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The Betrothal

The Betrothal

Kiddushin

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The Betrothal portion of the ceremony consists of a preliminary benediction, the marriage proposal, and the giving of the ring. Fundamentally, it is a ceremony of acquisition. "When a man acquires a wife" (Deuteronomy 24:1) are words that fall harshly on contemporary ears. We blush at retaining ancient modes and terms that offend our sensitivities and egalitarian sentiments—acquire, indeed! But the wisdom of the Torah, the insightfulness of the talmudic teachers and the sense of balance of the religious tradition, which has experienced thirty-five centuries of marriage, deserves comprehension, not apologies. For all its apparent incongruity with modern thinking, the ancient ways express enduring values. If we dig beneath the deceptively simple surface, we find that these values have surprising relevance for the twentieth century.

The Need for Formal Acquisition

As noted earlier, it is remarkable that love and sex, which are so unpredictable and explosive, should serve as the foundations of family life. The concept of marriage as acquisition was the first step in domesticating, channeling, and making productive the passion and romance of love and desire. The key word in the Bible, note the Rabbis of the Talmud, is kichah. It is mentioned twice, both times in different contexts. One refers to marriage, ki yikach ish ishah, when a man takes a woman. The other refers to Abraham’s purchase of a field from Ephron, which he buys for the burial of Sarah (Genesis 23:13). What is the common denominator? According to the Talmud, we learn the significance of the kichah of marriage from the kichah of the field of Ephron. Kichah signified a transfer of money for the field, thus in marriage kichah means that a wife is "acquired" by her husband through a transfer of money (the groom gives the bride an object of value worth not less than a perutah, an insignificant coin). Ramban noted long ago that in making the analogy to money for purchase, the Sages of the Talmud did not intend to equate marriage with property, but only to define a mode of legal conveyance.

The Halakhah insists on a technically legal kinyan in order to create the new relationship. The woman now becomes eshet ish (a married woman), permitted to no other man, and the husband and wife become subject to the prohibited incestuous relationships with each other’s closest relatives. Society could not create marriage out of what was merely a well-intentioned promise, or an agreeable arrangement, or a statement of shared goals, however noble these were. It required a formal, binding kinyan.

When Maimonides sketches the history of marriage from the primitive meeting on the street to formal marriage and, possibly, formal divorce, he is saying that the "acquisition" formalizes and crystallizes an otherwise amorphous relationship. Marriage is established through its framework: a formal beginning, a formal ending, and an acknowledged and accepted period of changed status and obligations. For example, betrothal by contract is derived from the need of formal divorce; in Hebrew this is expressed, ve’yatze’ah ve’hayeta (she goes out of one marriage and into another). As the "going out," a divorce, is accomplished by written document, her "coming in," marrying, is by written document (referring to the second mode of kinyan). There must be in that formal beginning and ending, whether it is expressed in writing, or in action, a moment when society declares a change in the new relationship. The marriage formula declares the woman prohibited to all other men, the divorce formula that she is permitted to all other men. What "clinches" the formula’s capacity to create a new reality is the kinyan, a physical act designed specifically to seal the idea of the word and formalize it before witnesses, the representatives of society.

The use of the purchase of property as the model of marriage "acquisition" is carefully developed. People readily understand the responsibilities of land ownership, but may not appreciate the responsibilities of marriage and family. The headiness of love and shared hope cloud the realities of the couple’s new situation. Young couples often feel that a love relationship is informal and should be celebrated festively, not with contracts, acquisitions, and other legalities. This hazy, undefined togetherness, however, makes for casual arrangements and hit-or-miss relationships. By using the word kichah in two different contexts, the Rabbis associated marriage with property transfer and thus insisted that marriage be initiated formally and seriously as a permanent bond.

A permanent bond means specific laws that do not by themselves take into account the prevailing individual sentiment. No amount of love, for example, can lawfully permit a bride to contract a marriage by agreeing to accept as a marriage gift an object worth less than a pe’rutah. The reverse is also true. A pe’rutah is a minimum legal unit, not one instituted for her honor or to serve as a gift of love. If it were, the bride could insist that her honor and love require an exorbitant sum. Like the daughters of the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yannai, she could assert that her honor deserves much more than a lowly pe’rutah—perhaps a barrelful of dinarim. The marriage gift is designed not to express personal worth, but to fulfill the technical legal requirements of formal acquisition.

Judaism must protect the family from the tempestuousness of sex, the alternating patterns of love, the sudden ups and downs of very close relationships. Just as the buyer of property intends to protect it, develop it, make it productive, and cherish it, this must also be the plan of those who undertake marriage. Because he bought the land, Abraham returned to it. Of course, he also returned to it because he buried his wife there, but the purchase of property was his investment in the Promised Land—it rooted him in a land to which his only tie had been spiritual. Jeremiah purchased property to demonstrate to his fellow Jews that despite impending destruction, a Jew must be tied to his land (32:6—16). So, indeed, the bond between man and woman—though qualitatively different from man’s relationship with his property—must be responsible, firm, intelligent, and able to weather the most unfavorable conditions.

As the formal acquisition transferred the property from someone else’s proprietorship, or from hefker (a state of abandonment and ownerlessness) to his personal care and protection, so the establishment of formal kinyan in marriage rescued family life from hefker. In this way, the formalizing of the marriage bond made it possible for the family to become the foundation of all society and the pattern for all government as well as the governance of the "family of nations."

Before Sinai, married life was a loose, voluntary arrangement, a sort of ye’duah be’tzibbur (common law) situation. If two people wished to live together, they did. If a woman desired another man, she could not be accused of adultery. If she wanted to move out, she did. Just as in our "living together" situations of today, there were no binding ties. Under such conditions, the legal protections of the family, such as the husband’s obligation of support, honor, and fidelity, are at best fond hopes. At the drop of a shoe or a loud snore, children can be orphaned from one parent for life. It is abundantly clear that this can and does occur, and couples who cohabit undergo "premarital divorce" in our day. The informal arrangement was the old institution of concubinage (pileggesh), which Maimonides affirms was the relationship of a man and his exclusive girlfriend, without benefit of a formal marriage and marriage contract.

By formalizing marriage, Judaism saved marriage. By stamping it "legal acquisition," it made firm that which was vague and inchoate. It held the family fast—so fast that the family eventually held together the whole exiled and hopelessly dispersed Jewish community. This is surely hinted at in the betrothal blessing, when G‑d is praised as me’kadesh ammo Yisrael al ye’dei chuppah ve’kiddushin, "He who sanctifies his people Israel through marriage and betrothal." Through the laws of marriage, G‑d enhances family life, personal morality, and Jewish survival. Rabbi David Abudarham, a medieval liturgical commentator, said, "When we recite in our prayers ‘G‑d who sanctified us,’ we may interpret it ‘G‑d who married us,’ " for the Hebrew root of both "sanctified" and "married" is k-d-sh.

Acquisition Is Not Ownership

We can understand the Talmudic Rabbis’ concept of marriage not only by what they derived from the comparison between property acquisition and marital acquisition, but also by what they rejected in it. Generally speaking, there are two concepts of property ownership: (1) an owner has the right only to use the property to achieve his ends; and (2) an owner exerts total power over the property. Philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen once defined property as nothing more than the sovereign power to exclude others.

While one could make a good case for the use concept of property, which ultimately belongs to G‑d, there is nothing in Judaism that would not permit espousal of Cohen’s power theory. We own property during our tenure on earth and, even if our ownership is not metaphysically absolute, politically we have exclusive sovereignty over that property. That is how society understands "private" property. One interpretation of kichah, therefore, implies exclusivity. When a man "takes" a wife, he chooses one woman and, with her consent, makes her his life-long partner. She has no other husband. This idea of exclusivity is derived from the concept of property ownership.

More specifically, the Talmud derives its interpretation of exclusivity from the acquisition of temple property, rather than from secular property acquisition. (The Talmud uses two terms for betrothal, which appear, respectively, as the titles of the first two chapters of the tractate Kiddushin. The first is Ha-ishah Niknet, [A Woman Is Acquired]; the second is Ha-Ish Me’kadesh [A Man Sanctifies]. The Talmud continues: "At the beginning the author uses the biblical term niknet, ‘acquired,’ while he later employs a rabbinical one, me’-kadesh, ‘sanctifies.’ What is the meaning of the rabbinical term sanctify? He forbids her to all other males, like something hekdesh, dedicated to the sanctuary, which is exclusively its property." Thus in marriage a wife is permitted to her husband but not to any other man; she is exclusive to this partnership.)

The rabbinic application of kichah to temple property is basic to an understanding of Jewish marriage. If we were to derive the lesson from civil property transfer alone, we could say that exclusivity is a result of ownership. A man owns property and no one else may trespass on it. Transposed to marriage, this would imply that the wife is exclusive to her husband as a consequence of his ownership of her person. Such an idea is repugnant to Judaism. The Jewish husband does not own his wife.

The lesson we learn from hekdesh, however, provides a fresh insight. In hekdesh, when a man dedicates an object to the temple, it is not a change in ownership, from owner to temple that is effected, it is a change in the status of the object. It becomes a sanctified item that cannot be used for secular purposes. The reason it is exclusive to the temple is not a consequence of temple ownership, but rather because its inherent status is sacred. Hence, in marriage there is no transfer of ownership—no person owns another person—instead the woman receives a new status as eshet ish (a married woman). It is not a consequence of her betrothal, it is the very definition of her betrothal.

The personal status inherent in eshet ish sets the character of Jewish marriage. The exclusive nature of the married woman may never be compromised, diminished, or voluntarily contracted out. A number of examples of her exclusivity are mentioned in different tracts of the Talmud:

1. If a man fulfills all the requirements of the betrothal ceremony except that he wishes to marry only "part of" the woman, the marriage is void. A woman must retain her integrity. She is exclusive and cannot be shared.

2. "If a man says to a woman, ‘Today you are my wife, but tomorrow you will not be my wife,’ will she be free without a divorce and the marriage void?" No. Personal status (ke’dushat ha-guf) is not terminable in advance; the duration of the status cannot be limited beforehand. The law states that the marriage is valid, but the condition is void; and she may not cease to be a married woman without a divorce or the husband’s death.

The Jerusalem Talmud comments, "If someone says: You are betrothed to me for thirty days, she is betrothed forever" (that is, until divorce or death). Commentators note that the very nature of Jewish marriage implies that once a woman has this status conferred upon her, it is as though her husband said, "You are betrothed to me forever."

3. The termination of eshet ish is also absolute. A woman is either totally out of the status of "the married woman" or totally within it. If a husband hands a divorce to his wife and says, "You are now free to marry anyone except a certain man," the divorce is not valid and the woman is not divorced. There is no such thing as partial divorce.

All of the variations of marriage that compromise the integrity of a woman’s married status are violations of the sacred Jewish concept of marriage. Commune marriages, planned serial monogamy, and wife-swapping, are modern reflections of ancient attempts to undermine the institution of marriage. The Torah disqualifies these options when it likens marriage to acquisition of sacred property.

Acquisition by Consent

In Jewish law, taking a wife can never mean taking by force. Perhaps it was to insure against the slightest possibility of this primitive interpretation that the tradition associated the "taking" of marriage with the "taking" involved in Abraham’s purchase of the field of Ephron. Just as mutual consent is required for a property sale, it is an unqualified prerequisite for marriage.

An important part of the marriage service is the assurance of the woman’s consent. Indeed, the emphasis on the consensual nature of the Jewish marriage contract is an ethical value that Judaism has taught the world. Contract law in England and America derives, to a large extent, from the Talmudic law on marriage contracts and its persistent emphasis on the voluntary participation of both parties.

The focal phrase regarding consent in the Bible appears in Genesis (24:58) when Rebecca’s brother and mother ask her if she is willing to marry Isaac. The Talmud refines and develops the concept in halakhic terms. The Talmud asks, "Why does the Mishnah begin with [a woman is acquired] ha-ishah niknet, rather than ha-ish koneh [a man acquires]?" The Talmud responds that the latter might imply to the uninitiated in Jewish law acquisition in any manner, even against the woman’s will. The emphasis on her acquisition indicates—in the very first word of the first mishnah of the first chapter of the Talmudic tractate on marriages—that the acquisition is dependent upon her consent.

Rashba, a noted thirteenth-century Spanish Talmudist, asks why this emphasis was necessary, since no other contract could ever be made without consent. The answer is that a commercial transaction, entered into with only grudging consent made under duress, is valid. He quotes Maimonides who holds that in civil contracts, if we are sure that both parties consent, even though one of them does not specifically articulate "I agree," the contract is nonetheless valid. Rashba says that while this is true in commercial transactions, it does not hold for the marital procedure. In regard to marriage, consent made under duress invalidates the whole process. The Jewish tradition will not permit a marriage to begin on this basis; it will not allow any circumstance at all to reduce the woman’s freedom to select as she desires.

Further, Kalman Kahana establishes that, with regard to property, only rights are being transferred. Rights, of course, also require consent; but even consent under duress is sufficient for the acquisition of a right. In regard to marriage, however, we are creating a new status, initiating a lifelong binding relationship that requires wholehearted, clear-headed, unflinching consent. For property acquisition we require only haskamah (consent), even though it be unwilling. For marriage, the law requires daat (willing consent). Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, a nineteenth-century scholar, holds that the primary purpose of the presence of witnesses is to testify to the woman’s willing consent.

Because clear consent is required, the ring given by the man must be of easily determined value. What appears to be a diamond might in fact be costume jewelry; the woman might be deceived. Perhaps she would have given consent to the marriage, but not willing consent, had she known its true value. She therefore has grounds for rescinding the marriage.

Because the betrothal could be executed with only a ring, a statement, a consenting nod, and witnesses, a problem arose around mock marriages. If the ceremony contains all the rudimentary components, but is done in jest at a party, without willing consent, is the couple required to get a formal divorce? There is a serious possibility that marriage might have been halakhically triggered!

Many such curious incidents are recorded, and many complicated Responsa were written on this subject. It is one of the reasons for the betrothal becoming a more "official" and public occasion. Originally, the betrothal was performed in the presence of only two witnesses in the privacy of the home, (while only the nuptials required the minyan, quorum of ten). Leading rabbis received questions about young girls who had been betrothed as a trick or joke; and girls who were still minors were being proposed to and given the ring without their parents’ knowledge. Men often proposed to very young girls only in order to blackmail their fathers! In the year 810, to remedy this situation, Rabbi Ahai Gaon, of eighth-century Babylonia, instituted the requirement of the presence of ten adult males for the blessings at every betrothal. Subsequently, the marriage contract was required to be written and formally witnessed at the betrothal. Young girls were taught to take vows not to accept betrothal without parental consent. If instances of mock marriages occur today, a rabbi competent in halakhic decision should be consulted immediately. Marriage is far too serious a matter to become a subject of jokes, however well-intentioned. Hence the Rabbis were quite severe in their judgments. They strove to discourage a light-hearted attitude, and to keep marriage on an exalted level.

The concept of daat (willing consent) had many ramifications. A woman might withhold consent until she had negotiated numerous conditions in the contract; conversely, she might be so blinded by love or desire that she would agree to virtually any conditions in order to marry her suitor. If the loneliness of single life had become intolerable, she might be prompted to accept the lesser of two evils and marry under very difficult contractual conditions. For example, she might agree never to visit her mother. If she did so, even many years later, her husband could claim she violated the contract. The contract might then become void from its inception, requiring the marriage to be rescinded. Her children could then become functional orphans, and she would lose the monetary portion of her ketubah.

In order to defend women against unscrupulous men who might insist on intolerable preconditions to marriage, the Rabbis slowly eliminated all but the standard conditions of the marriage contract. Gifts of money continue at times to be included as conditions, so long as they do not bear adversely on the possibility of starting a family under favorable circumstances.

The law moved gradually from contract—the ability to negotiate everything independently which, as noted, often worked against women—to status, which by itself was a sort of guarantee of minimum livable conditions. Her new status was designed to enable her to make a success of marriage and family, without specific negotiations. Willing consent was not only consent to marry a specific individual, but to enter into this new personal status.

Rabbi Shimon Shkop, a twentieth-century Head of Yeshiva, notes that with property there is a change of owners (baalut), but obviously no change in the status of the land. In marriage, there is no change of owners (be’alim): the father did not own his daughter (he had only certain legally defined rights over a minor daughter, as he had responsibilities for her), and the husband does not own her as a wife. It is her status that changes. Previously, she was permitted to all men; now consorting with another man is subject to the laws of adultery. Previously, her cohabitation even with this chosen man was branded immoral; now it is a loyal following of the laws of Torah and considered a great mitzvah.

The very word kinyan is used in rabbinic literature for acquiring friends in general. The Sages say ke’neh le’kha chaver (acquire a close friend for yourself). Similarly, the sixth chapter of the Ethics of the Fathers is called Perek kinyan Torah, "Acquisition of Torah"; Ben Sira (6:7) says kanita ohev be’nisayon konehu ("If you want to acquire a friend, take him on trial, and be in no hurry to trust him"). This implies that you must extend yourself to win good friends. In this sense, too, kinyan is surely an appropriate term for "acquiring" a wife.

Woman’s Independence

No individual can acquire possessive rights of another individual. Judaism believes in the sacredness and hence independence of the human personality, and it acts on that belief. Owning another human being could be a form of slavery. Be’nei Yisrael avadai hem ve’lo avadim le avadim—"For the children of Israel are My servants, and not servants of servants." Children are not the servants of their parents, wives are not the servants of husbands, nor husbands of wives.

It cannot be overstated that acquisition in marriage is absurdly construed by some to mean ownership of a mate. This is nothing short of a calumny. The Torah speaks of woman’s rights (ishut); it says nothing of a man’s rights, only of his obligations. It says nothing of a wife’s obligations, although the Talmudic Sages developed scripturally-implied mutual obligations and rights. Biblically, men had obligations because they had the funds and the power, while women’s influence, though often considerable, was at that time exercised indirectly.

Legal insight into Jewish commercial law is revealing. If acquisition of kichah were identical in marriage as in property, the executor of the contract would not be the man but the woman. In Jewish commercial law, whereas the consent of both parties is required, the buyer is passive and only accepts the transfer instrument and acquires title. It is the seller who prepares the contract and delivers it to the buyer. By all reasonable standards, if marriage were considered just another form of purchase the husband would be the buyer, the wife the seller. But in Jewish law the wife does not write the contract. There is also no discussion in any of the Jewish sources of the possibility of chazakah, another mode of property acquisition. When the Talmud asks whether barter (chalippin) might be used as a mode of acquisition in place of money, the commentators are quick to point out that there was never an assumption that marriage is to be equated with property, and it cannot be construed as another form of kessef.

The wife cannot remotely be considered the property of her husband. The husband never had the power of compulsion over his wife, as was true of English law until the end of the nineteenth century. In Jewish law, the husband is not responsible for his wife’s crimes or her sins. Except when she is involved in irrational behavior or starkly immoral displays, the husband had no right to interfere in her life. Similarly, the particular heinousness of adultery is not that it is an invasion of the husband’s private property, it is a sin against G‑d that threatens the whole structure of family and society.

Indeed Maimonides writes that "If a woman says: ‘My husband is objectionable to me, I cannot live with him... I hold him in contempt and cannot willingly agree to be intimate with him,’ we compel him to divorce her forthwith, for she is not a captive to be compelled to intimacy with one she hates." Rabbenu Tam, of twelfth-century France, and Rosh, of thirteenth-century Germany, two leading authorities, disagree because they fear this kind of reasoning may come to be used indiscriminately as an excuse for obtaining a divorce. However, we may infer that if it were humanly possible to be certain of the genuineness of the objection in each case, it would constitute grounds for compelling a divorce.

A married woman is considered legally and actually to be in her own possession. In reference to different subjects in the laws of marriage, two medieval authorities make pointed statements. Rashba: "The woman’s person is not acquired by the husband and this marriage ceremony is not a property transaction." Ramban: "She has never been the property of her husband and is in her own possession."

A woman cannot be willfully compelled by her husband to lower her social status or economic level. Furthermore, if she and her husband are living in her mother-in-law’s home and a quarrel develops between the two women, the wife can insist that the couple move out at the pain of compelling him to divorce her.

In classic Jewish literature, relations between husband and wife were based on mutual trust and respect, not on threats and browbeating. Wife-beating, so common in the western world, is considered to be utterly reprehensible by Judaism. Historically, it has occurred very rarely in Jewish families. If a man was found to be a wife-beater, he had to pay damages and provide her with separate maintenance. Failing that, the wife had valid grounds for compelling a divorce. By and large, men were prevented from such brutality by the force of public distaste. Jewish men were commanded to love and honor their wives by the words of the marriage contract, ke’hilkhot guvrin ye’hudain—as Jewish men are accustomed to do.

According to the Torah, the husband also has no legal rights to, or power over, his wife’s personal finances. In every period of Jewish history, including the early patriarchal era and the Middle Ages, the wife had an independent right to property. Technicalities concerning the wife’s property fill many folios of the Talmud. The rabbinic laws concerning use and maintenance of the property were designed for the furtherance of domestic tranquility (she’lom bayit), which they considered superior to all other considerations.

Throughout the history of Judaism, women have had the right to work. In fact, during the Middle Ages, Jewish women often earned the major portion of the family budget. They engaged in a wide variety of commercial occupations, especially money lending, a business often forced upon the Jewish community by the restrictive policy of the State regarding ownership of real estate. Community organizations frequently appointed women as trustees with the right to invest funds at their own discretion. Impeding a wife’s right to work, which is a complicated legal issue, is considered by the Talmud to be legitimate grounds for compelling divorce. Such laws are not actionable outside of Israel today, as no divorce can be compelled by a Jewish court in the Diaspora.

The Rabbis guaranteed a married woman the right to work, but in the name of healthy family unity they decreed that her earnings must go to the family fund, just as her husband’s earnings go to support her and the family. If she relinquishes her husband’s support she may keep her wages. (The law does not give the husband the opportunity to refuse to support his wife when she works.) For the sake of domestic peace, the Rabbis ruled that there should be a household division of labor; (e.g., if the husband works the wife has to keep house or, if they are wealthy, at least manage the house. The wife, however, can refuse to do housework if she herself works and pays someone else to clean house in her stead).

These legal decisions clearly and unequivocally reflect the ideal of the independence of Jewish women. Rabbi Johanan said, "Thou shalt call Me ishi (my husband) and shalt call me no longer baali (my master)" (Hosea 2:18). The technical formal name for the husband after betrothal may be baal [master] and the process of acquisition kinyan. The true title for the married man is ish, and for betrothal, kiddushin [sanctification].

Different Roles

The woman has the last, albeit silent, word at the wedding service. It is the man’s role to pursue, woo, and propose to her, but she must give positive willing consent to the proposal in order for the marriage to be legal. The witnesses have to be conscious of that daat; it is central to the entire service. Furthermore, she must receive the ring with the understanding that despite her acknowledged prior consent, this specific act is considered to clinch the betrothal, and therefore requires positive intent. The moment she receives the ring, she undergoes the momentous change in personal status.

The groom’s role of initiator places him in a busy, hovering position at the wedding. Natan hu, amar hu—he must give the ring and he must propose marriage by enunciating this formula. In return for her consent he presents her with a ketubah, in which he records his binding obligations.

The tenor of the ceremony is an accurate reflection of the halakahic drama that is the core of the wedding. The bride’s role is both veiled and central, she remains seated while attendants care for details. Similarly, the procession places the bride in the final and climactic role, as the groom and his escorts (shushvinin) anticipate the final arrival of the queen bride.

A clear understanding of the nature of the marriage contract is required to understand the delicate sense of balance in the wedding ceremony. In American law a contract is bilateral, and both parties participate in its signing. In Jewish law the contract is also bilateral, but the formal instrument is unilateral. Consent is required of both parties, but only the groom gives the contract, and only the bride receives it. All Jewish contracts take this form. The seller’s role may be physically passive, but it is legally active, since the kinyan is concluded not in the act of giving, but in the act of receiving. When the bride receives the ring she closes the circuit. That is the dramatic gesture that signals "willing consent" to the witnesses.

Noble and well-meaning attempts have been made to give the bride a more active role in the wedding ceremony by the exchange of rings or an innovative recitation. These changes may not invalidate the marriage, but they can obfuscate the authentic message of the tradition, and introduce artificiality into the beautiful, profound, sacred, and historic wedding ceremony. Modern woman has indeed suffered some disabilities from legal ordinances and local usage or ancient custom, but her personal integrity and worth have always been maintained.

An unsurpassed insight into woman’s role comes from the medieval Rabbi Isaac Arama. The Bible reports that Rachel was deeply distressed over her inability to bear Jacob children, while her sister Leah was able to bear children easily.

"And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob: ‘Give me children, else I die.’ And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said: ‘Am I in G‑d’s stead, who had withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?’" (Genesis 30:1-2).

Rabbi Arama says that Rachel’s cry indicates that she did not fully appreciate her role in life. Woman has two names given her in the Torah, which represent two aspects of her personality and her goal on earth. One is ishah, woman, a person of integrity who stands opposite and equal to ish, man. This is what she was called by G‑d when she was created out of Adam’s rib. She was given another name just before she gave birth to the first child. This name was chavah, which means "mother of all living things." A woman is both chavah, a mother, and ishah, a woman. She is ishah in terms of her own personality, the integrity of her thoughts, and her relationship with G‑d and with man. Because she is able to reproduce a human being, she is also chavah, an additional glory that man can never know.

A woman who is barren and cannot fulfill her chavah role remains an ishah, a female person—alive, aware, concerned, and creative in other spheres. When Rachel says, "Give me children, else I die," she denies the value of ishah. Man and woman have the same value before G‑d. Placed at opposite ends of the scale, unlike in terms of temperament and organic structure, each balances the other. Man and woman, bride and groom, Jacob and Rachel, ish and ishah.

Taking Is Giving

A man takes a wife and begins a life of giving. Only in the intimacy of marriage can one reach the higher levels of the ethical life, levels at which one can rejoice in supporting, helping, and strengthening others without expectation of reward. The taking in marriage cannot survive without the commitment to give. This "taking-giving" moral lesson is best described by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a twentieth-century ethicist. "Is the giving a consequence of love, or is perhaps the reverse true: the love a result of giving? We usually think it is love which causes giving. But the truth is that giving often brings about love, for the same reason that a person loves what he himself created or nurtured: he recognizes it as part of himself... On this basis, we can understand yet another remarkable fact. Why do we find so often that this husband-wife affection does not seem to last?... People are generally ‘takers’ not ‘givers.’...Each begins to demand from the other the fulfillment of his or her obligations. When demand begins, love departs."

Rabbi Moses Sofer, the nineteenth-century Hungarian author of Chatam Sofer, refers to the analogy of Abraham and the field of Ephron. "Husband and wife, at the outset of their marriage, are each ‘buyers’ and ‘sellers.’ The husband ‘buys’ a wife and writes her a marriage contract. The wife ‘buys’ a husband, who is obligated by the Torah to love, honor and support his wife. She is his ‘field.’ Her field stands le’avdah u-le’shamrah [as the Garden of Eden], to be ‘worked and watched.’ …and he is her ‘laborer’..."

The field is not acquired in order to be abandoned or abused. kichah implies an intention on the part of the buyer to give to it of himself, to produce, make an investment in the future, strive for a fulfillment of dreams. The wife is the field, to be tended and cared for; the husband is the laborer, "implanting the seed." From their interaction comes the great good of family living, a home for companionship and the birthplace of future generations.

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