Yael Machtinger
Researcher, Consultant, Educator, focusing on law, gender, abuse & power

‘Matir assurim,’ a hostage by any other name: Agunot in the shadows of October 7

Esther rising to beseech Ahasuerus

Ta’anit Esther, International Agunah Day

On March 21, we observe two special events, the Fast of Esther, Ta’anit Esther, leading the way to the joyous holiday of Purim, and International Agunah Day, drawing attention to women anchored to dead marriages. These days of solemnity are appropriately linked. Biblical heroine, Esther, was forced into an unwanted marriage to King Ahasuerus, according to the Talmud.

For years, as an international expert on the intersections of civil and religious law and IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) in religious contexts, my research has focused on mesuravot get, literally, ‘ones refused a get’ whose husbands are recalcitrant. Most often, we know where the recalcitrants are and what they are trying to exact and coerce as leverage in exchange for the get, Jewish divorce. This has been the most common type of aguna in my lifetime. Still, ‘aguna’ is an umbrella term for women anchored to dead marriages for various historical and geographic reasons.

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‘Classic’ agunot are women whose husbands’ whereabouts or status is unknown. He is unable to grant a get, leaving his wife trapped. He has either gone missing, his death wasn’t witnessed, or there are no remains; hence a wife cannot be deemed a widow. This might include forced conversion of the husband to another religion starting as early as the Jewish exile from Israel after the destruction of the first Temple 586 BCE (ironically, later and repeatedly, Jews were forced to convert to Islam in Persia/Iran, where the Purim story occurs), his being sent to Siberian exile as early as the 17th century, his abandoning his wife on the Lower East Side to return to the ‘home-country’ in the early 1900s, his entering the Twin Towers on the morning of 9/11; or lack of cognitive capacity to issue a get.

For years, I thought about agunot who are mesuravot get, women trapped, held captive in marriages against their will, married to spouses who refuse to grant a get, not only on International Agunah Day, but each morning when I recited the blessing, matir assurim, to “free the captives”.

But, the world changed on 10.7.  Matir assurim has new meaning.

I never imagined I would be thinking about actual captives when I recite morning blessings.

As a scholar of religious divorce refusal, I have spoken to hundreds of women worldwide and never thought I’d be writing about ‘this type’ of aguna.

So on this Ta’anit Esther and International Agunah Day, let’s pay heed to the agunot in the shadows of October 7. Women locked into WANTED marriages, but locked in nonetheless.

There are a few categories to unpack:

-‘Classic’ Agunot- whose husbands’ bodies are missing but are understood/declared to be deceased.

-Women whose husbands have been so severely injured that they may not recover and don’t have the cognitive capacity to grant a get.

-Women whose husbands were killed, who had not (yet) had children who now must perform  yibum/chalitza. (When a man dies without leaving any children, there is a requirement for his brother to marry the widow, yibum, or levirate marriage. If either party doesn’t want to marry the other, there is an alternative ceremony called chalitza.)

-Women (and men) whose spouses are still being held hostage in Gaza, may they be speedily returned alive.

In relation to the first group, after researching and consulting with my colleagues in the field, primarily Pnina Omer, Director of Yad LaIsha, as well as The Rackman Center (where I’m affiliated), Mavoi Satum, and others, there is no evidence, miraculously, of remaining ‘classic’ agunot resulting from October 7. To be clear, and to the credit of the rabbinic institutions (where credit is not always due), a special war tribunal to release agunot was rapidly established including the President of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau, a member of the Supreme Rabbinical Court (and candidate for next Chief Rabbi) Rabbi Eliezer Igra, and another member of the Supreme Rabbinical Court Rabbi Zvi Ben-Yaakov in conjunction with the army’s rabbinical court. Exactly 50 years since the Yom-Kippur war, Rav Ovadia Yosef the (Sephardi) Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Mordechai Piron, the IDF’s chief Rabbi, and Rabbi Gad Navon, Deputy Chief Rabbi of the IDF, made extenuating efforts to free the Yom Kippur agunot. It is noteworthy, that at this point, there are no Oct. 7 agunot, particularly since it took years to release 1000+ agunot of Yom Kippur. Whoever has been declared deceased (even without bodies, Hashem yikom damam), the resulting agunot were released. The special Rabbinic wartime tribunal has done exceptional work in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

We don’t have data, and won’t for some time, regarding women whose husbands were severely injured in war: men with head injuries, in comas, etcetera. It’ll be a year, at least, until we’ll have information about such cases (for various reasons) and at least 2-3 years until they are referred/will refer for heterim, or permission to be released from their marriages and allowed to remarry.

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Chalitza Shoe

In relation to the third group, “Chalutzot”, it’s clear there will be an extremely high number of young widows who will have to go through the difficult chalitza process (removing a special shoe from the yavam, (her brother-in law), then spiting in his direction and reciting a special declaration, in front of a rabbinic court). Yad LaIsha was in conversation with IDF regarding this issue and their recommendations and protocols were incorporated. We can only hope that this sensitive process under these, most difficult circumstances won’t be taken advantage of by grieving brothers, withholding the release of their sisters-in-law at a financial cost or other bargaining chip. I’ve come across such extortionate cases over the years in Toronto and New York in the course of my extensive work with agunotChalitza can only be done three months after death (to ensure a wife is not pregnant) so it’s only recently that the first chalitza ceremonies resulting from October 7 are being conducted. While painful, there is value in the process with the IDF Rabbinate. It is significant to widows’ mourning, healing, and eventual closure.

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Chalitza ceremony

How can we connect the Purim story to Agunah Day this year, in light of October 7 agunot?

If we revisit the Megilla we meet Esther when she is quiet, passive and not in control of her own destiny. As the story unfolds, we see Esther actively finds her voice, shifting from an evasive, even apathetic character, eventually rising to the extraordinary task and with astute vision she recognizes and commands that for the Jews to be saved, and contrary to the observation of genocidal Haman, that the Jews are “am mefozar umeforad” ,“a nation scattered and divided amongst the nations” (Esther 3:8), the anecdote is “Lech knoss et kol hayehudim” “Go, gather together all the Jews” (Esther 4:16). It is in this moment, that she truly steps into leadership and leads our salvation by taking personal risk. Esther unites the Jewish people and it’s only then, that her story and theirs begins to change.

She understood instinctively that where our divisiveness weakens us, our unity is our impenetrable strength. This was true in Persia when Haman wanted to destroy us and it is no less true today, in the shadows of October 7 when Hamas wants to do the same.

This is also true in supporting AGUNOT.

For us to support agunot, be they the ‘classic’ agunot of October 7 or the more common mesuravot get, we need to unite. We need unity in a shared mission to solve this socio-legal problem once and for all and we need rabbinic leaders to guide us proactively and willingly, as unabashedly, resolutely and bravely as they are helping the agunot of October 7. We need them to step into leadership like Esther and bring salvation to all agunot. If they don’t, others will bring salvation in their place, as Mordechai told Esther in her moment of apathy, “ki im hacharesh tacharishi ba’et hazot revach v’hatzalah ya’amod laYehudim mimakom acher ve’at u’beit avich tovedu umi yodea im la’et ka’zot hegat lamalchut”, “if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis” (4:14). We don’t need the rabbis bullied, shamed or threatened into doing the right thing by Instragram ‘influencers’. We simply need them to be the leaders they can be and for which they reached such rabbinic greatness- as Rav Ovadia and Rabbi Piron were and as the special Rabbinic panel for Oct 7 agunot are.

In the meantime, we’ll gather together and unite. In the days ahead of Ta’anit Esther, I will join other experts assembling at the Knesset, to mark International Agunah Day, heeding Esther’s command, echoed again towards the end of the  Megilla  “lehikahel  v’laamod  al  nafsham”, “gather themselves, together and stand for their life” (8:11). We will discuss the plight of agunot, all kinds, but with special attention this year to the agunot in the shadows of Oct 7. We will hear their stories and rally around them. We will debate the merits of having soldiers sign a divorce document, before going off to war, as was done in the times of King David, according to the Talmud (Shabbat 56a; Ketubot 9b), and as was debated in the 1960s by Rav Shlomo Goren, Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces and Rav Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in the wake of the Six Day War and the tragic disappearance of the Dakar submarine with 69 IDF soldiers aboard. We will gather together and stand for life; for the lives of agunot.

So, on this International Aguna Day, and every day moving forward, when we recite the morning blessing, matir assurim, we must also think of the October 7 agunot and of all those being held captive, against their will. May they be speedily released.

About the Author
Dr. Yael C.B. Machtinger is an Azrieli International Postdoctoral Fellow at Bar Ilan Law School’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status and a Law and Society professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. She is an award-winning researcher and educator, widely published in academic and popular presses, and is working on her first book, a comparative study of Jewish divorce refusal between Toronto and New York. Contact her at
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