By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5TJT.com
“Yes, Rabbi, my wife has refused to allow me to give a Get for the past nine years. I understand that you do heter meah rabbonim. Can I meet with you?”
“Yes, I was told about this case. Sure, let’s meet. Why is she not allowing you to give a get?”
“She is meshugah.”
“I am so sorry for you.”
The conversation above, or some version of it, has transpired a number of times in recent months here in both America and in Eretz Yisroel where the Rav at the other end of the line was a prominent Posaik or Rabbinic personality. Most of the Poskim have seen right through it. Sadly, some have not.
Shockingly enough, a few husbands have emerged from these meetings with a letter in hand stating what a great mitzvah it is to help him obtain a Heter Meah Rabbonim (HMR).
The problem is that in one particular case I am aware of, the wife has been begging for a Get for the past nine years and the husband has refused to give it. The sheer audacity of lying to Rabbonim straight to their faces and pretending to be the victim rather than the victimizer is beyond the imagination.
How was the husband able to convince these Rabbonim to write a unilateral psak without seeking out the other side of the story?
The truth is that the Gemorah (See Shavuos 31a and Saanhedrin 7b) derives an absolute prohibition in deciding on a case without the other being present from two different Psukim: “Do not take the Name in vain” and “listen between your brethren.” The halacha is found in Choshain Mishpat 17 (See Beis Yoseph there) and is Mitzvah number 74 in the Sefer HaChinuch.
In this particular case, the husband’s own family Rav, one of the Gedolei haPoskim in North America, issued a ruling that he should issue a Get immediately.
Unfortunately, this case is not the only one. There are a number of Heter Me’ah Rabbonim out there that stand in pure violation of halacha and common decency.
A HISTORY OF THE HMR
Historically, marrying more than one wife was not forbidden until the time of Rabbeinu Gershom (960—1040?). In Chumash and Navi we find that Avrohom Avinu, and Yaakov Avinu had more than one wife, as did Elkanah, Dovid, and Shlomo. The entire tractate of Yevamos deals with the halachos of having multiple wives.
Roughly in the year 1000 CE, Rabbeinu Gershom of Mayence issued a decree forbidding the taking of more than one wife. This is known as the Cherem Rabbeinu Gershom. Aspects of the decree and subsequent halachic developments concerning it are found in the Prague Edition of the responsa of the Maharam MiRottenberg, siman 1022 (see also Be’er HaGolah, Y.D. 334).
Reason for the Prohibition
What was Rabbeinu Gershom’s reason for prohibiting polygamy? The Meforshim provide a number of possibilities:
- The Rashba (cited by the Maharik #101) explains that people were mistreating their wives and taking them for granted.
- The Mordechai (Kesubos 291) explains that the rationale was to avoid the excessive fighting that multiple spouses bring on.
- There is a third opinion that it was to prevent siblings from two different countries marrying each other by accident.
- Others write that it was on account of economic reasons (Maharam Paduah #14).
- The Yaavetz writes that it was on account of socio-religious factors in that the surrounding Christian gentiles only married one wife (Yaavetz Vol. II #15; it is not a violation of ‘chukas ha’goyim’ because it is a non-action rather than an action).
Repercussions of the Prohibition Against Multiple Wives
With the prohibition against men marrying more than one wife firmly in place, as well as a second prohibition forbidding giving a Get against a wife’s will, there were new repercussions that did not exist prior to the Cherem of Rabbeinu Gershom.
For example, there are now times when a woman will be unable to receive a Get because she is ill. There are times when a woman refuses a Get, or runs away so her husband cannot give her a Get. These three factors cause a situation where the husband is unable to remarry based upon the new decrees of Rabbeinu Gershom. Therefore, in order to enable the husband to remarry in these three situations, the heter me’ah rabbanim was enacted.
Requirements for Heter Meah Rabbonim
There are a number of requirements for the heter mei’ah rabbonim.
- One hundred rabbis from at least three different countries must sign on, giving the husband permission to remarry.
- They must be scholars and may only do so after having looked into the details of the situation to ensure that the heter is not abused.
- They must also issue a Get and place it with a third party, along with the money that they had originally promised the first wife in the kesubah.
There is great debate regarding who exactly first promulgated the leniency of the heter me’ah rabbanim.
- Rabbi Yoel Sirkes (Bach old responsa #93) explains that the heter me’ah rabbanim was handed down orally from Rabbeinu Gershom himself. The Mordechai in Yevamos #108 also indicates that it was Rabbeinu Gershom himself who promulgated its use.
- Rav Menachem Mendel Krochmal, author of the first responsa of Tzemach Tzeddek (#67), writes that a subsequent beis din was the one that initiated the concept. The Mishkenos Yaakov (siman #1) explains that the beis din that first promulgated its use was acting on behalf of Rabbeinu Gershom.
- A third theory is presented by the Chasam Sofer (Responsa E.H. Vol. I #3) that Rabbeinu Gershom outlined a general path for a future beis din to undo the prohibition against polygamy on an individual basis through 100 rabbis, and the parameters of this general path were further expanded upon.
Prestige of the Signers
Must the rabbis who sign the HMR be communal leaders? The response of the Noda BiYehudah explains that there is no such requirement. They must, however, be worthy of ruling.
In the United States, some rabbis have utilized the heter me’ah rabbanim in a manner that has never been discussed by poskim. They use it to allow husbands to remarry while not giving the first wife a Get. The greatest of our Poskim have ruled that these Heter Meah Rabbonim are completely invalid.
But what if it was the woman who is at fault? Is there then a rationale to hold back the Get? There is a fascinating Chasam Sofer (Nedarim 29) that even in an extreme case where a wife sinned with an extramarital relationship, “Ein lanu le’agein osah – we are not to make her into an agunah.” The Chasam Sofer continues that this is both obvious and clear.
What should our reaction be when we see an agunah? The Responsa Yeshuas Malko (E.H. #54) by Rabbi Yisroel Yehoshua Trunk (Poland 1920—1893) writes, “All of Israel is obligated in trying to help such a woman.”
Rav Moshe Shternbuch of the Eida HaChareidis in Jerusalem (Teshuvos v’Hanhagos Vol. V #44) writes regarding someone who is refusing to give a Get to his wife, it is “permitted and proper to publicize” that “no one should have anything to do with him.”
The Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 1:11) rules that it is proper to enact laws and stipulations regarding marrying an additional wife (this was according to those that had not adopted the ban of Rabbeinu Gershom on polygamy). The Vilna Gaon explains that the Shulchan Aruch writes this in order to avoid situations that may cause or tempt the husband to make his first wife an agunah.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l (Igros Moshe, Y.D. Vol. IV #15) in a letter to Rabbi Chanina Simcha Posner written in the summer of 1976, writes categorically that no one party has the right to be me’agein the other party for financial purposes. (Me’agein is the verb form of making someone into an agunah.)
Elsewhere, the Shulchan Aruch rules that it is generally forbidden to judge on Shabbos (Orech Chaim 339:1). The Rema adds that even if someone needs to be punished it is forbidden to place him in jail so that he not run away. The Mishnah Berurah (329:14), written by the Chofetz Chaim, says the ruling of the Rema does not apply to husbands who are refusing to give their wife a Get. He writes that one is allowed to put such a husband in jail over Shabbos so he will not run away and will thus be present on motzaei Shabbos to give a Get to his wife.
Not one of these sources is denying the right of a husband to present his side of the story to a beis din. These sources demonstrate that the refusal to come to the table and the withholding a Get to inflict psychological harm or pressure the other party to capitulate in other matters is an abominable form of behavior that causes people to lose their share in the World to Come and justifies jailing them on the Sabbath itself.
Phony Heter Meah Rabbonim
Gedolei HaPoskim have cried out against Rabbis who set up shop making Heter Meah Rabbonims that do not issue the woman a Get. What do these batei din do about the fact that the Get must be given to a third party? They claim that the husband did indeed issue a Get. However, they will not be forthcoming with where the Get is held unless the wife agrees to certain demands.
It is clear that the use of the heter meah rabbanim in such a matter is not at all in keeping with the halachos and underlying reasons for the heter meah rabbanim. It is true that sometimes the woman is at fault when a marriage dissolves, and it is also true that quite often there are allegations with no apparent merit. It is unconscionable, however, to chain up any person out of spite, and anyone with a shred of decency should not be party to any such abuse of Torah. Withholding a Get is a grave Chilul Hashem.
This author would like to add another point as well.
The Chezkuni (Bereishis 3:16) cites a Midrash and writes that if someone is betrothed to a woman and leaves her stuck as an agunah, he denies the World to Come. Consequently, he loses his share in Olam HaBa. The Ba’alei HaTosefos cite the same exposition and come to the very same conclusion: Making an agunah causes one to lose Olam HaBa. Presumably, this would apply to the enablers of such activities as well.
At that time, the status of the agunah was created at the very beginning of a marriage – upon halachic betrothal. Nonetheless, the idea is the same – these Rishonim hold that the husbands have lost their share in Olam HaBa. Their fate and future no longer lie with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their grandparents and great-grandparents for generations. Rather, the fates of husbands who improperly use the heter meah rabbanim are with the likes of the evil Bilaam and Gechazi.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org