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On an Autumn morning in November three years ago, at precisely 11:47 A.M., a woman filed a property suit against her husband in Haifa's family affairs court. Fifteen minutes later, her husband filed for divorce in the city's rabbinical court. The couple's joint property was part of his suit.

The woman was sure the case would be heard in the family affairs court, because she had filed her suit earlier. She did not imagine her case would prompt the Supreme Rabbinnical Court in Jerusalem to issue a new religious law last week.

The family affairs court is authorized to deal with property, children and alimony matters, unless they are bound to a divorce suit filed in rabbinical court. When spouses file suits against each other in two different courts, the court that receives the suit first deals with the case.

Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kadari, head of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, says women prefer to have cases heard in civil courts, which adhere to principles of equality. Men prefer rabbinical court, which continues to apply the property law in a biased way, in defiance of High Court of Justice rulings.

The wife knew that the law was on her side. In a previous case, Haifa's rabbinical court ruled that even filing a suit a few minutes early could determine the court in which the case would be heard. But she was in for a surprise. The rabbinical court decided that it was authorized to deal with the case.

The court argued that the wife had demanded only interim assistance to preserve her rights in the common property, while her husband demanded a final ruling on their property division as part of a divorce suit. The court also ruled that the woman's suit was insincere since she had kept it a secret from her husband.

The wife appealed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, only to be surprised again. The court declared last week that counting the hours, minutes or seconds between filing suits was absurd and unacceptable. It ruled that the exact time of day on which the first suit was filed was not relevant but the day on which it was filed. If both suits were filed on the same day "the rabbinical court's authority overcame the other court's."

The court also ruled that it was authorized to debate the issue, drawing fire from jurists who claim that such a ruling is not in keeping with the law.

Family law specialists say that filing suits in different courts on the same day is not a rare occurrence, for as soon as a couple decides to get divorced each spouse rushes to file a suit in his or her preferred court.

Halperin-Kadari believes that if the husband had filed suit 15 minutes before his wife, the rabbinical court would have upheld the law, asserting that "fifteen minutes is fifteen minutes" and ruled it was authorized to hear the case.

"This ruling is an obstacle in advancing Israeli women's inferior status in divorce conflicts," she says. "When the rabbinical court hears property matters, it's very easy for the husband to set conditions for agreeing to divorce his wife." She says this gives men the power to extort and blackmail their wives.

Yosef Mendelsohn, a family law expert, says that the race to file the first divorce suit has indeed reached an absurd level. He said it causes great damage to both spouses, who rush to court instead of seeking family counseling, arbitration or reconciliation first. However, as long as the present law exists, the suit that was filed first, even by minutes or seconds, should determine where the case is heard, he says.