Sunday, August 19, 2007

Ki Seitzei, Devarim 24:1. The Law of Divorce.

The well known, and most misunderstood, Mishneh in Gittin 90a lists three opinions as to when one may divorce his wife.

Beis Shammai— ervas davar, evidence of lewdness or adultery.
Beis Hillel— hikdicho tavshilo, she ruins your food.
Reb Akiva— motzo acheres no’eh heimeno, you found someone else who is more beautiful than she.

Everyone knows this mishneh, and it is always a source of amusement or chagrin. We read the mishneh, and understand Beis Shammai, who defends the Institution of Marriage. Beis Shammai says that one may not end a marriage unless it is beyond hope, that the spouse is unfaithful to the vows and laws of marriage. Then comes Beis Hillel, and he says, even if she burned your food; and our eyebrows start to rise. Then comes Reb Akiva, who says that even if you find someone more beautiful, go ahead and divorce your wife, and we are completely astonished. Do Beis Hillel and Reb Akiva think so little of marriage that such trivial and selfish matters are good grounds for breaking up a marriage? And how does this conform with what we know about Reb Akiva’s great love and respect for his dear wife, his muse and inspiration, Rochel? This is the Reb Akiva of ‘rak, sachak, ubacha’?

But the truth is, this Mishnah is an example of ‘shicheis lo, lo bonov mumam’, that most people have no idea of how carefully one must read a mishnah, and they think it can be read superficially, and come out understanding it precisely backwards. Correctly understood, the mishneh becomes completely different.

The Gemora in Kiddushin says that "loving one’s neighbor as one’s self" is only possible after one is married. It is only through marriage that a person finds the necessary element for becoming a true tzelem Elokim, to attain the Godliness of pure empathy. To even begin to conceive of what "ve'ahavta le'rei'acha kamocah" means is only possible after experiencing the selfless ahava of kamocha that can develop in a marriage. What is this perfect marriage that the Torah envisions? What is this marriage that the Torah considers worthy of defending at all costs? Reb Akiva says that the Torah-marriage is one of perfect and selfless love and harmony. If not, it’s not what the Torah had in mind. If your relationship with your wife is so shallow that you find someone else more beautiful than she, if you think you can experience true love with someone else, go ahead and try. What you have in your marriage is not what the Torah wants anyway. Beis Shammai says, Relationships? What ‘relationships’? We have duties in life that demand our full energy and attention: get up, go to work, learn, come home, educate your children, who has time to waste on ‘Relationships’? As long as your wife is not a prutzah, that’s good enough. Beis Hillel holds that if your wife is indifferent to your well being, this dysfunctional family life will generate a tension that will distort and disturb your ability to grow spiritually or to achieve anything worthy.

Now, you see that it is not Reb Akiva that confounds and astonishes us, it is Beis Shammai's utilitarian view of marriage that is more depressing. Unfortunately, some people have come over to me after hearing this drosho and said they still find Reb Akiva surprising, because of course Beis Shammai is right.

(If you're the sort of person who talks about the din of Ben Sorer U'moreh at Bar Mitzvahs, and "yemei shenaseinu bahem shiv'im shana" at eightieth birthday celebrations, then I suppose you could use this at a Sheva Brachos.)


  1. Nice pshat. Do you have a source that I can attach to it when quoting?

  2. No, sorry. It's just something that I realized the night after learning this mishneh with my shiur, lying in bed talking to my wife about how hard it is to understand Reb Akiva, especially knowing how strongly he felt about his wife and everything he said he owed her.

  3. Amazing pshat. I always appreciate it when people struggle with prototypically difficult Gemaras like the one you quoted and come to the meaning behind the deciptively shocking "outer" pshat.

    -Dixie Yid

  4. I think that if Reb Akiva really meant what it looks like he means, he would have said you don't need a reason to write a get. His expression "motzo acheres" seems to be intentionally dismissive and degrading, as if a wife's whole tachlis was to please your superficial desires and wants.

    But you bring up a valid point about dovor be'sheim omro. How about "the Bavusteh Shittah lo noda le'mi"?

  5. The explanation of R' Akiva, at least, sounded familiar to me (otherwise, I wouldn't mind saying I saw it on a blog :-) ) - either you were m'chavein to someone else, or its just symptomatic of the fact that the best p'shatim are the ones that sound obvious after the fact.

  6. I have heard people say in R' Akiva that "if you think another woman is more beautiful than your wife, then there is something wrong with your marriage." I'm saying something else. I'm saying that the machlokes is about what the Torah envisioned as "marriage." Everyone agrees that kiddushin is a kinyon, and you can make and break kinyonim. But beyond the concept of kinyon, there's a bayis ne'emon, there's a mah tovu ohelecho Yaakov, there's a ve'ohavto le'rei'acho komochoh marriage, and it is this marriage that cannot be blithely broken as if it were just another contract. If you cannot conceive of being married to anyone else, then your marriage is the state of spiritual union that one should aspire to. If you think you might be happier with another woman, then your marriage is not what the Torah envisioned, and it's just a kinyon.

    Maybe it is just a better way of saying what has been said by others. But without Reb Chaim, where would the Rambam be?

  7. Aren't there rishonim who say that the mishna's not talking about when you SHOULD divorce your wife, but rather when you CAN divorce her? R' Akiva's opinion is the obvious one; if you chose to make a kinyan for whatever reason, you should be able to choose to make another kinyan and divorce her. Beit Hillel and Shammai are surprising in that they seem to say it's IMPOSSIBLE to divorce her without a particular misdeed on her part. That is the chiddush. Regarding whether this restriction is deoraita or derabanan, and who we pasken like - ayen sham.

  8. In regard to the last anonymous comment... what difference would it make to this vort if the mishnah is talking about when one should divorce his wife or when he can? Either way, at first reading, Beis Shammai seems to be the opinion trying to hold the marriage together, making that the "friendlier" view; after Barzilai's beautiful interpretation, one realizes that the more idealistic view of marriage is, in fact, Rabbi Akiva's. -The Marlboro Man

  9. Nice vort. It's Gittin 90a, not Kiddushin 90a.

  10. ???


    Thanks. I'll change the post.

  11. And I prefer "reading your divrei Torah drove me reeling from my chair, as if I had experienced a blinding flash of the Ohr Hatzafun," but "nice vort" will do. Thanks.

  12. hi hoping ill get an answer asap - is deuteronomy from the bible the same as devarim from the torah?? want to quote a piece on divorce as being in both but only torah is in hebrew & cant find a thing on the net - its a piece about divorce & 100 shekels, in deut bt nt devarim - HELP!! :)

  13. is deuteronomy from the bible the same as devarim from the torah??

    want to quote a piece on divorce as being in both but only torah is in hebrew & cant find a thing on the net - its a piece about divorce & 100 shekels, in deut bt nt devarim - HELP!! :)

    You're welcome to write me directly at