Under what circumstances will Jewish courts force a man to divorce his wife and pay her the ketuba?
The Mishnayot on our discuss cases where a man develops conditions that are so difficult to live with that his wife can petition the courts to force him to divorce her. Several of the cases mentioned focus on illnesses that make it unbearable to live with him. Three people are mentioned whose new professions may create such a situation – a mekametz (a gatherer), a metzaref nehoshet (someone who melds, or purifies, copper) and a bursi (a tanner).
In the Tosefta, two approaches are offered in defining mekametz. One suggestion is that the mekametz is a bursi katan – a non-commercial tanner, that is, someone who has a private business tanning skins at home in small quantities. Someone who has such a business does all aspects of the job himself. The other suggestion is that the mekametz is someone who collects dog droppings. Until the last century, softening skins in preparation for tanning was done by adding dog droppings to the water in which the skins were being soaked. The fermenting that takes place and the enzymes that are released play a central role in this process.
Although copper is occasionally found in pure form, most deposits that contain the metal have it mixed with various sulfides. The purification process separates out the copper from the sulfur, and the residue that is created often has a very strong smell attached to it. The metzaref nehoshet who works regularly with these metals will likely find that his clothing – and his body – absorb these odors. The bursi and mekametz have a similar problem.
The Rambam (Ishut 25:11) and Shulchan Arukh (Even ha-Ezer 154:1) agree that in these cases, the husband is only obligated to divorce his wife if she demands an end to the marriage. If she does not, there is no reason for the court to step in. Furthermore, if the husband had informed his wife of the condition prior to their marriage, and she agreed to marry him, the court will not force him to divorce her, even if she later claims that the situation was worse than she had imagined.