishnah Gittin 8:5

The inclusion of Roman dates on Jewish divorce documents: technical detail or acknowledgment of Roman authority?

200 CE to 220 CE
Syria Palaestina
Literary genre: 
Legal text
Title of work: 
Gittin 8:5

This mishnah discusses two requisite elements for the introduction of a writ of divorce (get): the date and location of its composition (on the basic features of all Jewish legal documents, see Tosefta Baba Batra 11:2). This discussion on the dating of a divorce document is especially important for this project, as this source rejects several possibilities, suggesting that the calendar of the current government should be followed; otherwise, the writ will be rendered null and void. This ruling raises various questions, including: Does this factor signal rabbinic acceptance of Roman rule or was this simply a technical detail that ensures the validity of documents, and particularly in Roman courts? Moreover, what might this requirement teach about the possibility that Jewish divorce writs were actually discussed in Roman courtrooms? Before turning to these subjects, let us analyze this mishnah.

This passage opens by discussing several approaches for determining the date for a writ of divorce, with a focus on invalidating rather than acceptable options. First, it refers to a kingdom that is not hogenet (“befitting” in Hebrew; Jastrow, A Dictionary, p. 337). This term is often applied to a woman who is not suitable to marry a particular man. Thus, dating according to an unbefitting kingdom probably refers to a legal document whose date (specifically the year) does not correspond to the dating system of the kingdom where it was written. In the context of the Mishnah, which was composed in the land of Israel, the “befitting” kingdom is Rome, although it is not named in this source, for this rule is articulated as a general principle. Two past kingdoms are then mentioned as examples of calendrical systems whose dates on a divorce writ would render it void: Media and Greece. In this text, Greece probably refers to the Seleucid kingdom, whose dating system was calculated from 312 BCE forward and, unlike Rome, did not use officials or emperors as points of reference. Given that this dating, which appears in 1 and 2 Maccabees, was used by Jews well into the medieval period (even later in some communities), Lawrence H. Schiffman notes that the Greek kingdom in this mishnah “must refer to the empire of Alexander the Great” (“Reflection,” p. 189). Indeed, there is evidence that non-Jews in Syria used this dating system well into the sixth century CE, long after the fall of the Seleucid empire. However, since the Mishnah rejects this system for dating a divorce writ, the validity of writs of divorce beyond the realm of Jewish jurisprudence (namely in Roman courts) seems to be its primary interest. This same issue seems to be the focus of Tosefta Gittin 6:3, which details a formula for determining the year that closely resembles the norm for Roman legal documents. Alternatively, the central concern in these sources may in fact be adherence to a scribal convention that acknowledges the current authority (see also Alon, The History, vol. I, p. 336). According to this view, by the time of the Mishnah, Roman dating formulae had become standard among Jews in Palestine and Arabia; therefore, this halakhic source merely conveys the accepted practice for legal documents, including divorce writs, whereas other calendrical systems were applied in non-legal contexts.

After these mentions of current and prior foreign kingdoms, this misnhah cites two Israelite approaches to marking years, relative to landmark events: the building of the Second Temple and its destruction. Counting time from the destruction was indeed in use during Late Antiquity, as attested by epigraphic and architectural remains: fourth-to-sixth-century epitaphs from Zoar (today Gohr es-Safi, Jordan, on the south-eastern shore of the Dead Sea), record dates that are calculated from the destruction of the Temple; and, an inscription on a synagogue lintel from Nabratein (Kefar Nevuraya) is dated to 494 years after the destruction (Naveh, On Stone and Mosaic, 31; Wilfand, “Aramaic Tombstones,” p. 534). The Mishnah does not approve of dates from either of these Jewish systems on writs of divorce, probably because they were not accepted in Roman courts or did not reflect the current governing authority.

This mishnah then discusses the need to meticulously record the place where a divorce writ was written, by the husband (or his scribe). Any error would render the document invalid. The Mishnah then enumerates the severe consequences imposed on a woman that accepted an inaccurate divorce writ (presumably she did not notice the mistake), who may have remarried and had children with her current husband before this error was discovered. In such a case, she must divorce both husbands and bear economic losses, including: her ketubbah which, in this context, refers to the funds set in reserve by a husband for his wife if they divorce; her usufructs, namely profit from any property that she brought into the marriage; she is no longer eligible for alimentation, which would be provided in standard divorce agreement; and, she must forfeit blayot, usually replacements for garments that are worn out but, in our mishnah, probably compensation for her property that her husband used or consumed (on an equivalent provision in Roman law, see Cohen, Jewish and Roman Law, Vol. 2, p. 572). The implications of this error are neither limited to this woman or her economic status; any children from her second marriage are also effected, for they would be considered mamzerim. Mishnah Yevamot 4:13 and Qiddushin 3:12 define mamzerim as members of Israel who were born to an adulterous woman or from incestuous sexual relations (most of these prohibitions are listed in Leviticus 18, 20). The mamzerim had a grave marital restriction, following the rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:3: “A mamzer shall not be admitted to the congregation (qahal) of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (based on v. 2 in NRSV). The rabbis understood these verses to prohibit mamzerim from marrying Israelites, Levites, and priests.

These severe outcomes resulted from a failure to write the date according to the current ruling empire which, in the case of the rabbis who composed the Mishnah, is Rome (although its name is not mentioned). Moreover, the dating systems that this source prohibits for writs of divorce were still operative in that region, at least for non-legal usage, as later epigraphic evidence attests. Thus, the sages may have insisted on this dating to ensure that these documents would meet Roman standards if they were placed under scrutiny within its legal system; alternatively, Roman dating may already have become the norm for divorce writs. In either case, this source does not seem to suggest a principal acceptance of Israel being subject to Roman rule, but rather a technical requirement that would secure the legal validity of a Jewish divorce writ.

Bibliographical references: 

Jewish and Roman Law I-II

Cohen, BoazbookJewish and Roman Law I-IINew York (N.Y.)Jewish Theological Seminary of America1966
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