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The Agunah

The Agunah


In the overwhelming majority of cases, the get process proceeds without hitches, offering men and women the ability to be freed of unwanted matrimonial bonds. No rabbi will remarry the husband or wife unless the previous marriage has been terminated with a get, so arranging for a get is within the best interests of both parties.

Sadly, however, there are some people who refuse to grant their spouses the opportunity of a get. This distressing phenomenon that has effectively ruined the lives of innocent people is known as the "Agunah Problem."

Historical Overview of the Agunah Issue

The "agunah problem" was always one of the greatest challenges facing halachic authoritiesAgunah means "anchored," or "chained." An agunah is a married woman who is not living with her husband, but has not been released from the bonds of matrimony. Though she wishes to put her marriage behind her, she is not free to remarry. She is chained to an unwanted marriage.

According to halachah, a woman may not remarry unless there is clear evidence that her husband had died or halachically divorced her with a get document. In times past, most agunot (pl. form of agunah) were victims of vanishing husbands. Traveling businessmen were often killed by bandits, who would dispose of the body leaving behind no trace of evidence. Or, a traveler would die in a remote location, and due to the lack of communication technology, or proper identification on the husband's person, the wife would remain uninformed. Frequent pogroms and wars habitually left agunot in their wake. Before recent times it was also fairly easy for an individual who had fallen upon hard times – or was unhappy with his current job, lifestyle, marriage, reputation, etc. – to simply vanish in the night and resurface in another city or country and start anew, unencumbered by previous obligations—including marital ones.1

The "agunah problem" was always one of the greatest challenges facing halachic authorities. The sages of the Talmud,2 recognizing the tremendous personal tragedy of the agunah, instituted various halachic leniencies intended to decrease the incidence of women in this woeful state.3 In biblical times, soldiers who were dispatched to the battlefield were required to first deliver a divorce to their wives,4 allowing the wives to remarry in the event that the husbands did not return.5 Halachic literature of the last millennium is dominated by "agunah responsa," penned by halachic authorities in response to inquiries from agunot who presented (sometimes flimsy) evidence of their husband's demise, and now wished rabbinical authorization to remarry. These responsa reveal how these rabbis went to great lengths to find halachic precedent to declare these women widows.6

The Modern-Day Agunah

Today the world is "smaller," and it is it is very uncommon for people to simply vanish. Nevertheless, the agunah problem persists, primarily due to husbands who cruelly refuse to grant their wives a divorce—despite rabbinical courts' orders to do so. A variety of reasons motivate these recalcitrant men. Many of them are unhappy with the financial aspect of their divorce settlement, others with custody arrangements, and they use the get as leverage in negotiations. Others hold their wives ransom, refusing to give a get until the wife pays an outrageous sum of money. While others refuse to give a get simply out of malice and spite.

The court is empowered to use all methods at their disposal to compel the husband to "agree" to divorceIronically, this type of agunah, the one whose husband is very much present but refuses to give a get, is a relatively new phenomenon. According to halachah, though it is the husband who gives his wife the get, a woman too may demand a divorce if she can prove that the husband is neglectful, repulsive or abusive. In such an instance, the halachah is unequivocal:

"One who is halachically required to divorce his wife and refuses to do so, a Jewish beth din – at any place and at any time7 – corporally punishes him until he says, 'I wish [to divorce].' The get is then written and it is a kosher get."8

In short: the beth din is empowered to use any and all methods at their disposal to compel the husband to "agree" to divorce his wife. This includes imposing sanctions on having casual or business dealings with the noncompliant husband, and even using brute force if necessary.9

These measures were enough to induce the vast majority of people to comply with the rabbinical courts' decisions in these matters. This remained the case until relatively recently; because for the most part Jewish communities in the Diaspora were authorized to police, adjudicate internal disputes and dispense justice within their own communities.

Today, however, religious courts are not empowered to take justice into their own hands. Add to that the fact that today most Jewish communities are not united under the auspices of one specific communal body or rabbinical court, thus severely limiting the efficacy of any social or religious sanctions imposed by a given beth din.

Thus the agunah problem has evolved. The problem of vanishing husbands has practically vanished. In its stead we are faced with a new scourge: the recalcitrant husband.


Recent years has seen an increased awareness regarding the agunah problem, and attempts to aid those women who find themselves in this unenviable situation.

Seemingly the most obvious solution – one that has been promoted, with some measure of success, by various individuals and organizations – would be to lobby the secular legislatures to enact laws that require recalcitrant husbands to grant their wives a get—along with punitive measures for those who disregard these laws.

Recent years has seen an increased awareness regarding the agunah problemNevertheless, this solution has not been universally accepted by halachic authorities. One of the major issues involved is that according to halachah a get that is granted under duress, not entirely out of the husband's free volition, is null and void. Though we mentioned earlier that a beth din is free to use whatever measures necessary to persuade a husband to give a divorce, this only applies when these measures are taken by the beth din or by individuals (Jewish or non-Jewish) retained by beth din to perform this task.10

So many have shifted the focus of their efforts back to the rabbis, with different groups and organizations encouraging rabbis and rabbinical courts to actively do whatever is within their capability to induce husbands to divorce their wives—public shaming, community shunning, etc.

There are also several support groups that offer agunot the opportunity to dialogue, share ideas and offer each other moral support.

Chained Husbands

A little more than 1,000 years ago, the beth din of a German rabbi, Rabbi Gershom "the Light of the Diaspora," instituted major reforms in Jewish marriage law. He forbade polygamy, and decreed that a woman cannot be divorced without her consent. These reforms have been accepted as law in all Ashkenazi communities, and in certain Sephardic ones as well.11

As a result, a man whose wife refuses to receive a get12 is also "anchored" to his marriage.13


A less common agunah is the woman whose husband has completely lost his sanity and is incapable of making the required sober-minded decision to grant a get.


Gittin 3a.


For example, in all areas of halachah pertaining to marriage and divorce, two eyewitnesses are required to verify a person's marital status. To establish a husband's demise, however, the rabbis ruled that the testimony of one witness is sufficient, even if it is based on hearsay—provided that the beth din is convinced by the testimony.


Talmud, Shabbat 56a.


There is debate between the medieval Talmudic commentators whether this divorce was a provisional one – going into effect only if the husband did not return – or whether it was a standard divorce, that required the couple to remarry upon the soldier's return.


Even supernatural powers were employed to assist agunot. Many a chassidic story revolves around a woman who approaches her Rebbe after her husband's disappearance, and the Rebbe miraculously identifying her husband's current location. See The Rebbe's Trance and On the Subject of Miracles for examples of such episodes.


Though beth dins today – ever since the discontinuation of the semichah method of rabbinical ordination more than 1,000 years ago – no longer have the authority to administer biblically mandated corporal punishment (Maimonides, Laws of Sanhedrin 16:2), this is an exception to the rule.


Maimonides, Laws of Divorce 2:20; see also Code of Jewish Law, Even Ha'ezer 154:21.


The Code of Jewish Law (ibid) goes so far as to suggest banning anyone from circumcising this individual's children!


The reason for this apparent conundrum: According to halachah the man must willfully divorce his wife. Since every Jew possesses a divine soul, it is his truest desire to follow all of G‑d's commandments—including the Torah obligation to follow the directives of the rabbinical courts. Though a particular individual may vocally protest and claim that he does not wish to follow the beth din's instructions, that is only because he has been "hijacked" by his ego and evil inclination, who are compelling him to utter nonsense that is not true to his essential desire. So beth din uses pressure – physical, emotional, social – to weaken the ego and evil inclination, until the person's statement – "I wish to divorce" – is in synch with his innermost desire to comply with G‑d's will.
The same logic can not be applied, however, in a situation where the beth din has never ruled that the man must divorce his wife. The rabbis then extended this rule to apply whenever non-Jews compel a man to give a get, unless it is done upon the direct orders of the beth din.


For more on this topic, see Does Jewish law forbid polygamy?


A recent Israeli survey revealed that there are a considerable amount of men who are in this sad predicament.


Nevertheless, the spotlight has always been on the female agunot because the men do have a loophole they can exercise in case of extreme need. When Rabbi Gershom enacted his decrees, he – or, according to other opinions, the rabbinical courts of the generation that followed Rabbi Gershom – included a caveat: under extenuating circumstances, one hundred rabbis from three different nations can issue a special ruling allowing a particular man to marry a second wife. (The diversity of the rabbis ensures that the hundred rabbis are not pressured to act in the husband's favor by a particular regime or community.) An instance where a woman refuses to comply with a beth din's directive to receive a get is considered an extenuating circumstance.
Now, though this is an arduous and time-consuming recourse, it is one that a female agunah does not have—because the prohibition against a woman marrying two men is biblical, and not subject to rabbinical modification.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Simcha Bart for Los Angeles July 14, 2016

Generally speaking, under such circumstances the Bet Din will not "force" the husband to give a Get. This does not mean the wife cannot request one, and perhaps with the concerted effort of rabbis - they would convince the husband to give the Get. Obviously, this needs to be determined on a case by case basis.

Anonymous Chicago July 3, 2016

What if husband is neither neglectful, repulsive or abusive? If there is an objective proof that this is the case:
1. He attends to her needs.
2. She is physically attracted to him
3. He as not been abusive to her. Reply

Moe Ginsburg March 30, 2015

Shalom Bayis It seems to me that this article glosses over the right of either spouse to seek shalom bayis, reconciliation, even over the objections of the other spouse. Torah Law gives the husband this right and Rabbeinu Gershom gives the wife this right. If either sincerely exercise it, even if the other spouse insists on a divorce, the spouse seeking reconciliation has the Torah right to hold out for shalom bayis. And in such a case there is no agunah situation despite a desire for a divorce by one of the spouses. Reply

Anonymous NY March 24, 2015

Agunah Problem in America Unfortunately this has become a real issue in many divorce proceedings. A large percentage of men use the GET as leverage in their divorce negotiations. In a normal and fair world, these men would be charged with extortion. Upto 2 years ago people would say to beat the man up but now the government is prosecuting a few good and heroic Rabbis who actually had the guts to do something about it. Instead of the government prosecutors trying to throw these good men in jail they should be trying to figure out a way to help these poor woman. True, some people will say that in some cases the woman are at fault, and yes, that may in fact be true. But in the case the government is trying, these husbands never gave child or spousal support (which is reason enough to force a GET), physically beat their wives and were in hiding to avoid having to free their wives with a GET. This is a problem that our entire community, Ashkenaz, Sefard, Hasidic and Modern Orthodox needs to come together! Reply

Anonymous toronto September 10, 2014

separate The Jewish people are in the position of an Agunah, separate and will continue to be separate till redemption takes place. They more than anyone else should understand the suffering of women those who are isolated and sometimes separateness is the needed to learn the Torah. Women may choose to identify with the people who are separate so as to share in their journey also. Reply

Anonymous Highland Park November 21, 2013

I agree. The Ketubah should be written in such a way as to say that if a couple divorces in civil court, it is as if the husband had willingly given the get and the woman had accepted it. Problem solved. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI July 28, 2011

The Agunah ANY Jewish man who refuses to give his wife a Get should either be put in jail and/or expelled from the Jewish community! Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA March 2, 2011

So, you think this may be a good reason.. Either to not get married in the Orthodox fashion or to get a pre-nuptual "get" agreement before the marriage? And some people wonder why Jews assimilate. Look no further. Reply

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