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Monday, September 25, 2017

Those who have visited both Sephardic and Ashkenazic batei knesset know that there are some differences in their content and style. While the core is the same there are some noticeable differences. What about a get, a Jewish divorce document? Are there differences between a Sephardic get and an Ashkenazic get? If so, are they significant?

The short answer is that there are differences. Hacham Ovadia Yosef insisted that a get be done in accordance with Sephardic custom for a separating Sephardic couple. Hacham Ovadia was so insistent on this that as a young dayan (rabbinic judge) he even returned a get sent to him from Cincinnati by the venerable Rav Eliezer Silver, then the head of the Agudath HaRabbanim of the United States and Canada (as recorded in Teshuvot Yabia Omer). The young Rav Ovadia Yosef standing up and holding firm against this grand elder of the American rabbinate was no small matter. Rav Silver had written an Ashkenazic get for a Sephardic couple.

Hacham Ovadia took this matter very seriously. He relates (also in Teshuvot Yabia Omer) that he even resigned from the Petah Tikvah when his Ashkenazic colleagues refused to conclude a get conducted in accordance with Sephardic custom for a Sephardic couple. Hacham Ovadia returned to his seat on the court after he was issued an apology.

Finally, in Tamuz 5753 (July 1993), when Rav Yosef certified me to administer gittin, he issued me a stern warning to oversee gittin for Sephardic Jews in accordance with Sephardic practice. Hacham Ovadia’s firm insistence still resounds in my ear.

The differences, though, are relatively minor. The core process remains the same. Many of the differences lie in regard to style of transliteration of foreign names into Hebrew characters (all of the person’s names are mentioned in a get, no matter the language from which the name stems). For example, Sephardim use a gimel with a slash to signify the letter J, whereas Ashkenazic Jews use either a combination of the letters daled zayin or daled zayin shin.

Other differences concern the shape of the letters written in the get. Ashkenazic Jews follow the specifications of the Beit Yosef whereas Sephardic Jews follow that of the Ari HaKadosh (Rav Yitzchak Luria). Some of the letters, such as the ayin and tzadi, are written differently according to these two approaches. Hacham Ovadia, though, in Teshuvot Yabia Omer notes that both of these scripts enjoy halachic validity.

Finally, the text of the Sephardic get differs slightly from the Ashkenazic get. For example, the word piturin, from the phrase “get piturin” (meaning document of termination; this is Targum Onkelos’ version of the Torah phrase Sefer Keritut), is written with the letter yod after the letter peh in a Sephardic get, but is omitted in an Ashkenazic get.

Despite the variety differences between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic get, one thing is absolutely clear—the differences are subtle and nuanced. The fundamentals remain the same.

The implications of this insight are profound. First, it bears witness to both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews punctiliously preserving the mesorah (tradition). Despite a millennium of vast geographic separation between the two groups, when the communities reunited in the past 70 years we have found that we have remained in essence the same. The legacy that prior generations have bequeathed us must, as told in the Choni HaMa’agel story (Ta’anit 19), be preserved by our generation for the future. Just as our forbearers steadfastly hewed to the mesorah, so must we.

Perhaps even more significant, the fact that the Sephardic and Ashkenazic gittin are nearly identical means that an Ashkenazic get is kosher for a Sephardic Jew and vice versa. This, in turn, is what permits Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews’ marriage to one another. Had either group deviated from the mesorah, our Gittin would be invalid according to the others’ standards and each would have, heaven forfend, regarded the other as illegitimate.

Sephardim and Ashkenazim do indeed slightly vary in their respective practices. However, in the bigger picture, these differences amount only to small variations on a much larger and grander theme. We remain am echad, one nation, following Hashem and His holy Torah, which binds us and maintains us as a nation, unified in our commitment to our beloved Creator.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

 Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a Rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a Dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.