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Cambridge University Library

Cairo Genizah offers solution for chained wives

T-S 8J5.23
T-S 8J5.23 (verso): Conditional bill of divorce, dated 1169 CE, presented by Moses to his wife Sitt al-Fakhr, to be used if he doesn't return from his trip abroad.
Amir Ashur
Wed 9 Jun 2021

A new article in the Guardian (‘Unchain your wife’: the Orthodox women shining a light on ‘get’ refusal) raises the issue of Jewish women who are chained – that is, unable to get remarried although they have been left by their husbands. According to Jewish law, a divorce is not complete until the husband, willingly, gives his wife a get – a formal bill of divorce – written in accordance with very strict rules. A slight error, even in one word or letter, can make this bill void, meaning that the couple is still technically married. In such a case, the wife is chained – she cannot marry another and move on with her life.

This gives a lot of power to the husband, and some men take advantage of the situation by blackmailing their ex-wives and asking that they pay enormous sums of money to buy their freedom.

One of the ways to bypass this issue is to write a pre-nuptial agreement, in which the husband takes upon himself, before marriage, to give his wife a get in the case of divorce, agreeing that should he fail to do so he will have to pay a large amount of money to his wife.

However, this custom of writing a pre-nuptial agreement is not modern, and already appears in the documents of the Cairo Genizah from the 12th century. In those days many husbands went on business trips to India and beyond and disappeared for long periods of time, sometimes even for 15 years or more. In many cases those husbands never returned home, leaving their wives chained, without knowing their husband's fate or even location. To solve this problem, a pre-nuptial agreement was designed with a new stipulation stating that if the husband does not return by a certain date the marriage or betrothal is void and a bill of divorce will be given. In many cases the bill of divorce was even written before the husband went on his journey, ready for if his wife should need it in the future.

Sometimes it is wise to look back in history – maybe our forefathers already found a solution for what seems to be a modern problem?


Why would you call this a pre nuptial agreement?
This is a conditional Get - divorce written before the husband left for his long distance journey.
This was not done prior to marriage!

The document pictured (T-S 8J5.23) is indeed a conditional get (divorce deed). The connection with pre-nuptial agreements is that we start to see such conditional gets specified and required in pre-nuptial agreements, so that the wife did not need to ask for or try to negotiate receiving one from her husband after the marriage had taken place. 

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