A misinterpretation that led to grievance consequences


While most of the changes Jewish leaders, Pharisees, rabbis, and lay people made in Torah law were designed to ease life and make it reasonable and pleasant, some of the changes and interpretations produced the opposite results. This was especially so concerning laws relating to women.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4, for example, begins with a command: ki yikach ish isha u’baala, which means “If a man takes a woman and has sex with her, and hates her, and (later) if it happens that she no longer finds favor in his eyes (ki matzah) because he finds some unseemly thing in her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, and gives it into her hand, and sends her out of his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her, and writes her a bill of divorcement, and gives it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; or (ki) if the latter man who took her to be his wife dies; her former husband who sent her away may not take her again to be his wife, after she was defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord; and you must not cause the land to do wrong (or, do wrong in the land), which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

What is this command requiring? It should be clear that Scripture is saying that if a man marries a woman and divorces her, he can remarry her only if she had not married another man after he divorced her. The Torah stresses that a man remarrying a woman who married another man after he divorced her is an abomination.

The rabbis understood this, but they also read another law into this verse that produced dire consequences that only a man can marry a woman and only a man can divorce a woman; a woman lacks the right to marry or divorce a man. If, for example, a husband sends his wife away but does not divorce her or if he disappears without having divorced her, she cannot initiate a divorce and remains chained to her husband. She is called in Hebrew an agunah, a chained woman. Many, not a few, but many husbands have taken advantage of such wives by demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars from their wife before they would grant the divorce or in even more egregious cases refused to grant the divorce forever, leaving the woman the inability to remarry.

We have no idea why the rabbis developed this interpretation of Deuteronomy 24. It is clear that the several verses do not say what the rabbis read into it. They say that this is part of the “Oral Torah,” that God did not want Moses to write in the Torah itself, but told Moses to instruct the people that this is what God wants. It is hard to believe that God so hated women, half of the humans God created.

What basis if any can the rabbis find in the verse to support their contention that the three verses say that only a man can marry and divorce a woman? They point out that the verse speaks only about the man and it states that he is the one who took the woman as his wife and he was the one who divorced her. It does not say, they argue, or even imply that a woman can do these acts. There are several ways of showing that this analysis is incorrect.

First, the only command in the section is the prohibition against a man taking as a wife a woman he divorced who had married another after the divorce. There is no command, directive, or requirement regarding anything else, and certainly no law concerning who initiates a marriage or divorce.

Second, the verses mention marriage and divorce only to describe the situation leading up to the situation of an attempt to remarry his wife after a divorce and her marriage to a second man.

Third, the language of the verses shows that the mention of marriage and divorce are not directives by the use of the Hebrew word ki, “if,” three times in the verse: if it happens that a man marries a woman, if it happens that he later dislikes her, and if it happened that the second man dies. There is no requirement that a man should dislike his wife or that the second man must dies. The Torah is simply describing a case where several events happen that lead to the matter at issue. The word ki is used over a dozen times in this sense, such as eleven times in Exodus 21: if a man buys a slave, if a man sells his daughter as a slave, if a man plans to kill his neighbor, if men are struggling, if a man hits his slave, if men are fighting, if a man knocks out his slaves eye, if a man’s ox gores, if a man digs a pit, if a man’s ox gores his neighbor’s ox, and if a man steal an ox. As in Deuteronomy 24, scripture is not mandating that a man buy a slave, kill his neighbor, struggle, hit his slave, etc.    

Fourth, although the case that is mentioned describes a man marrying a woman and later divorcing her, there is no basis for concluding from this recital that a woman cannot initiate a marriage or divorce. The case focuses on the man and not the woman simply because in the ancient culture, as even today, most marriages are initiated by men.[1]

Fifth, the purpose of this law is, as explained by the Italian scholar Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865),[2] to stop men from switching from one wife to another and to preclude men making deals with one another to exchange wives and then take their prior wife back, and as Nachmanides explains similarly,[3] to preclude a man from divorcing his wife to take a woman who fascinates him, and later, when this temptation is satisfied, retaking his wife.

While the rabbinical interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is not necessarily what the Bible intended, it has now become the law. What can women do whose husbands refuse or are unable to give them a divorce? Must they remain chained until they pay blackmail or live unmarried because their husband refuses to give them a divorce? This issue has not been fully solved.


[1] The rabbis called this dibeir Torah b’hoveh, “the Torah speaks about what is customary.” See, for example, Nachmanides’ commentary on Deuteronomy 21:11 and ibn Ezra’s on Deuteronomy 21:14.

[2] Perush al Chamisha Chumshei Torah, Divir, 1971, on Deuteronomy 24:4. Luzzatto includes Talmudic sources for his interpretation.

[3] In his Commentary on Deuteronomy 24:1-4.