Gittin 2a ~ A Very Determined Envoy

גיטין ב,א

המביא גט ממדינת הים צריך שיאמר בפני נכתב ובפני נחתם

If an envoy brings a Get to Israel from abroad, he must declare "it was written in my presence and signed in my presence" (Gittin 2a)

In the first chapter of Gittin, we address the laws that apply to an envoy (שליח) who is charged with bringing a Get, a Jewish Bill of Divorce, to a woman living overseas.  Such cases were clearly prevalent, so much so that they open this tractate, devoted to the rules of divorce.

For many hundreds of years, these messengers carried out their religious duties and delivered the Get, but did so without much recognition in our literature.  Today, one such envoy will be recognized for perhaps the most arduous trip ever undertaken to deliver a Get. That trip, which began in 1830, was from London to Sydney, Australia, and back again. It covered over 27,000 nautical miles and took close to thirteen months. The trip is detailed in Jeremy Pfeffer's book From One End of the Earth to the Other, from where the following information is taken. 

Book Cover, Pfeffer.jpg

Rabbi Aaron Levy of Lissa

The envoy who undertook this daunting trip was Aaron Levy, born in 1795 in western Poland. He arrived in London in 1811, where he taught in cheder and worked as a calligrapher and sofer. At the time, many convicted of crimes were sentenced to exile in Australia. Of the Jewish population of Australia, which numbered about 1,550, about 44%  - some 684 (!) - were convicts. Rabbi Levy was to find one of those convicts - a serial counterfeiter who used many aliases - by the name (or rather a name) of  Samuel Levi. Levi had been sentenced to death in London for repeated crimes of  counterfeiting, but the sentence had been commuted to transportation for life in 1808.  Samuel had left behind his wife in London, and now, after some 29 years of marriage, she wanted to obtain a Get and divorce him. Here is the charge to Levy, as recorded in the notes of the London Bet Din:

On 23rd Mencachem Av 5590 [August 12, 1830] there appeared before us...a woman Mindela who is commonly known as Minka bat Yehuda Leib, and she appointed R. Aaron ben R. Yehuda of Lissa to be her agent to receive a Get from her husband Samuel who is commonly known as Long Zanvil ben Mordechai ben Meir who lives in Sydney on the sea coast in the State of South Wales...And let it be known that after discussing the matter the Gaon, Head of the Bet Din, and the Bet Din determined that the above R. Aaron, who is the agent for receipt (שליח לקבלה) of the above woman, will first effect the Get as an agent of accept acceptance before a Bet Din and witness to the handing over [of the Get].  And after he has received the Get from him with the intent of receiving, he will instruct the man to appoint him as his agent of delivery (שליח להולכה) and execute the Get as is required for an agent for transmission.

The kind of agency that Rabbi Levy used was not common. Usually the envoy was acting on the husband's behalf to deliver a Get to his wife. Here however, Levy was acting on the wife's behalf to receive the Get from her husband. Once Levy received the Get, it would immediately take effect, even if the good rabbi never made it back to London. In addition Rabbi Levy would have to act as a Sofer and write the Get, and convene a Bet Din in Australia to verify the procedure.  But first he would have to find Long Zanvil.

R. Levy left for Australia on August 17, 1830 and arrived some three months later, on December 21, 1830.  While there, he managed to track down Long Zanvil and convinced him to give a Get to his estranged wife. He then wrote the Get, and found five Jewish laymen: three to to act as a Bet Din and two to witness the handing over of the Get from the husband to the Rabbi. Rabbi Levy stayed in Sydney for five months, during which time his skills as a Sofer were put to good use. He sold a new Sefer Torah to the community, which he likely wrote himself, and repaired mistakes in several others.  

In early May 1831, Levy set sail to London, with a cow, a gift from the Jewish community of Sydney, which would provide him with fresh milk during his long voyage.  He arrived home after four months at sea, and a couple of weeks later the London Bet Din convened a session to formally hand over the Get to Minka. Here is what happened, as recorded in the notes of the London Bet Din

On the 27th of Tishrei 5592 [October 4, 1831], further to what is written above, the Gaon, Head of the Bet Din, executed the Get in accordance with the law of an agent for transmission...And when the agent gave the Get to the woman Mindela, who is commonly known as Minka bat Yehuda Leib, he declared "I wrote the Get with intent (לשמה) and the witnesses also signed it before me with the intent for the purpose of divorce.

Some Questions about the Voyage

A number of questions remain about the trip.  Here are a few of them:

  1. Why did Mindela wait for over twenty years before asking for a Get?
  2. Who financed the voyage, which cost about 100 pounds, which is over $15,000 today?
  3. Why did Rabbi Levy undertake the voyage without knowing where Long Zanvil was living, and whether he was prepared to give a Get

Jeremy Pfeffer, the author of the book that details the trip, believes that there had to have been some communication between the couple, and that the voyage was likely financed by Rabbi Levy himself. Pfeffer writes:

To the best of our knowledge, he was not related to any of the parties involved nor did he receive any great monetary renumeration for the mission. Putting our contemporary cynicism aside, we may believe that his motives were simply altruistic; there was a wrong that needed to be corrected and he alone could do so. And so we may fairly conclude that he undertook the mission to Australia simply for its own sake and for the sake of Heaven, לשמה ולשם שמים.

Two years after his return from Australia, Rabbi Levy was appointed to the London Bet Din where he served as Dayan and Secretary. His mission, now all but forgotten, is a wonderful example of a rabbi doing the right thing to help a women obtain a Get. יהי זכרו ברוך.

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