Wartime Gittin - Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Last week, we began describing the practice of Rabbanim to urge husbands who leave their families to fight in wars to execute Gittin on behalf of their wives.  We discussed three methods of executing such Gittin that were employed by some of the great Rabbanim of the twentieth century in trying to avoid Agunah situations as a result of the conflicts of that bloody century.  We outlined the possibility of executing a conventional Get that takes effect as soon as the soldier hands it to his wife, the possibility of the soldier handing a Get to his wife on condition that it take effect retroactively if he is classified as missing in action, and the possibility of the husband appointing a scribe, witnesses, and an agent with the understanding that a Get be executed by these individuals in case he is defined as missing in action. 

This week, we shall discuss three other options that were presented in the context of World War II, the Israeli War of Independence, the Six Day War, and the Vietnam War.  We shall begin with a discussion of the Halachic challenges posed by the circumstances of World War II.  Am Yisrael was blessed with three great rabbis that invested much time and energy into executing these Gittin: Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael Rav Yitzchak Herzog, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin of New York, and Rav Yechezkeil Abramsky of the London Beth Din.  In fact, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate’s archives contains more than two thousand documents authorizing a scribe, witnesses, and an agent to execute a Get in case a soldier is declared missing, which were signed by married Jewish residents of Eretz Yisrael who joined the British army to fight the Nazis (Techumin 27:420).

World War II

Rabbanim were posed with two great challenges in preparing wartime Gittin during World War II.  First, the great number of Jewish soldiers required the Rabbanim to offer options of executing such Gittin in a most efficient manner.  The Encyclopedia Judaica (11:1550) reports that more than half a million Jews served in the United States army, over sixty thousand Jews served in the British army, and another thirty five thousand Jewish residents of Eretz Yisrael volunteered in the British army.  In addition, many of the soldiers had limited commitment to Torah observance, which added to the Rabbanim’s burden to make the issuance of such Gittin easy and expedient.  Thus, the Rabbanim used the option presented by the Teshuvot Divrei Malkiel (4:156) of appointing a scribe and witnesses even not in their presence. 

Appointing in such a manner is highly controversial (as we outline in our essay, available at www.koltorah.org, regarding executing a Get by video teleconference).  Nonetheless, there were circumstances (such as the situation addressed in the Teshuvot Divrei Malkiel during the Russo-Japanese War) in which soldiers were located very far from a Beit Din, necessitating the use of this method.  Rav Herzog (Teshuvot Heichal Yitzchak E.H. 2:41), Rav Henkin (Teshuvot Ivra number 80), and Rav Abramsky (HaPardeis Tishrei 5701-1940) all utilized this option and composed documents authorizing the writing and delivery of a Get, in case a soldier is declared missing, that soldiers could effectuate by reading aloud and signing before valid witnesses.

The Chazon Ish (E.H. 85), however, vigorously protested the appointments of a scribe in such a manner.  He writes, as an alternative, that a soldier stationed far from a Beit Din should be instructed to write a minimally valid Get as a supplement to appointing a scribe to write a conventional Get on his behalf.  Most authorities (as I document in the aforementioned essay on executing Gittin via video teleconference), however, rule leniently, and I am uncertain if the Chazon Ish’s suggestion was ever implemented.  I am aware from my practice as a Get administrator that the Chazon Ish’s proposal is not implemented by any contemporary Beit Din if a husband is located far from a Beit Din.  The reason appears to be that it would cause pandemonium with regards to Get administration, as indicated by the Chazon Ish himself in his proposal.  A Get should not be written by the husband, who most likely is unaware of the many intricacies involved in properly drafting a valid Get.  Instructing a husband to write the Get takes the Get out of the experts’ hands, and chaos would result if people infer that any husband can write his own Get.


The second major hurdle faced by Rabbanim during World War II was that since methods of transportation had improved, soldiers were given furloughs in which they would visit their families for a week or more.  This poses an enormous problem regarding wartime Gittin, since if a husband and wife are secluded (Yichud) after the scribe, witnesses, and agent are appointed, the appointments are rendered invalid (Shulchan Aruch E.H. 149:7; see the comments of the Beit Shmuel and Vilna Gaon ad. loc.).   Rav Henkin (op. cit.) writes that this problem was taken exceedingly seriously by the American Poskim, to the extent that they considered the possibility of not encouraging wartime Gittin.  In fact, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky (in a 1939 letter printed in Teshuvot Heichal Yitzchak E.H. 2:36) writes that the practice in Vilna was to have Jewish soldiers who returned from furlough issue appointments of scribe, witnesses, and agent a second time before returning to the army.

The Rabbanim sought to solve this problem in various manners.  Rav Abramsky referred to the Re’eim (cited in the Kenesset HaGedolah 148:3 and the Baeir Heiteiv E.H. 148:2), who essentially states that the concern of seclusion with one’s wife canceling authorizations to execute a Get does not apply to a situation where the appointments were issued with the intention of preventing the wife from becoming an Agunah.  Rav Herzog (Teshuvot Heichal Yitzchak E.H. 2:41) added a clause to the appointments where the soldier declares that even if he returns home and is secluded with his wife, he does not cancel the appointments of the scribe, witnesses, and agent.  Rav Henkin sought to send documents with soldiers so that they could reissue appointments of scribe, witnesses, and agent upon return to the army after furlough.

The Israeli War of Independence

In the Israeli War of Independence, few married soldiers signed authorizations to write a Get to avoid women becoming Agunot.  Perhaps the soldiers did not feel a compelling need to sign such documents, because the war was fought close to home.  Moreover, there was concern that signing such documents would dampen the morale of the soldiers fighting a war against enormous odds of success, as signing the document makes soldiers confront very unpleasant possibilities.  The Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Rav Shlomo Goren (Meishiv Milchamah 3:1 pp. 60-61), records that commanders in the fledgling IDF vigorously opposed signing such documents, arguing that they would take too much of a toll on the morale of the soldiers. 

In the initial stages of the 1948 war, though, the IDF issued orders for soldiers to sign Get authorizations so as to avoid Agunot.  Rav Goren (ad. loc.) questioned whether such compulsion invalidated a Get, since a Get issued under coercion is deemed invalid (see Shulchan Aruch chapter 134 and Gray Matter 1:3-7).  Rav Yosef Shlomo Zevin (LeOr HaHalacha p. 77), however, notes that such Gittin would appear to be valid, since Halacha mandates that a husband issue a Get under such circumstances (see Teshuvot HaRosh 43:13 and Shulchan Aruch E.H. 154:9).  In any event, the IDF, in the latter stages of the 1948 war, did not compel signing Get authorizations, apparently due to concern for troop morale.  Today, the IDF certainly does not compel the signing of such documents, and most IDF rabbis are not even aware of the documents that facilitate such authorization (Techumin 27:415).  Another reason militating against signing such documents is the reduced risk of a woman being rendered an Agunah, as technological breakthroughs such as DNA identification (see Gray Matter 2:122-123) and satellite surveillance greatly enhance the ability of the IDF to monitor the whereabouts of its soldiers.  We should note that the risk has not been eliminated entirely.  The wife of captured Israeli aviator Ron Arad is a tragic example.

The Six Day War – Rav Waldenberg and Rav Feinstein

Although enthusiasm for the signing of authorizations to write a Get diminished, individuals continued to authorize the writing and delivery of a Get in specific circumstances.  For example, a soldier described as a Talmid Chacham (Torah scholar) appeared before Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 11:90) at the Jerusalem Beit Din in the weeks before the Six Day War to execute a Get before he left for a dangerous mission in enemy territory.  He insisted that his wife not be aware of this authorization so as not to alarm her.  The appointment of scribe, witnesses, and agent could not occur immediately before he left on the mission, since he could be summoned to duty at a moment’s notice.

The only manner in which the news of the authorization could be withheld from the wife was for the husband to return home and continue living a normal married life until he was summoned to service.  Rav Waldenberg was faced with the quandary of whether he could permit the authorizations under such circumstances.  In the end, he did permit the soldier to make the authorizations despite the fact that the Beit Din knew that he would return to his wife before leaving for his mission.  He based his ruling on the aforementioned lenient approach of the Re’eim and Rav Abramsky.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe E.H. 4:111), in a relatively brief responsum written in 1967 (mere weeks before the beginning of the Six-Day War and during the Vietnam War), presents a new variation on how to conduct wartime Gittin, offering a combination of the approaches previously outlined.  His protocol involves the husband appearing before a competent Beit Din immediately before leaving for the army and handing a conditional Get to his wife that would take effect in case he did not return from war and was considered missing.  He added, though, that the husband also should appoint anyone who sees his signature to serve as scribe, witnesses, and agent to deliver an additional Get to his wife in case the Get he handed her becomes invalidated.  This authorizes the Beit Din to order the execution of another Get in case the husband returns on furlough and invalidates the first Get.  Rav Moshe’s logic seems work along the lines of a Sefeik Sefeika (double doubt).  If the first Get is (possibly) invalidated during furlough, another Get can be written, and in case the replacement Get is not valid (recall the aforementioned objections of the Chazon Ish to such a procedure), the original Get might remain valid despite the husband’s seclusion with his wife during the furlough.

Interestingly, Rav Moshe does not record the person to whom he addressed his suggestion.  Whether Rav Moshe was directing the Israeli or the American scene is not clear.  Reb Elya Lichter, the noted scribe who served as Rav Moshe Feinstein’s Sofer for many years and has been a major figure in the world of American Batei Din since the end of World War II, reports that he did not hear of even one wartime Get in the United States conducted in accordance with Rav Moshe’s protocol.  Thus, it seems likely that Rav Moshe was addressing Israeli Rabbanim preparing for the Six Day War.


We have seen the great lengths to which rabbis of old and rabbis of the twentieth century went to avoid wives becoming Agunot as a result of war.  Although such Gittin are uncommon today, they are not unheard of and might be advisable in certain circumstances.  These circumstances include a husband who is undergoing risky surgery or who is about to embark on a dangerous military mission.  In such a case, a competent Beit Din should be consulted as to which of the options we outlined should be used.

Writing “HaRav” in a Ketubah and a Get by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Wartime Gittin – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter