I am a citizen of Israel. Years ago, before I realized I was Jewish, I married a Cohen in a civil marriage in Gibraltar. We were divorced after 4 years of marriage. I had been married before. I have continued to follow Judaism to this day. Though I had a legal divorce, I would like to know if I need to receive a Get. This is after 17 years now. I feel I am divorced, not knowing at the time that I was Jewish, and not knowing the Rabbinical laws. Please set me free on this answer. Thanks.
You do not require a get. You need not be concerned about this matter, and are free to remarry.
The reason for which there might be some concern over the question of a get, even though no “Torah marriage” took place, is because of the principle of “ein adam oseh be’ilaso beilas zenus,” meaning that we assume people who live together as husband and wife do not wish to perform marital relations outside the framework of marriage, and therefore have intention to marry by means of the marital relations themselves.
In this case, however, there are a number of reasons for which we would not say this.
First of all, a number of authorities rule that the concept of a person enacting a marriage by the means described above applies only where the couple tried to enact a Torah marriage by other means, but did not succeed in doing so, because of a technical (or other) hitch — for instance, if the item given to the bride for the marriage was of insufficient value — or for a couple that were divorced, yet continued to live together. For two people who live together without a prior attempt at enacting a Torah marriage, and who were never married before, the principle does not apply. This basic principle is stated by Beis Shmuel, (149:6) in the name of Ramban.
Although some dispute the ruling (see Be’er Heitev, Even Ha’ezer 17:161, and Pischei Teshuva 149:7), authorities state further that the principle applies only to those people who we could assume, or at least entertain the possibility, of a subjective intention to enact a Torah marriage. For those who are distant from religious practice, to the extent that there is no doubt as to such an intention, the principle would not apply (see Pischei Teshuvah 149:1, in the name of Mishnah Le’melech, who discusses the case of a person who married while his wife was a niddah, quoting from Radvaz that under such circumstances, the principle would not apply; although Mishnah Le’melech disputes this position, he would surely concede for those who have virtually no connection to Torah practice).
This is similar to the ruling of Shulchan Aruch (149:6) concerning apostates, for whom the principle does not apply.
Furthermore, Shulchan Aruch (149:3) mentions a responsum of Rosh (cited in Tur, Even Ha’ezer 141), which states that for somebody who relies on his marital status, and has no reason to doubt the validity of his marriage, the principle would not apply. In the case of the question, the couple relied on their status as being married by civil law.
For these reasons (or a variety of combinations), leading authorities of recent generations have ruled that there is no need for a getdocument in cases of civil marriages: see Iggros Moshe (Even Ha’ezer 75); Minchas Elazar (vol, 3, no. 12); Darkei Noam (75); Avnei Efod (vol, 2, no. 27); Yaskil Avdi (2:6 and 6:101), among others; see also letters of Achiezer (30); Or Naner (109, concerning opinion of Chazon Ish); Shema Shelomo (vol. 1, Even Ha’ezer 15).
In the case of the question, one needs to add that the lady (who submitted the question) did not even know that she was Jewish, and therefore could not have had intention for a Torah marriage. In addition, it stands to reason that the couple did not have Orthodox Jewish acquaintances who would serve as “witnesses” for the marriage based on the principle above.
For all of the reasons above, based on the information given in the question, there is no need for the stringency of a get, and the lady is free to marry who she wishes.