In Jewish law, a man can betroth a woman by giving her money, or an object of monetary value, and declaring his intentions—so long as the woman knowingly accepts. The betrothal is a binding ritual that can only be reversed by a formal divorce. Today betrothal usually takes place during the wedding ceremony, with a ring and a formulaic declaration, but none of these elements is strictly necessary. That is how in Crete—then a Venetian province known as Candia—in 1531, a young woman named Kasti Delmedigo became the subject of a fierce, international rabbinic controversy. Ann Brener explains:
The story comes in the form of testimony given by the two brothers [Abraham and Isaac Algazu] in the local Jewish court in Candia. The first witness, Isaac Algazu, testified that he and his brother were playing cards with Isaac Bunin [a Spanish-born refugee from Rhodes] around 9 p.m. one evening during the week of Passover, when Kasti walked in and took a coin from in front of Isaac Bunin. One of the brothers said to Kasti: “Did you take the coin because you’re thinking of getting married?” At this point in his testimony, Isaac Algazu commented that Kasti was “joshing around,” or perhaps “mocking.” Isaac Bunin said: “I hereby betroth you.” Kasti fell silent, but then came closer and said to Isaac Bunin: “Give me two more coins and I’ll marry you.” At this, Isaac Algazu rebuked Kasti and Bunin, too, [and] “because of the rebuke [Bunin] did not give them to her.”
The testimony of Abraham Algazu is slightly different.
Soon rabbis were discussing whether Kasti and Bunin needed a divorce:
[T]he incident turned into a cause célèbre involving some of the most renowned rabbis of the day and lasting nearly two years. . . . The case found its way to the two most important rabbis on the island, Judah Delmedigo (Kasti’s father) and Elijah Capsali, the latter the chief rabbi of Candia as well as its condestabulo, responsible for representing the Jewish community before the ruling powers. Not too surprisingly, perhaps, the two sages of Candia found themselves at odds over the case, one rabbi upholding the validity of the betrothal and the other negating it.
What is surprising, however, is that contrary to what we might expect, it was not Judah Delmedigo who deemed the betrothal invalid. . . . Judah Delmedigo appealed to colleagues in Constantinople; Elijah Capsali wrote to Rabbi Moses Alashkar in Jerusalem; and before long a half-dozen rabbis in cities across Italy and the Ottoman empire were weighing in on the question.
The more they wrote, the more acrimonious the exchanges became until finally, in Padua, the great Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen declared that the case was no longer being debated “for the sake of Heaven” but out of “jealousy and rivalry” between the two rabbis of Candia. He refused, moreover, to take sides in the issue lest “the winner then be able to raise his hands and say, ‘Ah ha—I’ve beaten him!’”