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Sherlock Holmes, Rabbinic-Style  

Tzohar Approving Jewish Status

By Rav Reuven Spolter

It began with a text message.

Rav [Dovid] Stav wants you to call him.*

I called.

 “There’s a young [secular] woman whose mother is originally from [a distant city in South America]. All we have is her parents’ ketubah, but we cannot identify the mesader Kiddushin [rabbi who performs the wedding ceremony]. They were members of Chabad of Toronto in the 1980s. Can we approve the ketubah for purposes of marriage?”

Usually, you have more to go on. Who was the mesader Kiddushin? No idea. All I had was a seemingly Orthodox ketubah, with two names [of witnesses] I didn’t recognize, and a Chabad house.

[In a classic ketubah, the name of the mesader Kiddushin does not generally appear. Some ketubot include an English translation where the rabbi’s name is listed. Names of witnesses on a ketubah are written as one is called to the Torah, for example, Chaim ben Zev.]

I called the Chabad house.

The rabbi, who has been the rabbi of the Chabad house in Toronto for more than thirty years, didn’t remember the couple. Moreover, he added that at that time, they didn’t even perform weddings in the Chabad house but in wedding halls. Dead end.

I did a quick Bezeq search, and located the number of the kallah’s parents in Israel. The father told me he had visited his wife’s family in [a South American city], and that there was no doubt about their Jewishness. He had gotten married in an Orthodox shul in Toronto; while he didn’t recall the name of the shul or the rabbi, he assured me that the rabbi was definitely Orthodox. He seemed confused about the fuss and didn’t really understand why his daughter was having trouble getting married in Israel. After all, his wife came from a prominent Jewish family. Yet, there was no rabbi left in the community who could testify to the Jewishness of the family.

I explained to him that The Chief Rabbinate of Israel requires the testimony of an Orthodox rabbi to confirm one’s Jewish status for the purpose of Jewish marriage in Israel. In lieu of such testimony, the rabbinate will accept a ketubah demonstrating that a wedding was performed under Orthodox auspices. In order to approve the ketubah, I needed to identify the mesader kiddushin who officiated at the wedding. While I believed that his wife was, in fact, Jewish, I needed to prove it. Intuition would not suffice. I needed evidence.

Then he mentioned that his wife has a sister who still lives in South America, as well as a brother in [city in Europe].

He told me one more thing.

“Look,” he said. “I want my daughter to marry according to Jewish tradition. And she’s willing to do it, if she can. But if she can’t, she’ll get a civil marriage, and that will be that. Her brothers will do the same. And while I might want her to marry according to tradition, parents can only influence so much. So if you help her, you’re also helping her brothers as well.”

I told him that I would try, and asked him to e-mail me as much information as possible.

I called Rav Stav and told him that while the ketubah might not be useful, I thought that we could resolve the case with some help from rabbanim in [South America]. I also mentioned the brother in [Europe].

“Did he get married?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said. It was a great question. If the brother had indeed married a Jewish girl in [a European city], the beit din would have a record of the marriage, and the ketubah would be acceptable as evidence of the family’s Jewish status.

I called the father back to ask if the brother had gotten married. He had. I took down the information; the father then mentioned that his wife has a distant cousin in Israel who is religious and could attest to their Jewishness. I took the cousin’s number.

I called the cousin and he confirmed that the kallah’s maternal grandmother was indeed his great-grandmother’s cousin from his mother’s side. So if he himself is Jewish, so was she. But, he said, he could call his grandmother and ask her if she remembered the family.

I called a colleague who is acquainted with rabbis in South America; I sent him the information and asked him to find out if anyone could attest to the family’s Jewishness. I e-mailed the beit din in [European city] to find out if it had any record of the brother’s marriage.

Then I remembered that I had a contact in the Toronto beit din. I e-mailed him with the names of the witnesses on the ketubah, telling him I had a funny feeling that the rabbi who was mesader Kiddushin also served as a witness for the wedding—a common practice in small, private weddings. The signature on the ketubah looked very similar to the handwriting used throughout the ketubah.

I went to daven Ma’ariv.

When I got back, I saw that the cousin had called me. He had spoken to his grandmother, who confirmed that the family was indeed Jewish.

I also received an e-mail from the rabbi in Toronto. The e-mail read:

Your e-mail reminds me of the closing scene from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevya is leaving Anatevka and going to New York. Another man tells him that he is going to Chicago. They’re comforted by the realization that they will be neighbors. Toronto, even thirty-five years ago, was not a small community.

That being said, I think I recognize one of the names [of the witnesses].

He thought that the witness was the rav of a prominent shul in Toronto and a great Torah giant. But he wasn’t sure; he would check.

Now I had a last name to go on.

A quick Google search revealed that the witness on the ketubah was no less than a widely recognized posek who had written a number of halachic works.

He also happened to conduct a private wedding for a couple who subsequently moved to Israel, and whose daughter was now about to get married.

In the course of three hours, I had contacted resources on four continents and managed to obtain the necessary information to approve the Jewish status of a family that otherwise would have abandoned hope of their children marrying in accordance with Jewish tradition.

When everything came together, I felt that rush that results from solving a challenging puzzle. But I felt another rush as well—the rush of being part of something larger than myself, and knowing that I helped a young woman whom I would probably never meet remain a part of the Jewish people.

With the Jewish status of her mother properly authenticated, the woman married not just in accordance with Israeli civil law. She married in accordance with halachah.

Case closed.


Rabbi Reuven Spolter is an instructor of Jewish studies at the Orot College of Education in Elkana and the overseas rabbinic coordinator of Tzohar Rabbinical Organization, the largest Religious Zionist rabbinic group in Israel.


* Rabbi Stav is head of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.

Wed, February 8 2023 17 Shevat 5783