How To Get a “Get”

Norris Family Law

We are sometimes asked by our Jewish clients who have been married according to the Jewish rabbinical law how to obtain a get, or Jewish divorce decree.

A Jewish marriage is formalized via a legal contract between husband and wife called a ketubah. Terminating the marriage and nullifying the original contract requires the issuance of a legal writ, the get. For those who were married by a conservative or orthodox Rabbi, and for every marriage performed in Israel which is recognized by the state of Israel, obtaining a get is necessary in order to dissolve the marriage and be able to remarry according to Jewish law. However, for those who were married in a civil ceremony only, without the Jewish marital contract requirements (or for those married by Reform rabbis, who do not adhere strictly to these requirements), a civil divorce decree is all that is needed. Similarly, those who were married by a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi but want to re-marry only through the civil process, without meeting the Conservative/Orthodox Jewish wedding requirements, a state court divorce judgment is fully valid.

The roots of the get are set forth in the Old Testament:

"If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, he writes her a bill of divorcement, gives it to her and sends her from his house." (Deuteronomy 24:1)

According to the ancient law, only a man could grant a get – not the other way around. This Jewish law technically remains unchanged, although modern rabbinic courts, sometimes in conjunction with state civil courts (such as in New York State), have found various ways to assist women whose husbands are unwilling or unavailable to grant a get. A woman whose husband refuses to give her a get is considered a “chained wife” (agunah). Without the get, a woman who has been married according to Jewish law remains “married” in the legal sense and cannot remarry or receive child or spousal support. Again, this does not apply to Jewish women married only civilly, or Jewish women married by a Reform rabbi – only to Conservative or Orthodox weddings, or state-recognized Israeli weddings. In one well-publicized case in Israel, the wife of a famous Israeli poet and songwriter was “chained” and unable to receive child or spousal support for approximately twenty years, while her husband simply ignored her pleas to be divorced. Finally, in the 1990s, she was granted a get – after both their children were grown.

The get is handwritten with quill and bottled ink by a professionally trained scribe. It is made up of twelve Aramaic lines on a parchment, and it must be written under the direction of an ordained and specifically trained rabbi. The traditional ritual surrounding the get has not changed significantly in hundreds of years. The ceremony begins when the husband instructs the scribe to write the document. In the document, the scribe includes any names or nicknames by which the spouses have ever been known. Once written, the get is signed by two witnesses and read aloud. The scribe hands the get to the husband. The wife removes any rings from her fingers, cups her hands, and her husband puts the get into her hands in the presence of a rabbinical tribunal (three specially trained rabbis) and two witnesses. The divorce is made effective with the wife's acceptance of the get. The get is returned to the supervising rabbi, who then issues to each party a ptor, a document evidencing that the parties are legally divorced.

If the parties cannot or do not wish to undergo this ritual together, they may accomplish it by proxy. The husband appoints the proxy (a specially-trained rabbi) to issue the get on the husband’s behalf. This is done by filling out a special form. The rabbinical tribunal meets and the scribe writes the get outside the parties’ presence. The get is then delivered to the wife through a formal process similar to the one described above, but without the husband present.

Other Interesting “Get” Facts:

Unlike the civil law, a man and woman who have obtained a legally Jewish divorce are not permitted to remarry one another.

Although a California divorce decree is recognized in every state in the United States and most countries abroad, for a Jewish couple married according to Jewish law, a California divorce decree alone (i.e. without also obtaining a get) will not be recognized as a valid divorce in Israel.

The get procedure may be the first no-fault divorce process in recorded history.