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Legal-Religious Status of the Moredet (Rebellious Wife)

by Tirzah Meacham (leBeit Yoreh)

A moredet is defined as a married woman who refuses to have sexual relations with her husband (the most normal case), or refuses to do the assigned work of the wife (Mishnah Ketubbot 5:5), a betrothed girl or woman whose set time for marriage has arrived and who refuses to marry, or a yevamah who refuses to undergo yibbum (levirate marriage) with the yavam (levir). The cases of the married woman refusing sexual relations and the yevamah refusing yibbum demonstrate that the legal concept of a married woman includes the idea that she has given ongoing and permanent consent to sexual relations and that refusal thus constitutes rebellion. In the case of delaying the marriage date, contractual issues may be at stake. It is possible that betrothal was arranged years before and was made dependent upon the appearance of two pubic hairs or upon a given date. Normally, a virgin is given twelve months to prepare her trousseau from the time that the conditions are agreed upon. A widow or a divorcée generally receives thirty days because it is assumed that her trousseau is more or less in order. These times are given when no contract is written, but if a contract specifies the date, that date is binding and whoever delays is in the category of mored/moredet. If the girl is still a minor, ketannah, she or her father can request a delay in the marriage date until the time two pubic hairs appear. After two pubic hairs appear and the date has arrived, she can have a maximum of only thirty more days because the appearance of the pubic hairs constitutes the man’s request for her (Rambam, Ishut 10:16). The man can, nevertheless, insist on the marriage prior to the appearance of two pubic hairs but it is not considered appropriate to do so. In the case of a marriage arranged by a guardian, the guardian is not allowed to request a delay (Shulhan Arukh, E.H. 56:4 and commentators). A man is given the same amount of time to prepare for the wedding meal, the marriage and living arrangements and to establish a livelihood. There is a dispute as to whether a never-married man has the same twelve months as a virgin if he is marrying a widow who has thirty days or whether, similarly, a man who has been married previously is given twelve months if he is marrying a virgin (BT Ketubbot 57ab). If one of the parties becomes ill and cannot be married, the groom is not obligated to support the bride-to-be. If, however, there is no compelling reason for the delay, and the groom is responsible, he must assume the obligation of support (Rambam, Ishut 10:18–19).

The married woman who refuses to have sexual relations with her husband can be declared a moredet even during the time that she is unable to have sexual relations, i.e., while she is ill or ritually impure due to menstruation. In cases where the refusal preceded the actual circumstance in which it was impossible for her to have sexual relations (Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 1:2 59a, BT Ketubbot 63a, Rambam, Ishut 14:11) the time when she could not have relations is also included. Part of the reasoning in this process is that it is considered more difficult for the man to forgo sexual relations than it is for the woman. Among the proofs given for this is that the man is willing to pay a prostitute for sexual relations; therefore the moredet is fined more than the mored (BT Ketubbot 64b). Despite the fact that a woman’s right to sexual relations (onah) is guaranteed, the quality is not. It also appears as if euphemistic language is being used by putting the right for sexual relations on the woman, as if such things were below the moral plane of the male, but the sages were willing to penalize her more stringently because the man has greater pain if denied sexual relations. If she is not performing the household work due to illness, she cannot be considered a moredet.

It must be noted that throughout the medieval period some poskim (decisors) maintained that yibbum took precedence and the resulting legal decisions were more problematic for the woman. Other poskim held that halizah took precedence and the woman was often able to have halizah, though frequently with a loss of her ketubbah or through a bribe paid to the yavam.

The first stage of rebelliousness is to have a “letter of rebellion” (iggeret mered) issued by the court. Two versions of the letter exist, one of which allows the man to marry another woman while the moredet ages (Shulhan Arukh, E.H. 77:2). The court asks for clarifications for her refusal. If she says that he is repulsive to her and that she cannot stand having sexual relations with him but wants him to divorce her and she wants to claim her ketubbah, there is suspicion that she is interested in another man and is simply making that claim to be free from her husband. If, however, she is willing to forgo her ketubbah and wants to be divorced because he is repulsive to her, she is not considered a moredet and he can be compelled to divorce her without a ketubbah (Rambam, Ishut 14:8). The European poskim were more suspicious that she had “her eye on another” even in this case and were less willing to compel the man to divorce her. If she is refusing to have sexual relations because she wants to cause him pain or as an act of revenge, agents from the court are sent to warn her that she will lose her ketubbah no matter how large it is. If she persists, her rebellion is announced in synagogues and study houses every day for four weeks, including the Sabbath, in order to shame her. The agents return to her to see if she has changed her mind. If she has not changed her mind, she will lose her entire ketubbah but is not divorced for twelve full months, during which time she receives no maintenance. If she changes her mind during the twelve months with the ketubbah which has been reduced by seven dinars per week, she can return to him but after the twelve months if he desires to remain married to her, he must write her a new ketubbah. When she is divorced after the twelve months without her ketubbah, she is obligated to return to him all of his goods, but if she took some of his property when she left, the court does not remove it from her but neither does it gives her any of his property if she did not take it herself. The husband need not return to her any money which he lost on her properties for which he accepted financial responsibilities (zon barzel) but she is allowed to take whatever remained in her possession (nikhsei melog [usufruct]). If she can justify why he is repulsive to her (for example, that he is not a righteous person or that he wastes all his money, etc.), according to a geonic decree (dina de-metivta) the husband must return to her everything that she brought into the marriage (her dowry [nedunya]) (Shulhan Arukh, E.H. 77:3; Isserles). Other opinions exist about what the husband is obligated to return to her in this case. He is not forced to divorce her nor is she forced to live with him. The main discussions in the medieval period relate to the effect of the decrees attributed to Rabbenu Gershom concerning divorcing a woman against her will and whether a man can have more than one wife.

If the betrothed woman rebels because she does not wish to be married to him, the man can divorce her against her will or marry another woman because “she does not have the power to leave him anchored/chained forever” (ibid. Isserles). This is in direct contrast to the man’s ability to leave a woman chained to him forever once he denies her a get.

A man can be rebellious in reference to his wife by denying her sexual relations because he hates her. He is obligated to add to her ketubbah three dinars per week, that is, less than half of what is taken away from her ketubbah when she is considered a moredet. The inequality is obvious. He is transgressing a negative prohibition, lav, by doing so and if she desires, the court can force him to divorce her immediately and pay her ketubbah. Otherwise her ketubbah simply increases in value (Shulhan Arukh, E. H. 77:1). Most of the European medieval authorities do not hold that he can be forced to divorce her (Encyclopedia Talmudit, Gerushin 421), some because of the suspicion that she has “cast her eyes on another.” The man who married a minor girl with her guardian’s consent but against the will of the girl can be forced to divorce her because she never expressed any consent.

If the yevamah is confronted with a yavam who has leprosy, the court accepts her claim to force him to perform halizah on the basis of BT Ketubbot 77a (Rashi, Tosafot, Ramban, Nemukei Yosef [Joseph Habiba, fifteenth-century Spain] to BT Yevamot 39b). Just as a forced get is invalid, so, too, is a forced halizah, particularly for those who consider that the precept of yibbum precedes the precept of halizah (Ritba, Yom Tov b. Abraham Ishbili). And there are those who hold the middle position, i.e., he is prevented from yibbum but is not forced to perform halizah, leaving her unable to marry. If the yavam is not a leper and the yevamah does not want to undergo yibbum, there are several different positions among the medieval authorities: 1) he cannot be forced to perform halizah and if he does, it is considered invalid (Mordecai [Mordecai b. Hillel ha-Kohen, 1240?–1298], Yevamot 4:31); 2) If the yevamah does not desire to undergo yibbum, he is given good counsel that he perform halizah, or he may be tricked into it or induced to perform halizah by payment; but if he refuses, he may be forced to do so although the preference is not to use physical force. This holds for those who believe that the precept of halizah is primary (Halakhot Gedolot, Yibbum ve-halizah); 3) If he does not desire to perform yibbum, even though that precept has precedence over halizah, he is forced to perform halizah, but if she does not desire to undergo yibbum, she is considered a moredet and loses her ketubbah (Rambam, Yibbum 2:10); 4) Even though normally he is not forced to perform halizah, if the yevamah does not wish to undergo yibbum, he is forced to perform halizah by a decree of the geonim (Responsa of R. Isaiah Di Trani [Italy, d. c. 1280] 59); 5). Even if the precept of halizah takes precedence, if the yavam is suspect in his intentions in fulfilling the mitzvah, he is forced to perform halizah even though both desire to perform yibbum; but if he is not suspect, he cannot be forced to perform halizah (Tosafot Yevamot 39b in the name of Rabbenu Tam). For those who accept that the precept of yibbum takes precedence, even if it is known that he is not performing yibbum with the correct intentions, he is not forced to perform halizah (Shulhan Arukh, E.H. 165:1, Isserles). Apparently later in Ashkenaz, France and Russia it became customary to force halizah.

In situations where the woman does not want to move to another place with her husband and does not want to give up her ketubbah, she may be treated as a moredet (Rambam, Ishut 13:17; Shulhan Arukh E.H. 75). This holds if he desires to move to Israel.

We can see in the institution of moredet that different standards were applied to men and women, putting women at a legal disadvantage in nearly every aspect of legal interpretation. There was hesitancy to force the man to accept halizah. In order that she submit to the desire of the man to perform yibbum, financial pressure was applied to the woman by threatening the loss of her ketubbah. The man’s sexual distress was considered greater than hers in the situation of denial, resulting in a far greater reduction in her ketubbah for her denial of sexual access than the sum added to her ketubbah as a result of his denial of her sexual rights. Similar standards concerning invalidation of halizah and divorce were applied, even though a forced get can result in adultery and thus in bastard children, which is not the case for forced halizah. Perhaps the most common case of moredet in modern times is the woman who leaves the marital domicile. Even if this is done for self-protection or protection of children from an abusive husband, the woman can be considered a moredet by the rabbinic court, which will have impact on her property claims in an ensuing divorce.

How to cite this page

Meacham (leBeit Yoreh), Tirzah. "Legal-Religious Status of the Moredet (Rebellious Wife)." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 18, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/legal-religious-status-of-moredet-rebellious-wife>.

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