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HILCHOT GITIN BOOKS: HISTORY
HOW JEWISH DIVORCE LAW DEVELOPED IN EUROPE
(I am most indebted to my friend and colleague David Curwin of Efrat, Israel for suggesting the use of books of Hilchot Gitin as a means of structuring and developing the Given Names Data Bases.)
Jewish marriage and divorce laws (and the doctrines of Judaism in general) were created in three phases: Biblical, Talmudical, and Rabbinical. In the Bible, only marriages with Canaanite nations were forbidden. Even by later Talmudic laws, intermarriages in Europe were allowed because the nations of Europe were not considered idolaters. The rabbis, to be sure, were opposed to such unions, seeing that the usual ceremonies could not be performed, so they would refuse to bless such an union -- but this was of little consequence since civil marriages were recognized by the state and the rabbis considered a Jew or Jewess who intermarried as a full co-religionist (although their children might not be).
The first formal statement of Jewish divorce law outside of the Bible was made when the Mishna was written and formalized by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi in 189 CE, during the Talmudic era. The third Order of the Mishna is Nashim (Women), and the sixth Tractate in Nashim is Gittin (Divorces). Gittin has nine chapters, dealing with the various laws of divorce. One aspect of these laws is whether the divorce takes place inside or outside of the Land of Israel. Exodus from Palestine was both slow and steady (due to famine, war, etc.) and massive (due to forced exiles to Babylonia and to Europe).
The first exile from the Land of Israel was the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE. Not all of the exiled Jews returned to Palestine when allowed to do so in 538 BCE, but rather remained and established a major Jewish settlement which lasted 1,500 years. This Jewish community flourished and established the Academy of Sura in the south in 219 CE, and the Academy of Pumbeditha in the north somewhat later. These Academies were the centers for establishing, promulgating, and teaching Jewish law (including divorce law) until Babylonia was no longer the center of Judaism. By the year 1038 CE, both Academies could no longer operate and were closed. This spelled the end of religious and cultural leadership of the world by Babylonian Jewry, and the rise of European Jewry in Spain and Western/Central Europe.
The second major exile from the Land of Israel occurred after the establishment of Christianity, when Jews were driven or emigrated themselves to Asia Minor, to southern Europe, and to France and Germany, creating a second Diaspora.
Numerous rabbis from the dying Babylonian Academies emigrated to Cordova in Spain during the tenth and eleventh centuries, chief among them Moshe ben Chanoch. Soon, with the rapid growth of Jewish learning in Spain, a wall was created between Babylonia and Spain, making Spanish Jewry independent of Babylonian authority, and hastening the demise of the Babylonian Academies. The Golden Age of Jewish learning and culture (including poetry, medicine, arts) began in Spain and lasted for several hundred years. Later, other Babylonian rabbis moved to France and Germany.
Three men were the founders of the Judaeo-Spanish culture: Moshe ben Chanoch, the grammarian Menachem ben Saruk, and the creator of the artistic form of Jewish poetry, Dunash Ibn-Labrat. But this culture unfolded through one man, Abu-Yussuf Chasdai ben Isaac (915-970), a member of the noble family of Ibn-Ezra. Chasdai was the first of a long succession of wealthy, high-minded Spanish Jews who made the protection and furthering of Judaism the task of their lives.
The shift of Judaism to Spain and to France/Germany proceeded differently. In Spain, Jews were well respected and were active in society and government at all levels, while retaining their warm involvement with religious and cultural Judaism; only later when forced conversions to Christianity were attempted by the Church did the Golden Age die in Spain. Then began the massive exodus of Jews from Spain to the European countries around and north of the Mediterranean basin. In France and Germany, by contrast, there was always much hostility towards and hatred of Jews, including massacres at the beginning of each Crusade, and at other times; Jews had to buy their safety and this relationship with non-Jews continued until modern times. This continuing anti-semitism was a constant cause of Jewish migration within Central and Eastern Europe.
These qualitative differences in their environments caused Spanish Jewry to develop culturally while Western/Central Jewry developed religiously. This difference was maintained, passing the leadership in Jewish legal activities (incuding divorce law) and religious matters to Western/Central European Jews. Accordingly, Jewish divorce law as it developed in Europe came mainly from the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Western Europe during their migrations within Europe.
The Rabbinical (and final) phase of the development of Jewish divorce-law doctrines began with the completion of the Talmud around 500 CE. After the shift of Judaism's centroid from Babylonia to Spain and to France/Germany around 1000 CE, European Jews began to adopt local secular names (and also to create new Yiddish names as the new Yiddish language developed), and new Jewish laws were needed for legal purposes including divorce contracts and calling men to the Tora.
Thus, new laws of divorce were developed by authoritative Ashkenazic rabbis, collaborating with one another even though residing in separate European countries. Their team effort established a mechanism for insuring consistency among the laws created in separate areas, and the weight of their reputations ensured the recognition of the new laws throughout Europe. So began the traditions for writing books of Hilchot Gitin and their promulgation among divorce rabbis. These rabbinic treatises were influenced by how Jews adopted and used traditional Hebrew names, as well as by the new Yiddish and secular names being created/adopted by the new religious vigor which suffused European Judaism; and the new books in turn impacted how Jews chose and used Yiddish and secular names.
The nine centuries of the Rabbinical phase or era of divorce law development began to crumble in Europe during the massive exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe during 1880-1914, and the end came with the Holocaust. The European Jewish population of about 7,000,000 in 1880 had grown to 9,000,000 by 1914, despite the exodus of 2,400,000 during this period, because of the high birth rate and good health practices; but the European Jewish population afterward remained nearly constant at the latter figure until the Holocaust began, because of a steady emigration of Jews from Europe. Whereas European Jewry was ninety percent of the world Jewish total in 1880, their percentage had dropped to under sixty percent by 1938, and to under thirty three percent by 1948.
As had occurred with the waning of Babylonian influence on the Jewish world nine hundred years earlier, the baton had now passed from Europe to the United States. The last of the European books of Hilchot Gitin were written during the period 1900-25, among them the "Get Mesudar" book of Rabbi Elazar Mintz, described elsewhere on this web site. Jewish divorce law was effectively frozen and future adaptations would be under the control of individual divorce rabbis using the old Hilchot Gitin books as guides. These old books now passed into the domain of being a collection of authoritative Jewish law books, somewhat similar to the books of the Talmud.
HOW HILCHOT GITIN BOOKS WERE WRITTEN
The divorce rate for European Jews was approximately twice that of non-Jews. The reason may have been that Jews took very seriously the Biblical injunction to multiply and they wanted large families -- in the event of infertility, divorce became a necessity. Thus, in the case of a divorce followed by another marriage and new/additional children being born, it was very important that there be no doubt about the status of the new offspring. In the event of a post-divorce discovery that the Get was defective, subsequent children's status might be very undesirable under Jewish law -- they might be declared to be Bastards.
Thus, a precise and accurate description of the two participants in the divorce was essential, and the divorce rabbi was exceedingly careful in his investigation of their actual, legal names. One of his most important guides in this research was the Hilchot Gitin book which applied to his region and time. These books were written by rabbinic experts accredited through recognition of their status in the field.
A typical scenario for the writing of a Jewish divorce law book included several factors for the rabbinic author:
Since divorce rabbis generally lived and operated only in cities and larger towns, there were many villages without such a person, and this meant travel for the rabbis and for the parties to the divorce. This also raised issues over where the Get was written, where it was delivered to the woman, and how these impacted on the Get itself (since the place of writing the Get might have a different Yiddish dialect than the place where the woman lived). This also influenced where the rabbinic author decided to live, so that he could be in good contact with his "partners" in name research. The location of Jewish printing houses was also a factor for the rabbinic author.
Rabbinic authors frequently relied heavily on prior decisions by other respected writers of HG books. Although much respect was shown for prior writers, there was no hesitation to explain how prior rabbis did their research and to make decisions between opposing opinions. Thus, Rabbi Mintz, the author of the "Get Mesudar", pointed out that Rabbi Shmuel ben Uri Shraga Phoebus, author of the authoritative "Sefer Bet Shmuel" book of the seventeenth century, had himself copied names from prior books, and also that some of the names that he presented were applicable in his time frame, but not in Rabbi Mintz's time frame since the pronunciation of many names had changed over time. Rabbi Mintz himself considered the book "Ohaley Sheym" by Salomon Ganzfried to be a major book of its type and used it as a standard in his own decision-making.
HILCHOT GITIN BOOKS
Here is a short list of the more prominent European books of Jewish Divorce Law. These books cover many centuries and most of the important regions of Europe (Germany, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Rumania, and other countries). The applicability of each book is mainly within the time period before and immediately after its original publication, and within the regions where the rabbinic expert had lived and done his research, but the infuence of some books extended far outside of their regions.
ADDENDUM: JEWISH-NAME LISTS IN THE U.S.
While naming practices in the United States during and after the beginning of the 20th century is not really an appropriate topic here, it is worthwhile to understand the impact of indigenous and immigrant Jews on one another in terms of Jewish names and naming practices during the initial transition period. We discuss this topic briefly.
From 1881 to 1914, two million European Jews immigrated to the United States, and from 1914 to 1939, another 900,000 immigrated to the US. This constituted eighty five percent of the Jews that fled from Europe during this period. This caused an enormous increase in the population of Jews in the US during less than two generations, and a corresponding need to develop community structures for their religious and cultural integration into the pre-existing Jewish community. The initial response of interest to us was the development of aids and guide-books for rabbis and synagogue officials who needed to deal with the many "new" Jewish names from various foreign lands. (The vast majority of immigrants retained their legal Jewish names from Europe, but adopted a new vernacular name for use in the US.) Thus during the transition period (first quarter of the 20th century), began the creation of lists of European Jewish names to be used by synagogue officials to call male immigrants to the Tora for an aliya, and for rabbis to use in officiating over marriages, births, and burials.
These books took the place of the Hilchot Gitin books of Europe, but did not have their status as Jewish law books, rather being popular guidelines covering a number of topics. It is significant that none of these books dealt with the sensitive subject of divorce, or the names to be written in a Get. Their sections on Jewish names generally included very little discussion of individual names, and no comments at all on their legality or how to deal with special cases. This was the beginning of a new trend in the US, one which had not existed in Europe where books concerning Jewish given names were concerned with divorce law and were the purview of rabbis, or were written by scientific researchers.
In general, the books written during this transition period contained two types of information: 1. Religious customs for conducting services and ceremonies in typical US synagogues, and 2. Lists of the names to be used in calling men to the Tora in an aliya, and for other ceremonials. The books were intended primarily for synagogue personnel and secondarily for new immigrants. The first books of this genre were written in both Hebrew and Yiddish, and later on, English translations were added or substituted for Yiddish. We shall present two examples of this type of early 20th century book, one published in 1918, the other in 1939:
Rabbi Rosenberg was born in Poland and served there as rabbi in Torle, Warsaw, and Lodz before immigrating to Toronto. His book (written in Hebrew and Yiddish) is divided into three parts: 1. All prayers connected with reading from the Tora, 2. All regulations for the reading of the Tora itself, and 3. A listing of Yiddish and some European secular kinuim (authorized for Tora and other use) for men, and the Holy Names (Shemot HaKodesh) to which they are linked. No women's names are included. The main purpose of this kinui-oriented format was to help the person who was calling a man to the Tora to determine what Sheym HaKodesh to use if the man knew only his Yiddish name. The kinuim appear to be almost entirely of Polish origin.
Rabbi Goldin was a New York rabbi who wrote prolifically about Shulkhan Arukh, Book of Legends, Universal History of Israel, Mishna Baba Kama, Baba Metsia, Baba Batra, and other topics. His manual was devised to give the rabbi, or anyone officiating at a Jewish ceremonial or ritual, a concise, practical aid to facilitate his task. His book (written in Hebrew and English) gives not only the Jewish law concerning such rituals, but also the prayers which are used, and guides on how to insert persons' correct names at appropriate places. Some of the ceremonies include: Engagement, Betrothal and Marriage, Circumcision, Redemption of the first born, Bar Mitsva, Dedicating a new house, Dedicating a new synagogue, Visiting the sick, Adding a name, Confession, Laws concerning a dying person, Funerals and burial, Meals of condolence, Mourning, Kaddish and Yahrtseit, Lulav, and Source material for sermons and speeches. His book also includes two lists of Shemot HaKodesh and their kinuim (for both men and women) and how they are to be used to call men to the Tora. The kinuim appear to be from North Eastern Europe, mainly Lithuania.
These two books appear to be out of print, but may be available as used books.
In later years in the United States, other types of Jewish name books have appeared, generally with a more popular type of approach and targeting a wider range of readers. This has particularly been the case since personal genealogical research has become popular.