The Knesset passed a law Monday night aimed at encouraging rabbinical courts to impose sanctions on husbands who refuse to give their wives a get, or Jewish bill of divorce.

Officially, there are hundreds of women in Israel who have been denied a get by their husbands. But surveys by women's rights organizations suggest the actual number runs into the thousands.

By law, marriages and divorces of couples in which both spouses are Jewish are handled only by the rabbinical courts, which are governed by Jewish religious law. In Jewish law, divorce requires the consent of both husband and wife, and one spouse will sometimes exploit this requirement to extort concessions on custody or financial settlements from the other.

The new law, which was sponsored by MKs Otniel Schneller (Kadima ) and Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi ), states that every divorce decree issued by a rabbinical court must include a date by which the get is to be arranged. If either spouse fails to provide the get by the specified date, the rabbinical court will now be required to reconvene and consider imposing sanctions.

The law also requires the court to reconvene on a regular basis to track the status of the get, whether or not sanctions are imposed.

Previous law also allowed rabbinical courts to impose sanctions on spouses who refused to provide a get, including attaching their bank accounts, denying them a driver's license or even sending them to jail. But the courts rarely made use of this power.

The new law is aimed at encouraging them to do so by forcing them to revisit the case at regular intervals, which imposes a burden on both the courts and the recalcitrant party. It also facilitates the imposition of sanctions by allowing them to be imposed even if the recalcitrant spouse skips the hearing, and states that sanctions won't be suspended if the recalcitrant spouse appeals them.

Rabbinical courts have been hesitant to impose sanctions in part out of concern that if the sanctioned spouse ultimately grants the get, he may not be doing so of his own free will, which could invalidate the divorce. According to the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women's Status at Bar-Ilan University, sanctions have been imposed in only 1.5 percent of cases in which the law would have allowed it.

But the refusal to provide a get deprives women of the option of starting a new family, Schneller noted after the law was passed.

Batia Kahana Dror, director of Mavoi Satum, called the new law an "important milestone in the fight for women's rights in Israel" and in efforts to achieve equality between men and women in marriage and divorce. Her organization, which advocates on behalf of women denied a get, had pushed for the law's passage.

A woman from Nahariya who has been denied a get for the past eight years told Haaretz that as the years passed, she lost faith in the judges' insistence that they have been doing everything possible to obtain a get from her husband. The court made no move to sanction her husband, she said, and meanwhile, he began living with another woman and had a child with her.

Many religious court judges voiced anger at the new law, saying it constitutes gross interference in the autonomy of their courts and will result in a major increase in their workload due to the regular hearing requirements. But Schneller said it was developed in cooperation with senior rabbinical court judges, including Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who serves as president of the Rabbinical Court of Appeals, and Shlomo Dichovsky, the director general of the rabbinical court system. Their involvement resulted in the removal of a provision in the original bill that would have imposed sanctions automatically on people who refused to provide a get.