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War Women

Rabbi Yehoshua Alt

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Rabbi Alt merited to learn under the tutelage of R’ Mordechai Friedlander ztz”l for close to five years. He received Semicha from R’ Zalman Nechemia Goldberg ztz”l. Rabbi Alt has written on numerous topics for various websites and publications and is the author of the books, Fascinating Insights and Incredible Insights. His writings inspire people across the spectrum of Jewish observance to live with the vibrancy and beauty of Torah. He lives with his wife and family in a suburb of Yerushalayim where he studies, writes, and teaches. The author is passionate about teaching Jews of all levels of observance.

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War Women

One who frees an aguna[1] to remarry it is as though he has rebuilt one of Yerushalayim’s ruins. This is what the Shu”t Bach Hachadashos[2] writes regarding a case of freeing an aguna.

 

The Shu”t Shevus Yaakov[3] (1670-1733) permits receiving testimony on Shabbos through a Beis Din from an איש מסוכן (“dangerous person”) in order to free an aguna, and not wait until Motzai Shabbos. This is because there is no greater שעת הדחק (“extenuating circumstances”) than dealing with aguna cases. “Don’t be lazy with this just like you cannot be lazy with pikuach nefesh.”  Similarly, the Beis Yosef[4] equates the law of freeing an aguna to dinei nefashos.

 

Every year the family of R’ Ovadia Yosef gathered for a memorial ceremony on the anniversary of their mother’s passing. One year, he didn’t come, unbeknown to anyone. R’ Ovadia’s brother, R’ Naim, searched for him the following morning. When he found him, he asked why he missed the event that was in honor of their mother. He replied that he was asked to find a way to release an aguna, to allow her to remarry. He stayed up all night trying to find a way to free her.[5] Finally at four in the morning, he figured out a way! “Surely this helped elevate the soul of our mother more than any memorial ceremony!”

 

After World War One,[6] R’ Shlomo Dovid Kahana[7] (1869-1953) established a special department in Warsaw to deal with problems of war agunos, forming a network of information bureaus in the larger cities of Europe for this purpose. The information gathered about missing husbands made possible the remarriage of thousands of agunos.

 

In 2019, a ledger documenting the actions of a Beis Din in Bergen-Belsen following its liberation was discovered. The ledger, which contained over 100 pages of cramped handwriting, was the first documentation of the testimony of Holocaust survivors on their spouses who were murdered by the Nazis, for the purpose of being released from being agunos.[8] The ledger, entitled: “Beis Din Protocol of Bergen-Belsen” was written on a booklet that originally belonged to the Nazis. The rabbanim documented the names of survivors and the testimonies regarding the murder of their spouses in the course of the Holocaust. The name of each Holocaust survivor was written on its own page of the ledger, followed by the testimony regarding the death of his or her spouse, signed by the witness(es). Underneath the testimony, the rabbanim wrote the heter for marriage based on that testimony, adding their signatures. According to the ledger, the Beis Din provided 85 heterim for men and women to remarry. The rabbanim of the Beis Din were R’ Yoel Halperin, R’ Yisrael Aryeh Zalmanovitz, R’ Yissachar Berish Rubin and R’ Yitzchak Glickman, all of whom were Holocaust survivors. The rabbanim worked together with R’ Shlomo Dovid Kahana, who was extremely active in releasing agunos. He formulated a basic “heter agunos” which could be used in most cases and collected testimonies to release agunos after the Holocaust. He later said that he provided heterim for around 3,000 agunos after the Holocaust and he never once was proved wrong by the appearance of a husband that was considered deceased.[9]

 

In 1973, there was the famous Yom Kippur war. Due to the horrific conditions of the Yom Kippur war, there were more than 960 bodies unidentifiable, missing or not immediately retrievable behind enemy lines.[10] Consequently, their widows were agunos and couldn’t remarry as long as their husbands’ bodies were unidentified. Chief rabbi of the IDF R’ Mordechai Piron and his assistant R’ Gad Navon asked R’ Ovadia Yosef[11] a year into his position as chief rabbi to head a Beis Din to decide on the aguna cases as a result of the Yom Kippur war, to freeing the young women so they can start new lives by proving that each husband died.[12] He took time off[13] from all other learning schedules for this.[14] This specialized Beis Din met throughout 1974, sifting through all the files. Some cases were clear-cut, and some involved traveling the country and interviewing soldiers; in many cases he shed tears over the files.[15] Despite serious halachic challenges, two years later R’ Ovadia’s Beis Din had released all the agunos of the war.[16]



[1] An aguna is a woman whose husband disappeared without clear proof of death (or in other instances refuses to divorce her according to halacha) and she therefore cannot remarry.

[2] 64.

[3] 1:14. R’ Yaakov Ibn Chaviv (1460-1516), author of the Ein Yaakov, solicited the opinion of R’ Avraham Teves (1479-1552) on a difficult halachic issue in regard to an aguna. On the 25th of Nissan in 1505, while en route to deliver his affirmative reply he fell into a swiftly running river and was dragged by the current downstream. Two non-Jews pulled him from the water and after vomiting up lots of water and bile he recovered. He attributed his rescue in the merit of the heter aguna which he was about to deliver and commemorated the day with a fast for the rest of his life (Preface to Birkas Avraham).

[4] Shu”t Beis Yosef on Even Ha’ezer, Dinei Goy Mei’siach L’fi Tumo, 10. Also see R’ Yosef Engil in Otzros Yosef, Kuntres Iguna, p. 3b.

[5] In 2004, R’ Yonah Reiss of the Beis Din of America was struggling to discover a halachic basis in which to rule that a certain individual wasn’t a mamzer. After exhaustive research, R’ Reiss was about to give up. That night he had a recurring dream in which the words “R’ Ovadia Yosef” were repeated. He resolved to submit the mamzerus question to R’ Ovadia. He submitted it and within a few weeks he received a lengthy reply in which R’ Ovadia articulated a creative argument concluding that the individual isn’t a mamzer.

[6] There were gedolim who became so fluent in Aramaic through a lifelong dedication to the language of gemara that they could speak Aramaic fluently. In the early 1900s, the Ostrovtzer Rebbe would converse with the local Armenian bishop in fluent colloquial Aramaic. During a dangerous period for the Jews, while World War One was still raging, the bishop protected “his Jews” in honor of his friend and fellow speaker of Aramaic. Tangentially, there is a significant diaspora of Assyrians in Chicago where they converse in their native Aramaic. R’ Prero, a native Jew of Chicago has forged close friendships with members of the local Assyrian community, since they speak Aramaic, a language that he is familiar with from his study of gemara. When they greet each other in the evening, they say ramsha brichta (רמשא בריכתא), which is Aramaic for “Good Evening.”

[7] He studied at the yeshiva of Volozhin and the kolel of Kovno, and was ordained by R’ Yitzchak Elchonon Spector. He was later the rav of Warsaw. After the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, he managed to escape to Eretz Yisrael, where he was appointed rabbi of the Old City of Yerushalayim.

[8] Here is an excerpt from the ledger (p. 85)“In 1944, in the month of Iyar, they brought me and my wife Gittel bas Avraham Halevi and all our children to Auschwitz. There they separated me and my two older sons for labor, and my wife and small children were sent to the gas chambers. Since then, there has been no sign of them – his sons testified to this as well.”

[9] During World War Two, President Jimmy Carter’s uncle, Tom Gordy, was declared dead by U.S. officials after being taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, and his wife remarried during the war. But when the war ended, Gordy returned home as a liberated POW to discover, tragically, that his wife was married to another man.

[10] Halacha insists upon being able to identify the body within three days of death in order to recognize his face, and many of these bodies were found or returned only later.

[11] In 1945, at age 25, R’ Ovadia Yosef was appointed a dayan by the sefardi chief rabbi R’ Benzion Uziel. Of the 9,000 agunos that R’ Ovadia ruled are free to remarry, not one of their husbands ever reappeared.

[12] Yabia Omer, volume 6, Even Ha’ezer 3.

[13] Yabia Omer 8, Choshen Mishpat 7 is a halachic response from this time period (dated the second of Shevat 5734, 1974) to a question from the sefardic committee. R’ Ovadia wrote that he was too busy with the agunos of the Yom Kippur war to answer other questions but as they asked him many times and to have peace between the different camps of the Jewish People, he was taking the time to reply.

[14] In Yabia Omer 6, Yoreh Deah 1, written in 1974, R’ Ovadia wrote to a head rabbi of shechita that the extreme difficulties of the war prevented him from completing the response in a timely fashion.

[15] His responsa in Yabia Omer volume 6, Even Ha’ezer 3 written in January 1974 is devoted to explaining the halachic principles by which R’ Ovadia freed almost 1,000 married women, based on various amounts of evidence that their husbands were dead. The treatise discusses the halachic components of the cases in which soldiers’ bodies were identified on the basis of identity tags, personal documents, personal items and photographs of the body or fingerprints.

[16] There is a written endorsement from R’ Ovadia Yosef giving permission to an aguna from the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001 to remarry (Yabia Omer, volume 10, Even Ha’ezer 18).

Author of three books including the recently released Extraordinary Insights

 
Listen to the short Fascinating Insights Podcast at https://jewishpodcasts.fm/fascinating-insights

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