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By: Rabbi Max Sutton

The Case

Cindy, a high school student of a Hebrew Academy in Florida, was very popular among her classmates. As common with co-ed schools, the students regularly interact on a social level and at times develop friendships. Bobby, a classmate of Cindy’s, had such a friendship with her. One afternoon between school periods Bobby approached Cindy, holding a paper clip that he had craftily shaped into a ring. After exchanging a few words with her, he pulled out the rounded paper clip and proposed to her. Cindy followed along with Bobby’s performance and accepted the ring on her finger to the words, “Behold you are betrothed to me according to the Law of Moses and Israel.” The two laughed and proceeded to their next class, casually sharing the episode with their teacher and classmates. They boastfully added that Sam was present for the entire “ceremony.” The teacher was shocked by the news and scolded the two for their reckless behavior. After class, the teacher informed Cindy that by accepting the makeshift ring from Bobby, she may have altered her unmarried status and may be in need of Jewish divorce papers. Cindy brushed the teacher off and went on with her life. Years later, Cindy was engaged to be married to a fine religious young man. Only weeks before the wedding Cindy had a flashback of the incident that took place with Bobby and she became consumed with fear. If she was effectively married to Bobby, then she is forbidden to another without an official divorce. Furthermore, even if she located Bobby and received divorce papers in time, her fiancé was a Kohen and by Torah law is forbidden to marry a divorcee. Cindy brought her problem to Bet Din to resolve.

How should the Bet Din rule,
and why?

Torah Law

According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, in order to betroth a woman, one is required to use a coin or utensil which has a minimal monetary value of a prutah. There is a lengthily halachic discussion dating back to Talmudic sources with regard to instances in which one uses a utensil which is locally worth less than the required value, but may have value in a remote country. While in such instances a formal divorce is required, nevertheless, if the item is clearly worth less than a prutah anywhere in the world, divorce papers are not required.

Furthermore, leading halachic authorities rule that since the transaction of marriage is a formal acquisition, the usage of a broken utensil is legally unsuitable. By Torah law, one cannot betroth a woman in a degrading way, even if the woman receiving the unsuitable betrothal item agrees to such a demeaning manner. Hence, even if the broken utensil has the required value in a remote country, the marriage is rendered invalid, and there is no need for a divorce.

By rule of the Shulhan Aruch, two valid witnesses are required to observe the transfer of the ring or coin from the groom to the bride. In the absence of both witnesses, the marriage is clearly rendered null and void. If however, one witness is present, some halachic authorities rule stringently, and view the marriage as binding enough to require a proper divorce. Nevertheless, even according to this opinion, in a severe circumstance in which a girl is already engaged to marry a Kohen in only a few weeks, some consideration is extended. 

In addition, each witness is required to be valid according to Torah standards. If however, a witness is a non-observant Jew, he is disqualified. In the instance in which only a single witness observed the transfer of the ring, the witness is scrutinized even further before he is accepted as a valid witness. Since the stringency of a single witness is only of Rabbinic nature, disqualifying the witness is more easily achievable. Hence, if the witness is an ignoramus, who lives freely and only casually keeps the precepts of the Torah, the marriage is rendered null and void.

According to Torah law, if two people engage in a marriage ceremony in jest, in certain instances the ceremony is disqualified. Since the couple never intended on marrying, logic dictates that the marriage is void. Nevertheless, such instances are far more complicated than meets the eye. If the witnesses present assume that the intent of the couple was to engage in marriage, various halachic authorities rule with stringency. Additionally, often one of the couple was sincere about their commitment to marry, which can further complicate the situation. It is clear is that the ceremony of marriage is not a joking matter, as the ramifications of jesting activity can be very severe.

As a general rule, a Bet Din will need to require that a divorce take place, in compliance with the ruling of a more stringent view. The marital status of woman is one of the most sacred and sensitive topics in our holy Torah, and requires a higher standard of adjudication. It is for this reason that we require a divorce in a questionable case scenario. Nevertheless, when numerous factors all point to ruling in leniency, a divorce is not mandatory.

Verdict:Playing With Fire

Our Bet Din permitted Cindy to marry her fiancée the Kohen, as we ruled that she did not require a divorce from Bobby. As mentioned in Torah law, since a broken paper clip is not worth a prutah anywhere in the world, it is invalid for usage. Furthermore, even if Cindy accepted the makeshift ring as is, nevertheless, the marriage is rendered invalid since according to Torah law one may not betroth a woman in a degrading manner. Additionally, with only one witness present to observe Bobby’s transfer of the clip to Cindy, the ceremony is disqualified according to the majority of halachic authorities. By rule of the Shulhan Aruch two witnesses are required to consecrate a marriage. While others rule more stringently, upon inquiry, the single witness present was likely to be invalid according to Torah standards, due to his semi non-observant lifestyle. Finally, leading halachic authorities discuss cases in which a couple engage in a marriage ceremony in jest, and in certain instances their activity is disqualified. Although this later consideration is more complicated, it nevertheless is an additional factor for a lenient ruling. As a general rule, a Bet Din will need to require that a divorce take place, in compliance with the ruling of a more stringent view. Nevertheless, since in Cindy’s case numerous factors and halachic considerations indicate that she is not in need of a divorce, our Bet Din ruled in leniency. The youth of our generation must be instructed by their parents that a marriage ceremony is no joking matter, as the outcome of many unfortunate mistakes have often resulted in the need of a divorce.