Sherlock Holmes, Rabbinic-Style

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 12.03.10 PMIt 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 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. 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. 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 there for more than thirty years, didn’t remember the couple. At that time, he said, weddings did not take place in the Chabad house but in wedding halls. Dead end.

A quick Bezeq search helped me locate the kallah’s parents in Israel. The father told me there was no doubt about his wife’s Jewishness, and while he didn’t recall the name of the shul in Toronto where he had gotten married, he assured me that the rabbi was Orthodox. He seemed confused about all the fuss. After all, his wife came from a prominent Jewish family in South America. But there was no rabbi left in the community who could testify to the Jewishness of the family.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel requires the testimony of an Orthodox rabbi to confirm one’s Jewish status for the purpose of marriage. The rabbinate will also 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.

While I believed that the mother was Jewish, I needed to prove it. Intuition would not suffice. I needed evidence.

The father told me his wife had a sister in South America and a brother in [city in Europe].

“I want my daughter to marry according to Jewish tradition,” he said. “But if she can’t, she’ll just have a civil marriage. Her brothers will do the same. Help her and you’ll be helping her brothers as well.”

I told him that I would try.

I mentioned the uncle in [Europe] to Rav Stav.

“Did he get married?” he asked.

It was a great question. If the uncle had indeed married a Jewish woman, the beit din would have a record of the marriage, and the ketubah would be acceptable as evidence.

Turns out, the uncle was married.

I also discovered that the mother had a distant Orthodox cousin in Israel who could attest to their Jewishness.

The cousin 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 is she. But, he said, he would ask his grandmother if she remembered the family.

I called a colleague who is acquainted with rabbis in South America, and asked him to find anyone who could attest to the family’s Jewishness. I contacted the beit din in

[European city] for a record of the uncle’s marriage.

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

I went to daven Ma’ariv.

When I returned, 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. It 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. He wasn’t sure; he would check.

Now I had a last name.

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

He also happened to conduct a 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 obtained the 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 build a Jewish home.

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 Stav is head of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.

Listen to Rabbi Reuven Spolter discuss marriage and the Israeli rabbinate at www.ou.org/life/community/savitsky_spolter.

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.

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This article was featured in Winter 2014 issue of Jewish Action.
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