Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What Does a Beit Din Do Besides Conversions?

Most of you are familiar with one thing batei din do in the modern world: convert people. But what else do they do? You'd be surprised. 

A beit din can do most of the things a secular court can, in addition to presiding over pure halachic issues. What doesn't a beit din do? Hear criminal matters or civil harms that may come close to criminal harm. For example, punching your neighbor in the face can be both a criminal or civil case, but it's too close to a crime for most  batei din to accept.

Civil cases. That's right, you might even be able to bring your small claims cases to a beit din. Suing your neighbor for breaking your window with a baseball? Have a contract disagreement on a multi-million dollar deal? The beit din can do it. And amazingly, they do. More than you'd think, and for much larger amounts in controversy than you'd think. 

Gets (Religious Divorces). Divorce is actually a mitzvah d'oraisa. A beit din is required to issue the get (religious divorce).

Divorce issues. If the parties agree to it, a beit din can decide alimony (spousal support), child support, child custody, and property division of the marital assets. However, just because you (and/or the beit din) decide it doesn't mean that a secular court will enforce it. Child custody and child support appear to almost always be open to court intervention. So don't bet on that beit din ruling being set in stone. But speak to your attorney for questions specific to your case. Every state is different.

Halachic status rulings. Sometimes born Jews need "paperwork" too in order to "prove" their Jewish status. That status may be a) whether they're Jewish (or need to convert or have a geirus l'chumrah), b) whether they're single, and/or c) whether they're free to remarry. As you can imagine, most halachic status filings are probably filed once someone is trying to get married.

This is a very short introduction to the beit din system. Every beit din is organized differently, has different standards, has different appeals procedures (if any), and may only hear certain kinds of cases. If you're in the market for a beit din or are halachically required to involve a beis din, make sure you know how a prospective beit din works, and be sure to get references from several people who have recently gone through the beit din (especially people who "lost" the case, so long as you take it with a grain of salt). Be aware that batei din (out of the many batei din in this world) are regularly accused of corruption and/or incompetence. Don't just close your eyes and point to a name when you're choosing a beit din. There is probably too much at stake to get a procedure/group of rabbis that you don't respect.

Sidenote: When someone is halachically required to go to a beis din, except for in the case of divorce, is beyond the scope of my knowledge at this time. If you have a legal matter, I suggest you speak with your local rabbi to determine whether you're halachically required to go to the beit din instead of a secular court.


  1. Good article!

    On a side note--I was once told by this crazy guy who accused me of something I clearly didn't do that he was going to "slap together a good old fashion beis din" and sue the pants off of me.

    Despite that he was a notorious nut in the town, I took it to my Rabbi who of course confirmed it was ridiculous and not to give it a second thought. That said, it's good to know how a Beis Din is formed. Mainly--the person accusing someone of wrong doesn't just find three random Rabbis who agree with him to convict you of something. There is a very fair process to who sits on the Beis Din and both parties have some say in it in certain circumstances--though that's not really my area of expertise.

    1. You'd have nothing to worry about. The defendant is entitled to reject the plaintiff's selection of a Beis Din and propose a different venue; if the two parties can not agree on a beis din, there's a procedure called zabl"a where each selects one dayan and the two dayanim (who are hopefully more professional than the litigants) select the third dayan.

    2. Right that was my understanding.