In a well-known Midrash our Sages assert that one of the factors that prevented the total assimilation of the Jews in Egypt thereby allowing the Jews to be redeemed was that they did not change their names (Vayikra Rabba 32). Whatever the exact meaning of this Midrash it is quite clear that throughout history Jews have adopted names from the surrounding culture. Such ironically begins with the name of our redeemer Moshe, a name of Egyptian origin given by the daughter of Pharaoh. Mordechai and Esther to cite another example are Persian names and many of our greatest Rabbis had “non-Jewish” names. I find it fascinating that the accepted principles of legal hermeneutics, mentioned every day during Shacharit, were taught by Rabbi Yishmael the antithesis of a Jewish name[1].

 

“Witnesses who signed a get and their name are like the names of those who worship the stars is it acceptable” (Gittin 11b)? Unlike a wedding, which can be effectuated in one of three ways, two of which involve no writing, a get must be a written document. As we have discussed it must be written lishma, for the sake of the couple being divorced. As a religious requirement lishma can only be created by fellow Jews[2]. It thus comes as no surprise that while “all documents that arise from a heathen court are valid even if the signatories are worshippers of the stars” such is not the case with “writs of divorce and the [document of the] emancipation of slaves”(Gittin 10b).

 

What may be surprising is that other documents, such as those relating to commerce between Jews, are valid if signed by non-Jews. To this the Gemara gives two possible approaches. The “inclusive” approach is to explain this based on the principle of dina demalchuta dina, that in monetary matters at least, Jews are bound by the laws of the counties in which they reside. For us moderns, blessed to be living in democratic countries, this is rather obvious but was quite a revolutionary concept when promulgated by Shmuel in third century Babylonia.

 

The more restrictive approach distinguishes between documents which merely serve as evidence of a transaction and those that create the transaction in the first place. In the first group are those relating to commerce where transactions are consummated by the payment of money or perhaps a handshake, with the accompanying document serving as corroborating evidence of the transaction. Such evidence can be entrusted to a non-Jewish court. However in cases where the signatures to the document is the mechanism by which the “transaction” takes place, such as a get, a document freeing slaves or even a gift (as there is no transfer of money) the signatories to the document would have to be Jews.

 

Yet while dina demachuta dina encompasses all monetary (and criminal) law it does not apply to matters of a religious nature. To do so would essentially mean the end of a distinctive Jewish way of life. Thus according to either explanation a get would require the signatures of Jews. Or so one would think. “Rabbi Shimon says: these too are valid, they are only mentioned [as invalid] when drawn up by a[n authorized] court of simpletons”.

 

To understand the view of Rav Shimon one must be cognizant of the debate between Rav Meir and Rabbi Elazar as to what it is that makes the get effective. Rav Meir is of the view that edei chatimah karti, those who sign the get dissolve the relationship between husband and wife. While the get only takes effect once delivered to the wife, it is the signatories to the get who validate it. No signature, no get. According to this view the get must be signed by Jews. However Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon are of the view that edei mesirah karti, those who witness the delivery of the get are the ones who dissolve the relationship. A get must be written and delivered in the presence of two witnesses but need not be signed. The signing of the get according to this view is only a rabbinic requirement lest a question arise as to the validity of the get and those who witnessed the get are not available to testify. In such a case we would rely on the signatures of the get and may assume it was properly given. And this Rabbi Shimon notes can be done even with the signatures of non-Jews provided they are agents of a proper judiciary.

 

Yet while a get would be valid with no signatories once a get is signed it is eminently possible that one will rely on these two witnesses and deliver the get in their presence. And if they are non-Jews the get will not be valid. If so how can Rabbi Shimon allow a get to be signed by non-Jews as honest and expert as they may be? Such may inadvertently lead to the rest of the process not being carried out properly.

 

The Gemara explains that Rabbi Shimon permits such only when the names are clearly non-Jewish ones, such as Hermeez, Avodinah, Bar Shivtai, Bar Kidri and others. Yet as we all know it is not always so simple to distinguish between a Jewish and non-Jewish name. In such a case one could argue that a get with an unknown generic signature could not be relied upon. Such would be the case when a get would arrive to Israel from abroad and the only way to verify the get would be through the signatures. However the Gemara reaches the exact opposite conclusion. “Since most Jews outside the land [of Israel] their names are the same as those who worship the stars[3]” we may assume that the non-Jewish sounding names on the get are actually those of Jews and the get is valid. Acculturation does have its advantages.

[1] Rav Moshe Feinstein when asked about this phenomenon explains that distinctly Jewish names were crucial before the giving of the Torah – there was little else to mark our Jewish identity. However once the Torah was given the many mitzvoth we have serve as our barrier to assimilation and Jewish names, while preferred, are not a necessity. One can for example name their child Jay.

 

[2] Other religious articles that require lishma i.e. can only be done by Jews include tefillin, tzizit and matza. The invention of machine made-matzot in the mid 19th century led to a huge tumult with many claiming that a machine cannot create lishma even if the machine is turned on by a Jew.  Needless to say that opinion is not generally followed.

[3] One must recall that in Talmudic times there was no such thing as a surname.