According to the traditional order of the Talmud, Gittin appears as the penultimate tractate in Seder Nashim. Its main focus is the way divorce is performed, while the circumstances under which divorce is permitted, encouraged or even obligatory are discussed in other tractates.
Halakhic divorce is unique, as it is an action that successfully undoes the relationship that is created through marriage. Just as halakhic marriage creates a relationship that forges forbidden interactions – isurei ervah – without a blood relationship, divorce is the method that removes that relationship. (It should be noted that even after divorce, some of the forbidden relationships remain in force, e.g. the husband can never marry his ex-wife’s mother or daughter. Nevertheless, the main relationship is undone.) Due to the severity of these relationships, the Sages devoted an entire tractate to detailing the rules and regulations that surround these laws.
Divorce laws appear in the Torah (Devarim 24:1-4) in just a few short passages. The Sages focus on every word and letter of these pesukim, together with the oral traditions on the subject, in order to reach conclusions about these laws.
According to Jewish law, the act of divorce as understood by the Sages is the handing of a formal contract by a man to his wife that states his intention to end the marital relationship between them, freeing her to marry whomever she wants. Just as halakha requires the husband to initiate the process of marriage, similarly it is the husband who carries out the act of divorce.
Since the act of divorce is initiated by use of the geṭ, this document is central to the divorce and does not act merely as proof of the divorce as is the case in most situations of a business transaction. Nevertheless, the document also plays the role of a shtar ra’ayah that can be presented as proof of the divorce with regard to questions of marriage as well as monetary issues, which is why it needs all of the usual requirements of witnesses, proper dates, etc.
The divorce contract must be written li-shmah: with the specific intent for this husband and wife. Furthermore, the contract must specifically state that the relationship between husband and wife has been fully severed. This leads to a discussion in our massekhet of the question of what types of conditions the husband can place on the divorce.
After the divorce document has been written properly, the act of divorce is carried out. The Torah writes, “Ve-natan be-yadah,” that the husband must place the geṭ in his wife’s hand. The Sages extend this to situations where the husband arranges for the geṭ to be placed in his wife’s possession. Thus, it is acceptable for either party to establish a shali’ah, the husband to give the geṭ, and the wife to accept the geṭ. Allowing the use of a shali’ah is particularly important for reasons of tikkun olam. In situations where the husband and wife are physically far away from one another, this method will allow for divorce to be carried out, freeing the woman from being anchored (aguna) to a missing husband.
At the same time, allowing a divorce to be carried out by way of messengers also carries with it the potential for a variety of problems. What if the husband chooses to declare the geṭ null and void before it reaches his wife’s hand? Or what if he claimed that it was a forgery after his wife had already received it? To ensure that these situations would not arise, the Sages established a number of principles for the purpose of tikkun olam – like limiting the husband’s ability to annul the geṭ after it left his hand, or to have the accompanying messengers declare that the document was written and signed in their presence.
This concern with tikkun olam allows Massekhet Gittin to segue into a lengthy discussion of Rabbinic enactments whose purpose is to illustrate the Sages’ concern with areas of life that are not mandated by the Torah itself. These discussions make up most of the fourth and fifth chapters of the tractate.