Tractate Gittin, according to the accepted arrangement of the tractates of the Mishna, is the penultimate tractate in the order of Nashim. This tractate deals mainly with a single topic, the manner in which divorce is performed. The situations in which divorce is permitted, justified, or even obligatory are discussed in other tractates, especially Ketubot.
The uniqueness of divorce is that it cancels the marriage bond, a bond that created the severe prohibition against sexual intercourse with a married woman. This prohibition differs from the prohibition against forbidden relatives, in that it does not result from a blood relationship but is created via an action, i.e., betrothal. In the same way, this prohibition can be canceled by means of an action, i.e., divorce. Admittedly, a divorce does not entirely nullify the marriage bond, as there are several categories of forbidden relatives created by marriage that are not negated by a bill of divorce, e.g., a man is permanently forbidden to his wife's mother and daughter, even if the latter is not his daughter, and he is also forbidden to his wife's sister during his wife's lifetime. Likewise, after divorce the woman remains forbidden to his corresponding relatives. Nevertheless, the main prohibition, which is due to the married status of the woman herself, is canceled by a divorce.
One fundamental aspect of the halakhot of bills of divorce is the juxtaposition of betrothal to divorce, which is derived from: “And she departs out of his house, and goes and becomes another man's wife” (Deuteronomy 24:2; see 82b). Due to the severity of the consequences of a woman remarrying without having received a proper divorce, the Sages devoted an entire tractate to the clarification of the act of divorce and demanded that it be performed with great precision.
The manner of a divorce is discussed in the Torah (Deuteronomy 24:1–4) but is treated with extreme brevity, and the Sages derived the many and varied requirements of a bill of divorce both by expounding every word and even every letter of these verses and through applying the detailed traditions of the Oral Law.
The central feature of a divorce, as stated explicitly in the Torah and clarified by the Sages, is that the husband gives the wife a document that is called a bill of divorce in the language of the Sages. This document serves to release her from the marriage bond with him. In a betrothal, it is the man who betroths and marries the woman; so too, a divorce is performed by transmission of the document from the husband to his wife.
Since the transmission of the bill of divorce from husband to wife effects the divorce and the consequent halakhic change in the woman's status, the document itself is an essential part of an act of divorce. Unlike bills of sale or other contracts, the main purpose of this document is not to serve as a written record of an act that was performed but rather to make that very act occur. Consequently, a bill of divorce must be written in the form of a declaration on the part of the husband: I hereby divorce. It is not written as a testimony. Furthermore, the document must be composed specifically for the particular couple undergoing the divorce. Although the Sages dispute whether this latter principle refers to the stage of writing, signing, or transmission, the principle itself is accepted unanimously.
As stated above, the content of a bill of divorce is a declaration on the part of the husband that he is releasing his wife from all ties to him. The Torah states that this must be a “severance” (Deuteronomy 24:1), i.e., it must completely sever the marriage bond. Problems arise if the husband adds conditions to a bill of divorce, as the imposition of certain conditions can prevent the full severance of the ties between husband and wife.
A bill of divorce effects the divorce itself and also serves as a document of proof, both with regard to matters involving prohibitions, e.g., from when is the woman considered divorced and permitted to all men apart from priests, and with regard to monetary obligations. The woman becomes entirely responsible for her own finances upon her divorce, and any property of hers that was held by her former husband reverts to her possession. Consequently, a bill of divorce must include a date and witnesses, like other legal documents.
The requirement of a “scroll of severance” (Deuteronomy 24:1) entails that the written document be authentic and reliable. To this end, it is necessary to define carefully the act of writing that fulfills the verse “And he writes her” (Deuteronomy 24:1). Similarly, it is important to determine what is considered a bill for the purposes of this halakha. Due to the possibly grave consequences of a bill of divorce, the Sages were particular about its wording and manner of composition. These details are significant both so that the divorce will in fact be effective and to prevent the husband or anyone else from contesting the validity of the document.
The second part of the act of divorce is the transmission of the bill of divorce from husband to wife. The Torah states: “And gives it in her hand” (Deuteronomy 24:1). The Sages derived from the verses that the bill of divorce need not literally be given into her hand. Rather, in this context her hand means her domain. Therefore, a bill of divorce can be transmitted via an agent, both an agent appointed by the husband to give the document to his wife, i.e., an agent for delivery, as well as an agent appointed by the woman to receive the bill of divorce from her husband on her behalf, i.e., an agent for receipt. The option to transmit a bill of divorce through the medium of an agent is important, as this enables a woman to be released from her ties to her husband even if she is located far from him. However, the possibility of divorce through an agent can also lead to many complications. For example, the husband might wish to nullify the bill of divorce or the agency, or he might later contest the validity of the document by claiming that it is a forgery. For the betterment of the world and to help deserted wives, the Sages instituted various ordinances whose requirements have become part of the act of divorce. These ordinances include the requirement that agents who deliver a bill of divorce to a different country must state the declaration: It was written in my presence and it was signed in my presence, and the halakha is that a husband can nullify a bill of divorce he has sent only if he makes his decision known to the agent to whom he gave the document.
Mainly in the fourth and fifth chapters, tractate Gittin includes a long list of rabbinic decrees and ordinances that relate to all walks of life and that are designed for the betterment of the world, i.e., to prevent certain mishaps and stumbling blocks, and for the betterment of people, i.e., to establish various social arrangements to prevent interpersonal quarrels and disputes.
As do other tractates, Gittin includes aggadic portions, some of which elucidate issues discussed in the tractate, while others are cited incidentally. Two large sections of aggada are unrelated to the main topic of the tractate. The first section, in the fifth chapter, is a discussion of the destruction of the Temple and the devastation of Eretz Yisrael, and the second section, in the seventh chapter, provides a list of medical treatments and folk remedies. At the end of the tractate, there is an aggadic section that deals with divorce in general. Although halakhically a husband may divorce his wife even for superficial reasons, the Gemara stresses that it is important to avoid divorce whenever possible, especially from the wife of one's youth.
There are nine chapters in this tractate. Generally, they all address various matters relating to divorce. While there is some overlap between the chapters concerning the topics they discuss, each chapter has a primary focus:
Chapter One deals with bills of divorce sent via an agent when the husband and wife are in different locations. Additionally, it compares and contrasts the halakhot of bills of divorce and bills of manumission.
Chapter Two delineates additional halakhot concerning agency with regard to bills of divorce. It also mentions stringencies associated with the writing of a bill of divorce.
Chapter Three explains the requirement that a bill of divorce be written for the sake of the husband and wife using it. Another topic discussed in this chapter is the application of the following presumption: One who was alive, remains alive; an item that was in existence, remains in existence.
Chapter Four analyzes several ordinances that the Sages instituted for the betterment of the world, both with regard to divorce and with regard to other matters. Another topic discussed in this chapter is the emancipation of slaves.
Chapter Five discusses the halakhot and ordinances associated with collecting payment of a marriage contract. Other ordinances, primarily relating to avoiding monetary disputes, are mentioned as well.
Chapter Six explains matters concerning the appointment of an agent, particularly with regard to the writing, delivery, and reception of bills of divorce.
Chapter Seven discusses who is fit to grant a divorce. It also enumerates stipulations that are often included in bills of divorce.
Chapter Eight reviews the manner by which one must transmit a bill of divorce in order for the divorce to take effect. Additionally, it discusses bills of divorce that are disqualified for a variety of reasons, e.g., the way they were written, the disqualification of the witnesses, or because they were given before they should have been given.
Chapter Nine discusses qualifications and limitations added to the text of a bill of divorce. It also specifies the manner in which witnesses sign a bill of divorce and explains under which circumstances one is permitted or even encouraged to divorce.