The Wisdom of a Classic Shul Rov

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I couldn’t resist sharing this wonderful reminiscence of a father by his son. Rabbi Saul Berman penned this recently upon the occassion of his father’s,z”l,34th yahrzeit. It is published with permission of the author.

Rabbi Ephraim Berman, ZT”L, my father, studied as a young man in the Navorodok Yeshiva and then, later, spent many years learning at the Slabodka Yeshiva in Kovno where he came to know and befriend some of the leading figures of Slabodka and the mussar movement. He came to the United States in the late 1920s where he married, had four children, and, for more than forty years, served as the rav of a shul in Bedford- Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He was a member of the bais din of the Agudas HaRabbonim; and he published three sefarim: one on halacha and two on d’rush (all three are available at HebrewBooks.org). My father was active as a mesader gittin, many of which were done in our home, one of which is the subject of this reminiscence.

As a teenager in the 1950s, during my post-bar mitzvah years, I began to develop an interest in the procedures of gittin – their detailed rituals, their dramatic elements, their complicated halachot. My father, at the time, encouraged me to observe how the gittin were performed and to learn the halachot of kesivas haget and mesiras haget. Often he would, with the consent of the parties, allow me to sit in to observe the entire ritual at the dining room table. I knew which soferim my father preferred for the writing (after a while I even came to understand the variations in quality in the craft of the several soferim), and why he preferred some and not others for kesivas haget. I knew who my father preferred as edim to serve as legal witnesses to the get. I grew accustomed to the rhythm of the procedures and to the gentleness and warmth my father showed toward the divorcing couple – delicately but repeatedly trying to probe for the faint possibility of some last minute reconciliation – as he guided them through their get process.

One remarkable get stands out in my memory. From the start this one was unusual. I saw the dining room had been set up for a get so I asked my father whether I could sit in. He said I could not but that if I sat quietly in his study (which opened out into the dining room), he would not object; he admonished me, however, to remain completely silent. That was odd. Quite early, the young wife arrived, accompanied by her father. As the three of them sat there together, the father passed a piece of paper across the table (a check, perhaps?) to my father. That was doubly odd. The paper might well have been a payment but it was strange – usually the get was paid for at the end of the proceedings and not at the beginning; and typically it was the husband who paid the fee, not the wife. Soon my father’s favorite sofer arrived, accompanied by two edim, though I had never seen either of them before – they were both strapping young men who looked to me more like baseball players than like kosher edim. Eventually, the husband arrived. My father exchanged a few brief comments with him off on the side, and so the ritual began.

Everything started to move very rapidly: the final confirmation of the correctness of the parties’ names; the scripted exchanges to assure consent, the waiver of disclaimers; the designation of the sofer and the edim; the transfer of the writing materials. Even the sofer seemed to be writing more rapidly than was his pious style, albeit he retained his usual intense concentration so as to make sure the bill of divorcement would be error-free. The edim and the divorcing parties and the woman’s father sat silently; nor did my father call the parties aside, severally or together, as was his practice, to speak with them to comfort them or to urge reconciliation. Just silence, and the slight scratching of the quill until the writing was completed, the text reviewed, and the edim, somewhat clumsily, had signed the get. Rapid, pre-scripted, verbal exchanges were followed by the actual delivery by the husband to the wife of the get itself. Neither of them looked the other in the eye. The wife then handed the get back to my father for re-reading and for the official confirmation that she had received a get.

My father then wrote the petur for the wife, but instead of waiting for the husband’s petur likewise to be written, my father immediately delivered the petur to the now-divorced wife, whereupon she and her father, without a word, both scurried out of the house, in haste. My father then completed the petur for the husband and gave it to him while the sofer finished packing up his materials and walked out the front door. I thought it was all over and was about to get off my chair when I saw the husband, after slipping the petur into his inside jacket pocket, lean across the table and say something to my father. My father, nodding, pulled out the (check?) slip of paper the wife’s father had handed him earlier. As the edim deftly moved in on either of his sides, close to my father, my father took the piece of paper and tore it to shreds. In rapid succession, the husband lunged across the table at my father; the edim grabbed the husband by his arms and dragged him across the table and pinned him onto the floor as my father retreated to the rear of the room. The edim then lifted him off the floor, carried him to the front door and, summarily, threw him out onto the sidewalk. I watched through the living room window as the husband picked himself up, dusted himself off a bit, raised a fist back toward the house, and marched off down the street, defeated.

I did not believe, nor did I much understand, what I had just witnessed. When the edim left I asked my father to explain; and, so, he told me the following story: The couple had been married for less than a year; it was clear the relationship was not a good one; there were no children; there were no joint assets to divide. When the wife asked for a get, the husband said he would only give her a get if her father paid him $20,000 (which, at that time, was a considerable sum of money). The negotiations remained deadlocked for quite a while, so they agreed to consult with my father, who met with each side separately. He told the wife’s father to give him a check for the $20,000, but that the check, he was confident, would never be cashed. He then told the husband that he (my father) would get the check for the full amount from the father-in-law and that he (my father) would hold onto it until after the get was delivered. (My father was careful never explicitly to say he would convey the check to the husband.) The husband agreed to the terms. The rest I saw with my own eyes.

My father, ZT”L, had wanted me to see this procedure, and clearly he had wanted me to know about it. He and I spent many hours both then, and in later years, discussing the detailed halachic implications of what my father had done and what alternative procedures might eventually be developed to deal with this sort of agunah problem. I later came to understand that while he wanted me to learn well the halachos and the practices of gittin, he also wanted me to learn to appreciate a rav’s attendant moral responsibilities, about the need to take risks in the interests of justice, and about how it was the rav’s responsibility never to allow one party’s faithful adherence to halacha to be used against her or him as a lever in unscrupulous dealings. In action even more than in words my father tried to convey to his children the essence of the mussar of Torah.

I pray I have honored his life and his values with the actions in my own life, and that I have in some measure succeeded in conveying those values to my children, Rabbi Ephraim Berman’s grandchildren.

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6 Responses

  1. Not Very Important says:

    I believe what happened here is as follows:

    The mesader haget told the husband that the father of the wife is prepared to give him personally, the mesader haget, a check for the money prior to the divorce, on condition the husband then gives a divorce.

    The mesader haget told the husband that after the husband gave a get, he personally would be responsible to hand the check over to him, the husband.

    Under those conditions the husband agreed to give a get. He assumed that the mesader haget would give him over the check without a problem.

    The wife clearly fulfilled the requirements for the get. The rav however reneged on his side of the deal. The husband’s claims are entirely against the mesader haget, not against the wife.

  2. Tal Benschar says:

    This story about the Wisdom of a Shul Rov reminded of another story I once heard from R. Elazar M. Teitz about his father, R. Pinchas Teitz, who was the Rov in Elizabeth, NJ for 55 years (1935 to 1990).

    Shortly after R. Teitz senior became Rov in 1935, a gentleman in the kehilla died, with no children, leaving an almonoh and a brother, meaning she would require chalitzah to remarry. Problem was that the remaining brother was very assimilated, had married a non-Jew, and had quite a bit of disdain for the old-time religion. Needless to say, getting a chalitzah for the almonoh was not going to be an easy task.

    At the funeral of the deceased brother, R. Teitz called over the brother to the aron. He opened the aron, took the living brother’s hand, and told him, “I want you to shake your brother’s hand and promise him that you will give his widow a chalitzah.” And he did. This was the first and last time that R. Teitz opened an aron at a funeral in 55 years of rabbonus.

    When the time came to give the widow her chalitzah, the non-Jewish wife was quite upset about this “primitive” custom. But the living brother said, “Honey, you are right, but what can I do? I shook his hand and promised. A promise is a promise.”

    And so another agunah situation was avoided.

  3. Simcha Younger says:

    When will Rabbanim be wise enough to simply ban marriage, so that women will not become agunot?
    When will they tell women that if they want the right to leave at any point, they should just be a girlfreind, and not bother with a ceremony?
    Or maybe they will be wise enough to stop writing a ketuba, so men should not be restrained in a marriage by monetary demands?

    Or maybe they will realize that just as a woman is entitled to financial compensation when she is divorced against her will, she must be expected to give similar compensation when she walks out. The gemara in gittin seems to consider this normal with its stnadard case of ‘This is your get if you pay me 200 zuz‘ – that the wife is expected to pay a ketuba when she is the divorcing party.
    And perhaps they will realize that such compensation is a statement of the commitment in marriage, because when one side can leave free, there is no commitment in the relationship.

  4. Nachum says:

    Wow. That’s some story. I think people who are vocal on the aguna issue often don’t realize what can, and is done.

    My brother was once asked to be an eid at a get in New York, with a prominent rav. The couple was Israeli; the woman had brothers with her, large guys. At the last minute, the husband began waffling. This may have been a pattern; in any event, they were ready for it. The rav, sofer, and eidim were asked to step outside; when they were called back in, the husband had clearly been gone over. No one said a word; the get was written and delivered.

    That said, I don’t think that’s ideal. R’ Berman senior’s idea is elegant and almost poetic. Yehi zikhro barukh.

  5. Eytan says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    Please could you explain (or outline) the halachic issues involved here – why was there not an umdena demuchach that the get was al tnai?

    Thank you.

    • Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      Very briefly:
      Legal systems, including halacha, often invalidate devarim she-balev/ thoughts held in pectore. Halacha can only deal with what has been made manifest and observable. You can only undo an action properly executed if there was a tenai that was clearly verbalized. This was not the case here. The husband did not say, “Here is your get on the condition that I receive lots of money.” Had he done so, the get would be invalid. To the contrary, mesadrei gittin demand, as part of their routine, that the husband announce that his get is not contingent, and that he cancels all moda’os – claims that the get was written under duress. It is true that sometimes a tenai does not have to be enunciated. Tosafos writes that when it is clear to all observers what his mind set is, then failing to enunciate is not a problem. This is true only when the matter is not only “in his heart, but in the hearts of all other people.” In our case, only the principals and the Rav understood his insistence on obtaining the money. To make the get contingent on it, he would have to verbalize the conditional phrase, which he did not do.