Glossary: Legal and Religious Terms

Unlike in the U.S, there is no separation between Religion and State in Israel. This detrimental status quo has significant legal ramifications for Israel’s citizens, particularly for women.

In laymen’s terms, here are some of the key concepts and issues that come into play.  


An agunah is a woman whose husband has disappeared or does not have the capacity to deliver a bill of divorce to his wife because of his physical or mental condition. An agunah is bound in a marriage that exists “on paper” alone, and she cannot free herself from this marriage or marry another man.


Israel’s official rabbinate sets the country’s requirements for conversion to Judaism. Accordingly, only halakhic conversions performed by pre-approved Orthodox bodies are considered acceptable. In recent years, rabbinic courts have tried to revoke long-standing State-approved conversions, even though this falls outside their jurisdiction. CWJ works to prevent rabbinic courts from invalidating State-recognized conversions on the individual level in the rabbinic courts, and on a policy level in the Supreme Court.


The Hebrew term for rabbinic court judges. In Israel, dayanim are Orthodox rabbis appointed by a committee of 10 representatives from various governmental, religious and professional entities. Given the broad impact of rigid rabbinic rulings on women’s personal status issues, CWJ petitioned the Supreme Court to ensure that women have proportional representation on the appointment committee. A new law guarantees a minimum of four women on the committee. 


get is a bill of divorce. According to halakha, the get must be voluntarily granted by the husband to his wife in order for it to be valid. From the moment that the get reaches a woman's hands, she ceases to be her husband’s wife. In the words of the Torah, the get is a “writ of manumission”- sefer kritut. The get cancels the kinyan relationship that exists between husband and wife so long as they are married, and frees the women to marry another man (except a cohen). In the language of the Mishna: “a woman frees herself with the delivery of the get or with the death of her husband."  

Get Extortion

This is a term that describes the way in which the rabbinic courts turn a blind eye to—or even cooperate with and encourage­—a husband's practice of making demands in exchange for a get. Since the rabbinic courts take a stringent position with regard to the idea of a get meuseh (forced divorce), they prefer that the parties reach an agreement and settle between themselves, rather than rely on a court order against a recalcitrant husband. Behind the rabbinic court demand that the wife “compromise” with her husband (even after decisions have been rendered with respect to matters that are ancillary to the divorce) stands the notion that if a woman gives in to her husband's demands, the bill of divorce will be given of his free will, without the need for a court order of any kind to be issued against the husband.

Get Meuseh

A forced divorce, this is a bill of divorce that is not given by the free will of the husband. A coerced divorce is invalid even if the coercion is done by rabbis, and even if the get has been authorized and conducted by the rabbinic courts. However, if the rabbinic courts issue a decision ordering—or better yet compelling—the husband to deliver a bill of divorce to his wife, the bill of divorce is kosher (valid) even if not given of the free will of the husband. 


"Halakhah," often referred to in English as Jewish law, is the collective body of religious laws for Jews, including biblical law and later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions.  Many halakhot (plural for halakha) that affect women’s personal status, such as marriage and divorce, are based on long-standing rabbinic interpretations of Biblical texts.

Kinyan Be’Kiddushin

A legal act that gives the husband exclusive conjugal rights to his bride. Upon the act of kinyan, the wife is forbidden to other men. The husband is technically not forbidden to other women after kinyan.

Legal Precedent

A principle or rule established in a previous legal case that is influential, or even conclusive, in deciding later cases with similar facts.  In Israel, rulings made by higher courts are binding precedents for lower courts, requiring that all lower courts rule in a similar manner in all future cases with similar facts or issues at stake.  CWJ works to achieve new legal precedents on issues relating to women's rights, using precedents they establish in hard-won earlier cases.

The Israeli government funds two court systems:

Civil courts, which uphold the laws of the State. In divorce cases, civil courts can set the terms of a divorce, such as division of property, child support and alimony, but it cannot issue a bill of divorce.

Religious courts. Jewish religious courts (i.e. rabbinic courts), are called batei din in Hebrew. These courts are presided over by three dayanim, and have exclusive legal jurisdiction over marriage and divorce. Rabbinic courts are under the rubric of the State-funded official rabbinate.  A writ of divorce (get) can only be issued by the rabbinic courts. Increasingly, rabbinic courts have been seeking to establish jurisdiction in other areas of personal status such as conversion revocation.


mamzer is a child born to a married woman who became pregnant from a man who is not her husband, or a child born to parents of an incestuous relationship (sexual intercourse between blood relatives that is prohibited under Jewish law).  A mamzer cannot “be part of the community.”  A mamzer can only marry a convert or another mamzer. The child of a mamzer is a mamzer for generations.

Mesorevet Get

A victim of get refusal is a woman who is in possession of a rabbinic court decision ordering her husband to give her a get, or who is in the middle of legal proceedings in which she seeks a get from her husband, and her husband refuses to deliver the get to her. The mesorevet get is not considered free to marry another man until her husband delivers a get to her. Most modern writers conflate the terms agunah and mesorevet get.

Prenuptial Agreement

A contract signed by an engaged couple before marriage, to set the terms for their (possible) separation in case of a divorce.  In Israel, these agreements appoint an agent who will give the get instead of a husband and void the marriage if the parties are living apart. (See Contract for a Just Marriage)