Breaking the chains
Breaking the chainsiStock


Q. What can be done to help the "agunah", the "chained woman" who can’t get a religious divorce?

A. From Talmudic times onwards, the rabbis have tried to ameliorate the position of Jewish women whose marriages have broken down in circumstances in which the husband will not or cannot give his wife a "get" (religious divorce).

The original problem was where the husband was unavailable (maybe he was overseas, maybe he was dead but his death could apparently not be proved).

After the Holocaust a great deal needed to be done to ease the lot of "agunot", "chained women" whose husbands were missing.

In recent times the more common situation was that of the woman whose husband refused to give her a "get", and the suffering which such women undergo is often extreme.

Rabbis are unable to sever the marital tie since it is the husband and wife who themselves entered the marriage and themselves have to divorce each other if reconciliation is not possible or desirable.

Amongst great rabbinic decisors who have tried to help is Rav Moshe Feinstein who sought ways of invalidating the original marriage. Sometimes this involves finding a mistake or misrepresentation in the marriage and/or the wedding procedure.

In some countries the secular law is able to help, not by forcing the couple to have a "get", since the giving and receiving of the "get" have to be voluntary, and with each party’s consent. If there is a pre-nuptial agreement the parties will have undertaken to refer marriage problems to a nominated rabbinic court. There is however a problem in that the status of the agreement might not be upheld by the legal system.

A woman who is in the situation of an "agunah" should obtain advice and guidance from a rabbi and a lawyer.

I should point out that though the problem generally affects the woman there are many times when it is the man who is refused a "get" by his ex-wife.


Q. Is it right for a chazan to be paid for conducting services on Shabbat?

A. Work is not allowed on Shabbat and one must not allow a servant to do Shabbat work.

The issue is whether a chazan is a servant, even if he gets a salary, and whether conducting a service is regarded as work.

The two questions are intertwined. From the technical point of view, leading the prayers cannot be deemed to be work. Otherwise none of us would be permitted to daven on Shabbat, and that would be ridiculous.

What about receiving a wage for officiating, even if no forbidden work is involved?

There is actually a rule against paying someone to carry out a non-forbidden act on Shabbat, e.g. acting as a watchman.

The Talmud (Pes. 50b) did not debate the issue of paying a chazan since the modern concept of chazanut had not yet arisen, but there is a suggestion that paying someone to translate the Torah reading will bring no blessing because it looks like wages for the Sabbath.

The Shulchan Aruch considers whether this extends to a chazan and says that a chazan should not be explicitly employed for leading the services on Shabbat "but some authorities allow it" (Orach Chayyim 306:5).

Rabbi Moshe Isserles adds that if the chazan is hired by the year or the month it is permitted as the weekdays are included and there are duties which his appointment requires of him throughout the year or month.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Applewas for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at