Caselle, a small village near the historic city of Padua in northern Italy, was home to a small Jewish population of no particular note. We would probably know little about this sleepy hamlet were it not for a minor event that turned into a major drama.

The Event

Chaim Morelo, one of the community’s leaders, was a popular fellow, and his home was a hub of comings and goings and gatherings.

Two days before Rosh Hashanah, 1710,1 Yedidya Luba, a well known jocular character, walked into Chaim’s home. Present at that time were two men, Tuvia and Moshe, along with Chaim’s widowed daughter, Gotla.

Yedidya Luba chatted with Gotla, asking (among other things) whether she would be attending the pre-Rosh Hashanah Selichot service.

As they spoke, Gotla noticed that Yedidya was holding two rings—one with a beautiful diamond, the other made from horse hair.

Gotla asked him to show her the ring.

Presumably as a joke, Yedidya took the ring made from horse hair, put it on her finger, and uttered some words to her. This took place in front of Moshe and Tuvia.

Moshe turned to Yedidya and said, “You know, you’re lucky you gave her a ring that has no value. Had it been worth something, you’d be considered married to her, since we have two witnesses here, Tuvia and me.”

Moshe’s comment turned out to be wrong, as the horse hair ring did have sufficient value to be valid for the purposes of affecting betrothal.

Talk of the incident circulated among the community and eventually became known to the local rabbis.

They realized that this could be a serious issue with far-reaching ramifications.

Although the two had not gone ahead with a full marriage ceremony, the fact that he had given her a ring could qualify as betrothal, which is almost identical to marriage from a halachic standpoint.

If this were the case, should Gotla ever wish to remarry, she would need a divorce from Yedidya.

The Testimonies

After the holiday season, the local rabbis convened a court to examine the matter.

Yedidya and Gotla both claimed it was nothing more than a joke. Yedidya was known as a jokester. The whole thing, they claimed, was clearly in jest.

Moreover, they argued, Yedidya was already married, and it was forbidden by Jewish custom for him to marry a second woman. Obviously, he didn't mean it seriously.

For her part, Gotla testified that Yedidya had merely said humorous things after putting the ring on her finger, and he never pronounced the proper Hebrew formula stating that he was betrothing her “according to the law of Moses and Israel.”

The court summoned Moshe and Tuvia to hear their versions of events, which turned out to be somewhat different.

Moshe testified that he heard Yedidya make the full appropriate statement of betrothal when placing the ring on Gotla’s finger. According to him, this act met all the requirements of a kosher wedding, as it was duly observed by two valid witnesses, himself and Tuvia.

Tuvia, on the other hand, had no recollection of any such serious statement, although he did recall Yedidya saying a few words which were met with laughter.

Does It Matter If It Was a Joke?

The court had two major issues to contend with. The first was whether or not betrothal had taken place.

On the one hand, it seemed rather obvious that it was intended as a prank. On the other hand, halacha does not always read into a person’s intentions—which are invisible to all—but only his actual actions and words.

In his glosses to the Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Moshe Isserles ruled that if a woman agrees to be betrothed and throws away the betrothal object immediately after receiving it, claiming that she never had any intention of accepting it, we regard her as duly betrothed.2 She is judged by her actions alone, not what we believe to be her intentions at the time.

As such, if it could be substantiated that Yedidya had indeed carried out the act of betrothal, his intentions may not matter.

Were There Two Witnesses?

The second consideration was whether the supposed act of betrothal had two witnesses, which is a basic requirement for it to be valid.

Moshe claimed that there were two witnesses, but Tuvia did not remember hearing the betrothal formula. Could he be considered a witness? The rabbis cited a ruling from an important earlier halachic authority, Rabbi Shlomo ibn Aderet (Rashba), that in order to be considered a valid witness for a wedding, the individual must have complete knowledge of what took place, including hearing the formula said.3

Since Tuvia could not attest to hearing the formula, there would be only one witness.

In that case, we have the emphatic ruling of Maimonides and many other major halachic authorities who say that it is regarded as if nothing happened and no divorce is necessary.

Some halachic greats, however, such as Rabbi Eliezer of Metz and Rabbi Moshe of Coucy, are more stringent and require a divorce even if there is only one kosher witness.4

In the Code of Jewish Law, Rabbi Yosef Karo rules that no divorce is needed,5 but Rabbi Moshe Isserles adopts the more stringent view as a precaution.6

Furthermore, some argued that since Tuvia could not categorically state that the formula was not said, perhaps he could indeed be counted as a second witness.

The Inconclusive Verdict

After lengthy deliberation, the majority of the Caselle rabbis determined that the marriage was not valid and no divorce was required.

Nevertheless, since some (albeit a minority) objected to the lenient ruling, the Caselle court decided to consult the beit din in Padua, a much larger and more prestigious Jewish community.

While the court in Padua, led by Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kohen, didn't agree with all of the reasoning of the rabbis of Caselle, they did concur with the final verdict.

Rabbi Kohen was adamant that without two valid witnesses there is nothing to discuss. His colleague Shmuel David Otilengi added that since all present agreed that the act was meant frivolously, there is no reason to treat the matter seriously.

The Controversy Goes Viral

The story could have ended here, but the minority rabbi in Caselle pressed his case. His argument was that since Tuvia admitted to being present and didn’t contradict Moshe’s account of the proper formula being said, they should be regarded as two valid witnesses.

Although Rabbi Kohen defended his position, the dispute quickly spread across Italy and beyond. Many of the greatest rabbis of the age got involved.

Great Rabbis on Both Sides

Rabbi Yosef ben Emmanuel Ergas, rabbi of Pisa and Leghorn as well as a great kabbalist, wrote a long letter arguing that no divorce was needed.

After receiving a response from a rabbi who disagreed with him, he wrote two more letters defending his position. Rabbi Ergas made the powerful point that if we are going to regard Tuvia as a valid witness, we also have to accept his testimony that the whole matter was a farce. He published his exchange of letters in his book, Divrei Yosef.

Rabbi Ergas was particularly insistent that it is wrong to require a divorce if unnecessary.

Other rabbis were vociferous on the other side of the argument. Scholars from the cities of Lugo and Ancona, both in Italy, wrote lengthy letters questioning the lenient position.

The famed Rabbi Zvi Ashkenazi of Amsterdam also sided with the stringent camp,7 as did the brilliant but controversial scholar Rabbi Moshe Chagiz, who sent forceful letters to many rabbis protesting what he considered a lax ruling.

Ultimately, the local court accepted the lenient view, and Gotla was allowed to get on with her life without any further ado.

While things ended smoothly for her, the complexities of this case—and the mounds of scholarly essays and letters it spawned—have demonstrated that pretending to get married is no joking matter.