Deeds Indeed

The language used in a 400-year-old guide to formulation of legal documents reveals much about Jews and their religion, then and now

"Sefer Tikkun Sofrim L'Rav Itzhak Tzabah," compiled and with an introduction by Ruth Lamdan, Tel Aviv University Press (Hebrew ), 265 pages, $30

Historian Ruth Lamdan wrote her doctoral dissertation on Jewish women in Palestine, Syria and Egypt in the 16th century, and published it in her book "A Separate People" (2000). In the middle of that century, the number of Jews in Palestine, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, was between 10,000 and 12,000, out of a total population of 250,000.

Nevertheless, from Safed - a tiny town that was home to a Jewish community, among a mosaic of other ethnic groups - came the teachings of the Ari (Isaac Luria ), as well as the Shulhan Arukh, which summed up and codified Jewish ritual for the first time. (Today, Safed's municipal rabbi, in his apparent ignorance of history, does not realize that his locale's former greatness derived from the fact that it was once a city of minorities. )

In "Sefer Tikkun Sofrim," her second book, Lamdan provides something ostensibly dull-sounding: a guide for formulating shtarot, legal deeds. These guidelines were copied down in Jerusalem in 1635 by Yehudah Mor'ali, a student of Itzhak Tzabah, and are based on an earlier version compiled in Salonika (Thessaloniki ) - probably by Rabbi Moshe Almosnino. That version already included a collection of suggested formulations for documents related to ownership and purchase of land, property liens, ketubot (traditional Jewish wedding contracts ), dowries and so on.

There is one aspect of all these deeds that, in my view, inherently relates to the great paradox of Judaism. This is not a religion of power; there is no such entity standing by to enforce its strictures. Thus all the contractual agreements are obeyed by dint of an oath or a communal agreement, or as part of the observance of religious dictates - and this is embodied in the texts of these documents.

Indeed, Judaism can thus perhaps be seen as "contract-centered." For instance, Jewish men "enter the world" via a circumcision ritual proscribed in a biblical covenant. And all Jews depart the world to the accompaniment of bone-dry words intoned by a hevra kadisha (burial society ) representative, which exempts the deceased in contractual terms from membership of any organizations in this world.

The language employed by the writers of deeds, and likewise of rabbinic responsa, is a sophisticated one precisely because of its legal and logical dimensions; it also has at its disposal both Hebrew and Aramaic terms. Thus, for example, Tzabah explains how to write the text of a "protest" deed: "We, the signatories of this deed, hereby certify that the aforementioned plaintiff lodged a complaint against the other party and told us: I hereby wish to register a formal protest detailing my protest, inasmuch as said person has taken over my house on said street, and he holdeth it and nourishes himself of what is mine ... And when I summon him to a court of law, he will not answer, and when ordered by the magistrate to restore my property into my hands, he will not obey but prevails by brutal force."

The purpose of such a document is to enable a lawsuit to be brought at a later date, when circumstances have changed - whether because of governmental authority or the person who is protesting. However, we should note that even here, there arises no specter of a "kingdom" that exists and can enforce the verdict.

Here is an excerpt from the instructions for writing a get, a Jewish bill of divorce: "A. The sage should inquire of the husband and wife who are obtaining a writ of divorce if any of them has two names, and will write both the first name and the second. B. He has to inquire whether the husband is willing to sign the deed of his own free will, without any enforcement whatsoever. C. And if he does vow to deliver the deed, he should be absolved of the vow, before the deed is written, otherwise the deed is void and another will have to be written ..."

And so on and so forth - meticulous precision, without even introducing the wife into the matter, since already in the Mishna, the status of a divorcee is equated with that of a freed slave who has no say in her release.

Judaism harks back to the dictates of the sages, and one of its problematic topics - involving the ex-territorial characteristics of the religion - constitutes the very crux of the get. In the very first Mishna dealing with this sort of document, it is not the wording that is important, but rather how the get itself is physically delivered: The signature of the person who draws up this document, which is dispatched via an emissary from afar, has to be verified. The sages argue over what the minimal distance is that obliges the emissary to demand that the document be countersigned by a witness.

From the start, the ex-territory is what leads to such legal severity. How can we tell that a woman is divorced if there is no binding court decision involved in the process?

The great detail and ceaseless preoccupation over many centuries with verification of a get, with the manner in which it is written, with the use of foreign languages and their translation, and specifically the transcription of names of the foreign cities that are mentioned, and which must have a uniform Hebrew spelling - all this reflects tremendous anxiety and doubt that perhaps the bill of divorce was not granted lawfully (in which case the "released" wife is essentially "forbidden" and any new children she has are mamzerim, born of a forbidden relationship ). Hence Tzabah's particular emphasis on the text of the document - and the preoccupation with this matter in the modern era as well.

As annoying as the question is to secular Jews, it also ties in with the first Mishna and the long tradition of enacting numerous laws that pertain, always, to rabbinic versus judicial jurisdiction (i.e., who determines what ), the manner of punishing perjurers (what could be intimidating to a non-Jewish witness about a Jewish oath? ), and a complete absence of real means of enforcement, apart from the power of the community itself, to ostracize, boycott or prohibit from remarrying. Therefore, naturally, the non-Jew is disqualified from testifying in a Jewish court case. And a state cannot accept such religion as a state religion. Thus, its judicial system must remain civil and not "Hebrew."

Back to Tzabah's book: Is the Hebrew of this guide impossible to understand? Can today's average Hebrew reader - that is, a high-school graduate who studied the core curriculum - understand it? Certainly. And that's a wonderful thing.