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The Matchmaker

The Matchmaker

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The story is told that a Roman matron once asked Rabbi Yose: "How has your G‑d been occupying his time since He finished the creation of the world?" "He has been busy pairing couples," answered the Rabbi.

She was astonished. "Is that His trade? Even I can do that job. As many man-servants and maid-servants as I have, I can pair."

"Perhaps it is a simple matter in your eyes," replied the Rabbi. "For G‑d, it is as intricate as the splitting of the sea."

She promptly placed one thousand man-servants opposite one thousand maid-servants and declared, "He will marry her, she will marry him," and so on.

The next morning, two thousand servants came to her door, beaten and bruised, complaining, "I do not want her, I do not want him!"

She sent for Rabbi Yose, and conceded: "Rabbi, your Torah is true." The Talmud explains: Matchmaking was a simple matter in her eyes because she, unlike G‑d, could not understand the fundamental differences in the human character that militate against one stranger being successfully matched with another.

There is no doubt, the Talmudic Sages conclude, that G‑d Himself had to be the first and ultimate shadkhan (matchmaker). Who else could blend two disparate personalities so that they cleave together "as one flesh?" Did he not arrange the union of Adam and Eve? The conclusion was irresistible, and it was written no fewer than five times in midrashic literature: "Marriages are made in Heaven."

This is not a romantic American cliché, but a serious statement of predestination. G‑d determines which people will unite successfully and serve as vehicles for human survival. Does not the Talmud say: "Forty days before the birth of a child, a heavenly voice proclaims! `The daughter of so-and-so will be married to so-and-so?'" The Talmud even illustrates how this idea induced a spirit of quietism in some people, with the tale of a young woman who refused to wear pretty clothes, jewelry, or cosmetics to attract a husband, because she believed that—regardless of what she might do—her suitor would be brought to her by G‑d.

This raises a thorny question: If the selection of a mate is preordained, why is it necessary to go through the elaborate charade of selecting a suitable mate? And why do so many marriages fail?

Rabbi Akiva responds to a similar question of predestination by saying, "Everything is known to G‑d, yet free will is given to man." G‑d knows what we will do and how things will work out, but it is still up to us to arrange our own life. Only after all of the arrangements have been made can we say confidently that this is what G‑d had originally ordained.

A History of the Shadkhan

The tradition of the matchmaker traces its human origins to the "super shadkhan" of all time, Abraham's masterful servant Eliezer, who arranged no less a marriage than that of the patriarch Isaac to the matriarch Rebecca. The biblical chapter (Genesis 24:1–67) that records the story was read in synagogues when the groom was called to the Torah on the Sabbath before or after the wedding in order to announce the marriage publicly. Western European communities abrogated this custom in the 1700s, but the Sephardim (the Jewish community that originated in Spain) continue it to this day. Abraham, having realized that the native Canaanite women were morally unsuitable, decides to search abroad for a suitable wife for his son Isaac. He sends Eliezer, under oath, to find the right bride for Isaac "from among the members of his family and the house of his father," which he had left behind when at G‑d's bidding he had set out for Canaan. Eliezer believes he has found a suitable match in Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel, the nephew of Abraham; but she must first pass a test designed to determine the quality of her kindness and hospitality. Rebecca succeeds admirably in meeting all his expectations—she is generous, extraordinarily hospitable, and selfless, kind to total strangers and even animals. Eliezer brings Rebecca to Isaac, who welcomes her into his home, and "he loved her."

The significance of the function of the shadkhan in ancient times can be seen from the derivation of its root word shidukh (match). The Aramaic translation has it as sheket, "silence," and the term shidukh signifies tranquility or peacefulness. The connotation is that the shadkan pacifies parents who are anxious about their child's marital prospects. It also implies a sense of tranquil arrival for two people tired of the dreams, the frustrated expectations, and the long search for a loving spouse.

The classic shadkhan has a long and honorable tradition in Jewish life. No huckster could become a unifier of human beings. He had to have deep personal integrity and balanced judgment to be entrusted with so vital a task as arranging a permanent union. From the days of the Talmud and for centuries thereafter, it was the headmasters of the Higher Torah Academies who were customarily asked to recommend eligible students for marriage. The reason is obvious: in addition to possessing the necessary moral qualifications, these rabbis were also intimately acquainted both with the elite young scholars who were considered the prize grooms and the leading families of the community who supported the communal institutions.

After the shidukh was arranged, informal negotiations took place at which the preliminary arrangements were settled. The future alliance was agreed upon and the dowry and presents were clearly specified. But the agreement was still informal, and if one of the partners decided to withdraw because of disaffection or other grounds that were not previously known, there was usually no legal penalty—although undoubtedly it must have led to some bitterness, frustration, and quarrels.

The role of the shadkhan reached its height in the darkest days of oppression and dispersion of the long Jewish exile in Europe. At a time when the survival of the people was in danger, and high standards of personal morality seemed threatened with extinction, this institution provided a stabilizing, fortifying and encouraging influence. This was especially true during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, after the Crusades had ravaged the Jewish people and scattered them over the entire continent. Communities had been splintered and isolated, and there was little communication between one group of Jews and another.

It was also at this time that the concept of romantic love was formally introduced to the world and young people considered it the highest—indeed, the only—test required for life's permanent union. In light of the new emphasis on romance, Jewish leaders reminded the community repeatedly of the words of the Talmud: "Rav says, ‘He who marries without shidukhin (preliminary marital arrangements) deserves corporal punishment.'" Although physical punishment could not be inflicted by a Jewish court in those days, the statement served to underscore rabbinic distrust of the romantic impulse as the only basis for marriage. The shadkhan short-circuited the long search for a mate, encouraging earlier marriages and lessening the chances of romantic dallying with a variety of people.

Although the estimation of beauty was the shadkhan's stock in trade, he was encouraged not to arrange a union based exclusively on physical attributes. Instead, he based his choices on qualities of character, piety, intelligence and competence that would lend permanence to a marriage and encourage a high degree of moral stability in the community.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, a new type of individual began to occupy the position of shadkhan—the paid professional. It is very likely that the shadkhan began to be paid as the community became anxious about the contagion of romantic love and its potentially disastrous effects on Jewish society.

By the fifteenth century, scholars as great as Maharil, earned their livelihoods as professional shadkhanim. Questions and answers are recorded in medieval rabbinic Response indicating how, how much, and when the shadkhan is to be paid. If a match proved to be unhappy, he could be banned and his fee refused. If things went unusually well, he could reasonably claim twice the fee. Jewish law, therefore, established his fees, and Jewish ethics determined his integrity.

At the same time a formal contract (tena'im) replaced the informal preliminary agreement between the families. This contract specified the date of the wedding, financial arrangements, the assurance that neither party would marry anyone else, and the monetary penalties that would be imposed, if any part of the contract was broken.

The Shadkhan as a Preserver of Jewish Values

The Talmudic Rabbis say about G‑d, the first shadkhan: "He pairs two people, even if He must... bring them from one end of the world to the other." In the same way, the shadkhan traveled from city to city in an intricate network of cross-pollination, telling the father of a young man that a perfectly-suited young lady had been discovered two hundred miles away. Considering that highway robbers made the medieval roads notoriously dangerous to travel without armed escort, and difficult as well as time consuming to navigate even at the best of times, there was virtually no way such families would have met without the shadkhan's unique combination of courage, psychological acuity and brokerage talents. In fact, Jewish law recognized this aspect of the shadkan's function and stipulated that he was to be paid a higher fee when the bride and groom come from widely separated communities. In this way he literally interrelated whole communities and provinces.

At the same time, he performed an important subsidiary function by carrying news of Jewish affairs to widely separated Jewish communities. Although to us marriage and news-bringing may be ordinary events, in those days they served the vital function of encouraging small pockets of Jews not to despair: they were not alone, but part of the larger world of Jews—related to the big cities, the great scholars, and to Jerusalem itself.

The shadkhan was familiar with the backgrounds of scores of families, and he held the key to the successful marriages of their children. As a result, the community developed a greater concern than ever for the authenticity of family descent. A mixed marriage, the conversion of one of its members to another faith, or the birth of an illegitimate child would significantly diminish the opportunities for a good shidukh for every child of each family. Since the selection of a spouse was not left to a chance meeting, the rate of interfaith marriage was kept so low as to be insignificant. Because the shadkhan would not only match inner qualities but family pedigree and scholastic and economic achievements, families knew that their futures depended on their religious and moral reputations. The Rabbis frequently decried those who contracted unworthy marriages and ignored the potentially disastrous effect upon future progeny. This spurred families to achieve a better quality of Jewish life, resulting in a religious and moral stability that was the envy of surrounding peoples.

In these times, the ideal of well-to-do parents, was to have their daughter marry a Torah scholar of great potential. This only the shadkhan could arrange, and he was often a genius at wedding scholarship to wealth. He thereby performed feats of genetic engineering which assured the survival of the intelligentsia. Unlike Roman Catholicism, which developed a priestly intellectual class and then did not permit priests to marry, the Jews considered marriage an obligation of the highest priority, especially for scholars. Thus, a groom's scholarship became the most sought after quality for Jewish brides.

Interestingly, this process served society in another crucial way: because the scholar was able to reach the top of the social ladder, the poor learned that the fastest way out of poverty was intellectual achievement. Similarly, the girl born to poverty had at least a reasonable hope of rising socially by bearing children whose scholarship would make them eligible to marry into wealthier families. Even the sisters, parents and children of a scholar were invested with his prestige. The Rabbis said, "Take heed of the children of the poor, for from them will issue scholars of Torah."

Although this "wedding of scholarship to wealth" worked well, it had an ironic side-effect: often the only books that survived the frequent pogroms and communal destruction, were those printed and reprinted by the wealthy fathers-in-law of Torah scholars or by the well-to-do daughters-in-law married to the scholars. Many of the rare handwritten volumes of greater, but poorer scholars were lost to posterity.

The Decline of the Shadkhan and His Re-emergence

Gradually, over the centuries, the societal need for the shadkhan diminished. Communities were more stable, communication and travel became easier, and there was a greater concentration of Jews in the larger cities. Also, many young people who were suddenly emancipated and imbued with the ideals of the romantic tradition sought to experience this romance personally. C. S. Lewis called the thirteenth century "the era of erotic institutionalism." Young people would allow no one, not even parents, to suggest a choice of mate. The traditional clients of the shadkhan now felt demeaned merely by talking to him, since it was a clear sign of their own inadequacies.

Further, the profession of shadkhan succeeded so well that it bred its own demise. Because it offered income and status to people who had no apparent skill, worthier men or women were discouraged from this work. The shadkhan evolved from a heaven-sent master doing G‑d's will to an unsavory, umbrella-toting charlatan. He took on the image of a flesh-trader, an image that hung on for centuries. By the end of the sixteenth century, his activities were closely watched, and many commentaries and ethical tracts scorned his techniques. In five hundred years, the shadkhan declined from an exalted position to an object of mockery and social anathema.

Of course, the shadkhan is, in large part, a figure from a world long passed. Yet in a 1959 article (reprinted in a text on marriage in 1977), Eleanor Stoker Bell analyzed the applicability to modern society of the arranged marriage.

There are solid arguments for reviving the function of the shadkhan. First, people tend to marry at an early age—one out of three, under 18; most frequently at age 21 and 22 for men, 18 and 19 for women. Their sober judgment at this age is at least questionable, and intellectual compatibility at school is frequently confused with abiding love. Dr. Judson Landis at the University of California notes that divorces in families where both mates marry under age 21 are six times the average. Second, in our highly mobile society, most children will have moved approximately five times before they complete high school. This instability is not a good base for a reasonable choice of mate, and strong parental guidance is surely called for. Third, the burden of failed marriages will frequently fall on the shoulders of parents, and they should therefore have more influence over the crucial aspect of mate selection.

On the other hand, the traditional matchmaker is not well suited to today's society. Even strong parental control is often deleterious to marital success. Parents may be status-oriented, seeking to realize their own interests through their children's alliances. In addition, many parents fared poorly in their own marriage. How will street-wise children accept such parents' judgments for their own lives? Further, marriage requires a base of affection, not only shared values. Partners must start their lives together not only as paired clones, but with warmth and tenderness. That calls for a personal acquaintance on which the future can reasonably be based.

While the shadkhan cannot effectively be transplanted from Europe to America, from another century to the twentieth, the new world can seek to create a new instrument for arranging marriages that will incorporate the positive values of the shadkhan with the needs of contemporary people.

In recent years, with the growth of an indigenous American Orthodoxy that finds the contemporary moral environment repugnant, the shadkhan has re-emerged, dressed in the new garb of the university and the computer matching service. Orthodox Jewish communities now avail themselves of some fifty such modern marriage brokers who demonstrate none of the ridiculed qualities of their predecessors. These shadkhanim are found largely in New York. Private entrepreneurs, they rarely advertise and are best discovered by personal recommendation.

It would not be surprising if the Jewish world, seeking desperately to preserve itself, fearful of the imminent collapse of the host culture and astonished by the growing divorce rate, would warmly welcome back, in a new guise, the old shadkhan who traces his lineage, after all, to G‑d Himself.

The Jewish Way in Love & Marriage by Rabbi Maurice Lamm. To purchase the book click here.
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