The Wisdom of a Classic Shul Rov
I couldn’t resist sharing this wonderful reminiscence of a father by his son. Rabbi Saul Berman penned this recently upon the occassion of his father’s,z”l,34th yahrzeit. It is published with permission of the author.
Rabbi Ephraim Berman, ZT”L, my father, studied as a young man in the Navorodok Yeshiva and then, later, spent many years learning at the Slabodka Yeshiva in Kovno where he came to know and befriend some of the leading figures of Slabodka and the mussar movement. He came to the United States in the late 1920s where he married, had four children, and, for more than forty years, served as the rav of a shul in Bedford- Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He was a member of the bais din of the Agudas HaRabbonim; and he published three sefarim: one on halacha and two on d’rush (all three are available at HebrewBooks.org). My father was active as a mesader gittin, many of which were done in our home, one of which is the subject of this reminiscence.
As a teenager in the 1950s, during my post-bar mitzvah years, I began to develop an interest in the procedures of gittin – their detailed rituals, their dramatic elements, their complicated halachot. My father, at the time, encouraged me to observe how the gittin were performed and to learn the halachot of kesivas haget and mesiras haget. Often he would, with the consent of the parties, allow me to sit in to observe the entire ritual at the dining room table. I knew which soferim my father preferred for the writing (after a while I even came to understand the variations in quality in the craft of the several soferim), and why he preferred some and not others for kesivas haget. I knew who my father preferred as edim to serve as legal witnesses to the get. I grew accustomed to the rhythm of the procedures and to the gentleness and warmth my father showed toward the divorcing couple – delicately but repeatedly trying to probe for the faint possibility of some last minute reconciliation – as he guided them through their get process.
One remarkable get stands out in my memory. From the start this one was unusual. I saw the dining room had been set up for a get so I asked my father whether I could sit in. He said I could not but that if I sat quietly in his study (which opened out into the dining room), he would not object; he admonished me, however, to remain completely silent. That was odd. Quite early, the young wife arrived, accompanied by her father. As the three of them sat there together, the father passed a piece of paper across the table (a check, perhaps?) to my father. That was doubly odd. The paper might well have been a payment but it was strange – usually the get was paid for at the end of the proceedings and not at the beginning; and typically it was the husband who paid the fee, not the wife. Soon my father’s favorite sofer arrived, accompanied by two edim, though I had never seen either of them before – they were both strapping young men who looked to me more like baseball players than like kosher edim. Eventually, the husband arrived. My father exchanged a few brief comments with him off on the side, and so the ritual began.
Everything started to move very rapidly: the final confirmation of the correctness of the parties’ names; the scripted exchanges to assure consent, the waiver of disclaimers; the designation of the sofer and the edim; the transfer of the writing materials. Even the sofer seemed to be writing more rapidly than was his pious style, albeit he retained his usual intense concentration so as to make sure the bill of divorcement would be error-free. The edim and the divorcing parties and the woman’s father sat silently; nor did my father call the parties aside, severally or together, as was his practice, to speak with them to comfort them or to urge reconciliation. Just silence, and the slight scratching of the quill until the writing was completed, the text reviewed, and the edim, somewhat clumsily, had signed the get. Rapid, pre-scripted, verbal exchanges were followed by the actual delivery by the husband to the wife of the get itself. Neither of them looked the other in the eye. The wife then handed the get back to my father for re-reading and for the official confirmation that she had received a get.
My father then wrote the petur for the wife, but instead of waiting for the husband’s petur likewise to be written, my father immediately delivered the petur to the now-divorced wife, whereupon she and her father, without a word, both scurried out of the house, in haste. My father then completed the petur for the husband and gave it to him while the sofer finished packing up his materials and walked out the front door. I thought it was all over and was about to get off my chair when I saw the husband, after slipping the petur into his inside jacket pocket, lean across the table and say something to my father. My father, nodding, pulled out the (check?) slip of paper the wife’s father had handed him earlier. As the edim deftly moved in on either of his sides, close to my father, my father took the piece of paper and tore it to shreds. In rapid succession, the husband lunged across the table at my father; the edim grabbed the husband by his arms and dragged him across the table and pinned him onto the floor as my father retreated to the rear of the room. The edim then lifted him off the floor, carried him to the front door and, summarily, threw him out onto the sidewalk. I watched through the living room window as the husband picked himself up, dusted himself off a bit, raised a fist back toward the house, and marched off down the street, defeated.
I did not believe, nor did I much understand, what I had just witnessed. When the edim left I asked my father to explain; and, so, he told me the following story: The couple had been married for less than a year; it was clear the relationship was not a good one; there were no children; there were no joint assets to divide. When the wife asked for a get, the husband said he would only give her a get if her father paid him $20,000 (which, at that time, was a considerable sum of money). The negotiations remained deadlocked for quite a while, so they agreed to consult with my father, who met with each side separately. He told the wife’s father to give him a check for the $20,000, but that the check, he was confident, would never be cashed. He then told the husband that he (my father) would get the check for the full amount from the father-in-law and that he (my father) would hold onto it until after the get was delivered. (My father was careful never explicitly to say he would convey the check to the husband.) The husband agreed to the terms. The rest I saw with my own eyes.
My father, ZT”L, had wanted me to see this procedure, and clearly he had wanted me to know about it. He and I spent many hours both then, and in later years, discussing the detailed halachic implications of what my father had done and what alternative procedures might eventually be developed to deal with this sort of agunah problem. I later came to understand that while he wanted me to learn well the halachos and the practices of gittin, he also wanted me to learn to appreciate a rav’s attendant moral responsibilities, about the need to take risks in the interests of justice, and about how it was the rav’s responsibility never to allow one party’s faithful adherence to halacha to be used against her or him as a lever in unscrupulous dealings. In action even more than in words my father tried to convey to his children the essence of the mussar of Torah.
I pray I have honored his life and his values with the actions in my own life, and that I have in some measure succeeded in conveying those values to my children, Rabbi Ephraim Berman’s grandchildren.