Dispensation of a Hundred Rabbis (“Heter Meah Rabbonim”)

Margaret E. Retter, Esq.

A “Heter Meah Rabbanim”, which is literally translated as, “Dispensation by a Hundred Rabbis”, is a license, issued by a Beis Din (Jewish Court) permitting a Jewish man to enter into a religious polygamous marriage, when the Beis Bin (Jewish  Court) determines, that the wife is either unable or unwilling to accept a Get (Jewish divorce) which, according to Jewish law (Halacha), the husband must give and the wife must accept.


In Jewish law, the concept of polygamy only relates to a man, who is a married man and who purports to marry a second wife while still married to the first[1].

According to Biblical (Pentateuchal) Jewish law[2], this second marriage is valid and can only be dissolved by death or divorce[3]. Permitted according to Biblical law, polygamy was practiced throughout the Talmudic period and thereafter until the tenth century. Already in Amoraic times[4], however, the practice was frowned upon by the Sages, who prescribed that polygamy was permissible only if the husband was capable of properly fulfilling his marital duties towards each of his wives. The opinion was also expressed that if a man takes a second wife, he must divorce his first wife if she so demands and pay her the amount of the ketubah[5] (marriage contract). Similarly, according to Talmudic law, a man may not take a second wife, if he has specifically promised her not to do so in the ketubah.

Taking a second wife is also forbidden wherever “monogamy is the local custom, since such custom is deemed an implied condition of the marriage, it being presumed that the wife only wishes to marry in accordance with local custom[6].” Generally, the husband can only be released from this restriction with his wife’s consent[7].

The general principle of Jewish law regarding women, is that “a woman cannot be the wife of two men”. In relation to a wife, the term “kiddushin[8]” (consecrated) implies, her exclusive dedication to her husband. There can, therefore, be no kiddushin between her and another man while the first marriage exists, and a purported marriage to another man is totally invalid.

A)   “Herem” of Rabbeinu Gershom – Ban of Rabbi Gershom

1)    Substance of the Ban –

In the course of time and for varying reasons, it became apparent that there was a need for the enactment of a general prohibition against polygamy, independent of the husband’s undertaking to this effect. Among the earliest legislative enactments were those of Rabbeinu Gershom b. Judah, who lived in Germany at the end of the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh centuries C.E. and was the recognized leader of German Jewry and the neighboring Jewish center[9]. Two of the well known enactments[10] of R. Gershom are in the area of Family Law:

(i)    The first enactment prohibits any Jewish man from entering into a polygamous marriage. Accordingly, relying on the principle of endeavoring to prevent matrimonial strife, Rabbeinu Gershom and his court enacted the takkanah[11] prohibited polygamy[12] and subjected those who practiced it to excommunication; (“Herem”). The prohibition could be lifted only in certain circumstances and with the consent of one-hundred rabbis from three different countries[13].

(ii)    The second enactment, which complemented the first, placed a ban against anyone who divorced his wife without her consent. Under Biblical law, a man could divorce his wife against her will, although it was considered improper to do so unless he “has found something obnoxious about her[14]. R. Gershom enacted legislation “prohibiting the divorcing of a wife against her will, such divorce being a nullity[15].

Therefore, these two takkanot of R. Gershom, taken in tandem prevented a husband from divorcing his wife against her will, and consequently marrying another. However, the husband was allowed to marry a second wife, where the first wife was incompetent and unable to accept a get, if the husband obtained the permission of 100 rabbis. Similarly, if a wife refused to accept a Get, and the husband had a right to divorce her, as in the case of a “rebellious wife”, (“Moredet[16]), it was held, that the husband could divorce her against her will.

During the first half of the Middle Age, European Jews, permitted their Jewish citizens to exercise jurisdiction over themselves in the areas of marriage and divorce and therefore, all areas pertaining to marriage and divorce were decided by Halacha in Beis Din, the reason being that Christianity did not recognize divorce.

With emancipation and the conferral of the full complement of civil rights upon Jews, authority over matters of marriage and divorce were no longer permitted to remain in the exclusive domain of rabbinic authority. Thus, a marriage valid in term of religious law might be terminated by the divorce decree of a secular court. Although of unquestionable validity for purposes of civil law, such divorce decrees are totally devoid of significance insofar as religious law is concerned[17].

When both marriage partners profess allegiance to Jewish law and both desire to be free to enter into a new marital relationship, the parties must cooperate in the execution of a Get, religious divorce; thereby satisfying the requirements of Jewish law.

It must be noted, that Halacha never sanctioned “divorce on demand” by either party, nor does it do so today. Currently, for all practical purposes, neither side in a marital dispute is entitled to a Get unless there exist very specific Halachic grounds. To procure a Get without mutual consent, a litigation process must be undertaken through a “Din Torah”, (a proceeding in Jewish Court-Beis Din), and the Beis Din u;timately rules whether the Get may be written and delivered, or whether a Get is executed in conjunction with the Heter Meah Rabbonim, which perforce stigmatizes the wife as “incompetent”, or a as a “moredet[18], a rebellious wife.

“Heter Meah Rabbonim”

“Heter Get”[19]

Due to acrimony that occurs today in many family and matrimonial cases, numerous problems arise as a result of the refusal of the husband to execute a get. Although it is true that by virtue of R. Gershom’s enactments, no religious divorce may be effected without the wife’s consent to accept the get, and she can therefore prevent his remarriage if she refuse to accept a get, in reality, it is often easier to secure her compliance rather than that of the recalcitrant husband. If the wife does not accept the get, rabbinic law has provided that in very limited circumstances, a man may marry a second wife even subsequent to the ban of on polygamy by R. Gershom. The Beis Din can issue the get the wife against her will if:

(a)    she is legally insane, and cannot accept the Get;

(b)    she is incompetent to accept a Get, e.g. she is comatose, and who according to Halacha does not have the prerequisite intent to accept the get; or

(c)    if the husband is mandated to divorce his wife according to Jewish law, and if the wife is required to accept the Get according to Halacha, and she refuses to do so, e.g. she if considered a “moredet”, a rebellious wife.

The condition precedent of the issuance of his Heter-Get so as to ameliorate the hardship to a man to remain unmarried, is the issuance of the Heter by 100 Rabbis (i) located in three different countries, (or some rabbis say, three different jurisdictions or state/districts;  (ii) who find that the husband is entitled to divorce his wife according to Jewish law, but owing to the wife’s incapacity to accept the get, the polygamy edict is waived ; and (iii) who find that the wife refuses to accept the Get although according to Jewish law, is mandated to do so.

However, R. Gershom’s Heter can only be issued if the 100 rabbis located in “three different countries, investigate the fact of the wife’s incapacity or unwillingness to accept the Get, and find that: (a) she is mentally incapacitated and, therefore, unable to accept the get, they must investigate the matter by meeting the wife, her doctors and/or therapists, reviewing her medical records, etc. and convincing themselves that she, is in fact, mentally incompetent unable to accept the get.  For example, if by speaking to her psychologist, the rabbit are informed that with proper medication, her mental status can return to her prior state, prudence would dicated that the issuance of the Heter not be issued; (b) He is halachically mandated to divorce her, i.e. she is a “moredet”. Simply, the Beis Din must conduct an investigation to determine if the allegations are true, and whether the husband is halachically permitted to give her a Get. If one of the grounds for issuing the Heter is, that she is considered a “moredet”, the Beis Din must issue a document (the Heter) declaring the specific improprieties of the woman and explaining their (Beis Din’s) reasons and necessity for issuing the Get. Although this document is expected to be kept confidential, it often times falls into the hands of the public, causing the woman embarrassment, shame, and ostracism within her community, especially, since it requires 100 rabbinical signatures; and © she refuses to accept a get in her apparent attempt to block the husband from remarrying, and yet she is legally capable of accepting the get, the Beis Din should investigate this matter as well.

In principle, when the Beis Din investigates and researches the basis for the issuance of the Heter, the Beis Din should conduct a hearing, with notice to both parties and their representatives to appear so that a fair and impartial investigation can be conducted. The parties should have the opportunity to be adequately represented and present witnesses and evidence on their behalf.

If the Heter was issued due to mental disability, the husband is mandated to deposit the Get in the Beis Din or deliver it to her upon her recovery. The husband is still obligated to support the wife under the Ketuba under these circumstances.

If the Heter is issued due to the fact that the wife is a “moredet”, a rebellious wife, or that she refuses to accept the Get, the husband must still deposit the Get in the Beis Din, but he is not obligated to support her under the Ketuba.

In practical terms, when dealing with a community based Beis Din, whose integrity is of the highest caliber, the Heter is actually prepared and issued by three prominent rabbis, (who are reputable, notable, and well-respected) compromising a Beis Din, and 97 “rubber-stamped signatures. The theory behind this practice, is that the three rabbis who have complied with both the procedural and substantive due process safeguards recited above, and who have dutifully and completely investigated the source of the information, and have concluded that there must be obvious grounds for the Heter, the 97 rabbis have the right to rely on the first three signatures.

Historically, the Heter Meah Rabbonim was very rarely issued, and only under extreme circumstances. In fact, there are and even today, many rabbis who pride themselves in the fact, that they have never or rarely participated hi the issuance of the Heter Meah Rabbonim.

The Herem of R. Gershom was meant to provide equality for women and to place them on “equal footing” with men, by prohibiting polygamous marriages, and by not permitting men to divorce their wives against their will. The enactments were intended to bring harmony and tranquility to Jewish marriages.

The Heter Meah Rabbonim was intended to provide the man with the opportunity to remarry, if the wife was in any way incapacitated. The intent in enacting the Heter was not provide pain and embarrassment to the wife, but rather to allow a husband whose wife was incapacitated to take a second wife.


In this writer’s opinion, that if the grounds for issuing the Heter are due to the woman allegedly being considered a rebellious wife, or allegedly refusing to accept the Get; before the drastic measure of executing a Heter by the Beis Din is contemplated against woman, due process should be afforded the woman. For example:  (i) she should be given sufficient notice that a Heter will be issued against her consent; (ii) she should be provided with a draft copy of the Heter, and/or the substantive portions thereto in English or in her native language prior to its issuance, so that she may have the opportunity to respondent and rebut the allegations; (iii) she should be provided with the source(s) of who made the allegations against her in the Heter, so that she may face her accuser(s); (iv) she should be given opportunity to appear in Beis Din with counsel, at an evidentiary hearing, and be given the opportunity:

a)     to respond to the allegations in person;

b)    present witnesses or any other exculpatory evidence;

c)     cross-examine witnesses;

d)    or, if not possible for her to appear in person, she should have the opportunity to respond in writing;

e)    she should be given a copy of all the names of the rabbits and a copy of their signatures so that she has the knowledge of all those who conducted the investigation preceding the issuance of the Heter.

Furthermore, any attorney involved in representing a woman in a family court proceeding, and who is informed that she has a simultaneous case in Beis Din should:

1)    Notify the particular Beis Din in writing of the attorney’s representation by certified mail (RRR – “return recept-requested”);

2)    Ask the client to see all summons and notice(s) to appear in Beis Din; if the Notices are not in English, demand, in writing that the attorney be provided with a translation, (RRR);

3)    Find out in which Beis Din the woman must appear;

4)    Advise the woman that she is not mandated to appear in the Beis Din that her husband chose and that she is being summoned, advise her that she has the right to choose the Beis Din of her choice:

*** 5) Advise the Beis Din by certified mail, RRR, that sent the original summons that your client fully intends to appear at a Beis Din hearing but chooses a different Beis Din, and inform them of the name the Beis Din that the woman has chose.

*** 6) Send a letter to the Beis Din of the woman’s choice and state emphatically, that she if ully willing and able to comply with a: aspect ………………..halacha and willing to appear at a Beis Din hearing when summoned. Also send a copy of the letter to the original Beis Din who sent the woman the original summons (Hazmana)

7)    Document in writing, each and every correspondence, telephone call, and conversation with anyone involved in the Beis Din process;

8)    Instruct the Beis Din to send you copies of all correspondences sent to your client, as you are her attorney;

9)    Instruct the Beis Din in writing not to communicate in any manner with your client in your absence;

10) Instruct your client not to speak to any member of Beis Din in your absence and without your knowledge;

11) Instruct your client not to sign any paper or document without your knowledge before a Beis Din or a Rabbi;

12) It is also a good idea to send copies of all your correspondences to the Chief Rabbi of the Beis Din in Tel Aviv, Rabbi Dahane. This should be done in case, a Heter ever finds its way to Israel for signatures. The Chief Rabbi will then be apprised of  your client’s willingness to submit and comply with all Halachic procedures and in all aspect of the Beis Din process.

As stated before, the Heter-Meah Rabbonim is an extraordinary remedy, which most Rabbis are loathe to issue. However, it is always best, to be aware of all the possibility pitfalls your client may face and protect her as best as you can.


[1]Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. IV, p. 986.

[2] Kiddushin 7a; Talmudic Bavli, and Rashi.

[3] Ibid,. citing (Kid. 7a and Rashi).

[4]Amora, pl, Amoraim – Rabbis of the Talmudic period (220 C.E. to end of the fifth century C.E.)

[5] Ketubah – The marriage contract presented to the bride by the groom in which are enumerated all the husbandly obligations. Encyclopedia Judaica, Vo. IV, p. 986.

[6] Ibid., quoting Sh.Ar., EH 1:9; Beit Shmuel, 20; Helkat Mehokek, 15, 76:8.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kiddushin (lit., “consecration”). A sacred relationship, whereby the wife is consecrated to her husband and forbidden to all others during the duration of the marriage. Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11, p. 1027. The legal act of marriage which may be carried out in one of three ways: by the groom’s presentation of an object of value to the bride, by formal writ, or by cohabitation. Nowadays, the first-mentioned is practiced exclusively. Studies in Jewish Jurisprudence, Vol. V., Divorce in Jewish Law and Life, Irwin H. Haut, (1983), p. 146.

[9] Rabbeinu (“Our Rabbi”) Gershom, is described as “the light of the exile, whose words sustain us all…”, and all the inhabitants of the disciples. The appellation “light of the exile” seems especially connected with Reuben Gershom’s legislative activity, as indicated by reference to his as “the great luminary…, who legislated for the entire diaspora …and who enlightened the eyes of the exile with his enactments”. (Reuben Simcha, Mahzor Vitry #380 (p.442). Early traditions attribute to Reuben Gershom a long series of enactments in various fields of law: civil, criminal, and public law, rules of procedure, execution of judgments, and the regulation of religious, moral, and social life. Jewish Law, History, Sources, Principles, Ha-Mishpat Ha-Ivri, (the Legal Sources of Jewish Law) by Menachem Elon; translated from the Hebrew by Bernard Auerbach and Melvin Sykes, Vol. II, p. 783-784.

[10]R.Gershom’s enactments are sometime called “the enactments of the communities” … This is an early example of the interrelation between legislation by halachic authorities and communal legislation. Elon, Vol. II, p. 784, note 12.

[11] A takkah is a directive enacted by halachic (legal) scholars, or other competent body, enjoying the force of law. Ahas its creative source in takkanah serves as the motivated addition of a new norm to the overall halachic system, whereas, a law originating from construing biblical passage or other existing law, serves to reveal the concealed content or existing law within the aforementioned system. Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. XV, p. 714.

[12] As early as the Talmudic period, there was Sages who ruled that “whoever marries an additional wife must divorce his first wife, and pay her Ketuba (whatever monetary sums of other items which were promised under the marriage contract); and it was customary in the Post-Talmudic period, for a husband to promise in the Ketuba, that he would not take an additional wife. However, in the absence of such a promise, polygamy was permitted and was practiced in Jewish family life.

[13] The prohibition could be lifted with the permission/dispensation of 100 rabbis. (“Heter Meah Rabbonim”). This subject which is the topic of this article will be discussed in greater detail within this article.

[14] Deuteronomy 24: 1-2.

[15] Enactments of R. Gershom, quoted in Resp. Maharam of Rottenburg, ed. Prague, end of collection (p. 154c et seq). The language used implies that the enactment is not simply a prohibition, but that a divorce given against the will of the wife is invalid, notwithstanding its validity under Biblical law. However, most commentators interpreted even this language as meaning, that the divorce, once given, is valid in accordance with Biblical law.

[16]Moredet” – a “rebellious wife” – a catchall phrase ranging from an adulterous to a woman who fails to observe Halacha in a significant manner, her failure to respond or appear in Beis Din without a halachic reason.

[17] A Suggestion Antenuptial Agreement: A Proposal in Wake of Avitzur, Rabbi J. David Bleich; www.jlaw.com

[18] “Moredet” – Rebellious wife – A rebellious wife is considered to be a moredet if she knowingly violates Torah law or conventional morality, and/or she encourages her husband to do so.

[19] A “Get” given by the husband to the wife or deposited in the Beis Din as a result of her alleged refusal to accept the “get” and with “dispensation of 100 rabbis”.


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