Before marrying my grandmother, Rebbetzin Chava Hecht, my grandfather, Rabbi Jacob J. Hecht, o.b.m., told her, “I, being a ‘Yanky,’ an old-fashioned American boy, will marry you only under the following condition: I must be the head of the house.” My grandmother responded, “You can be the head, but I will be the neck, and wherever the neck turns, the head has to follow.”

Design

The eighth letter of the alef-beis is the ches. The ches, according to the AriZal,1 is a fusion of two letters: the vav and the zayin. On top of the vav and zayin is a chatoteres,2 a bridge that unites the two.3 In essence, vav represents the male principle, the hus­band. Zayin represents the female principle, the wife.4 The bridge that links them is G‑d. The Maggid of Mezritch illumi­nates5 the verse “The woman of valor is the crown of her hus­band”6 as: the zayin, the crown, signifies the position of the woman of valor safeguarding the man.

The design of the ches is representative of another type of bridge. If the relationship between vav (man) and zayin (woman) is to be complete, the two are united beneath a chup­pah, a marriage canopy. The form of the ches looks like a marriage canopy. The word chuppah, חופה,even begins with a ches, for the word chuppah means ches poches (G‑d, man and woman) is po (here). Ches is the heart of marriage. Man and woman are truly united only when they are joined beneath the chuppah with the third partner, which is G‑d.

The Talmud7 tells us that if man and woman, איש ואשה (ish v’isha), are meritorious, the Divine presence will rest between them. The word ish, man, is spelled איש, alef, yud, shin. Isha, אשה, woman, is spelled alef, shin, hei. In both ish and isha we find the letters alef and shin. Alef and shin spell eish, the Hebrew word for fire. The fire that exists between man and woman fuels a fiery, passionate relationship. But if there were only this flame igniting the marriage, the fire of passion could all too easily be transformed into a fire of destruction. G‑d must also be in the marriage, and fortunately He is: the yud of the ish, the man, when combined with the hei of the isha, the woman, denotes the very name of G‑d.8

The comparison of a husband and wife’s relationship to fire illustrates the secret to a healthy marriage. When two people decide to marry, there is usually fire and passion. Yet for some reason, two or three years down the line, the excitement is often gone. No fire. Where did the passion go?

When a relationship begins, it is like a bonfire, and who needs to tend a bonfire? One believes that it will last forever. But in truth, the flame has to be stoked. For example, a hus­band can surprise his wife with flowers for Shabbos. A wife can buy her husband a gift. They can attend a class together or establish a time to learn a portion of the Torah every week. They can take long romantic walks.

Additionally, a fire cannot be sustained unless the couple works together toward a common goal. Collaborating on differ­ent projects can help bond husband and wife. For example, planning a nice Shabbos meal with lots of guests is a great way to bond. The important thing to remember is that one shouldn’t expect a marriage to last by itself. Unfortunately, in the United States today, more than fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. The key to maintaining fire in a marriage is nurturing the kernels of communication and purpose. The two partners must work together to fortify the chatoteres, the bridge, which unites them and binds them both to G‑d.

Gematria

The numerical value of ches is eight. On the eighth day after his birth, a boy has a bris. What does a bris have to do with mar­riage? Well, one can say that after marriage there will be children, hopefully, and therefore, a bris. But in essence, the number eight represents transcendence—a level beyond nature and intellect. Everything in the world of time revolves around the number seven: the seven days of the week, the seventh year being a Sabbatical year, the observance of a Hakhel year every seven years. Eight, however, represents transcendence, a level that is beyond the natural order.

To explain, the Midrash9 tells us there was a debate between Isaac and Ishmael, the two sons of Abraham. Ishmael said, “I’m better than you. Why? Because I had my bris when I was thir­teen years old. Therefore I went into it rationally. I thought about it, made my choice and did it. And I still remember it to this very day. You, on the other hand, Isaac, don’t remember anything; you never had that choice. You didn’t have the opportunity to agree to it. It was done by force, without your consent.” Isaac looked at Ishmael in turn and said, “No, on the contrary. I’m the one who is better off, because I had my bris at eight days rather than at thirteen years.”

What did Isaac mean?10 The word bris means “covenant,” a bond between two sides. If two cohorts like each other, they say, “Now we are treating each other nicely, we’re friends. But what about the future? Let’s sit down and make a pact to ensure that we’ll be friends forever. Forever means that even though there may come a time when, perhaps logically, we should separate—maybe we’re not getting along, or one of us is causing the other pain—this pact will keep us together.”

This bris is the pact a Jew makes with G‑d on the eighth day of his life. One can say to G‑d, “I’m not perfect and I don’t follow Your Torah to the letter of the law. But You are my G‑d. Therefore You will protect me, You will sustain me, and You will watch over me.” On the other hand, even if G‑d doesn’t treat us the way we think we should be treated, even if He allows us to be in golus (exile) one more moment, G‑d forbid, we won’t reject Him. We won’t forsake Him, because we have a bris—a covenant beyond intellect—demanding that we stay together.

We can thus understand the advantage of a bris done on the eighth day versus one done at thirteen years. Even though a person has free will in the latter case, his choice is made on a rational level. In contrast, a bris that is performed on the eighth day represents one’s bond with G‑d that defies all levels of intellect and the natural order.

In much the same way, the Jewish people’s marriage to G‑d is also a relationship that transcends logic. It is a suprarational covenant, bonding both parties for eternity.

Meaning

The meaning of the word ches is chayos, which means “life.” Life can only be considered true when it is infused with G‑dliness, because the body by itself is temporary, and any­thing temporary cannot be true. True life is immortal and everlasting. The way one acquires everlasting life is by con­necting with G‑d through Torah study and the performance of mitzvos.

In addition, the Zohar11 tells us that before an individual gets married, he is only “half a person.” It is only when he unites with his bashert (soulmate) in marriage that he becomes whole and complete. Since marriage allows one to connect to G‑d in the ultimate sense, then being united with one’s soulmate is considered “true life.”

Furthermore, the AriZal expounds on this idea of complete­ness in terms of the specific mitzvos that a woman is not obli­gated to perform,12 explaining that she indeed receives the merit of the mitzvah when it is performed by her soulmate.13 Soul­mates are partners in this regard; even before their mar­riage.

Because certain mitzvos can only be done within the context of marriage, this process of shared merit is not considered com­plete until the two halves of the soul unite under the chup­pah. G‑d’s participation in the marriage is the chatoteres, the bridge, which brings the union to fruition and creates everlasting chayos.

The Talmud states:14 “It is as difficult for G‑d to make a match between two people as the Splitting of the Red Sea.” Obviously, this statement raises a few questions. What does the Red Sea have to do with marriage? And how can we call some­thing that G‑d accomplishes “difficult”? G‑d is omnipotent, infinite. Yet we say that His bringing about a marriage is as difficult as the Splitting of the Red Sea! Furthermore, if one wanted to talk about something being difficult, why pick the Red Sea? In the grand scheme of things, why not mention something even more intimidating—like the creation of the universe?!

The answer is as follows. When G‑d created the world, He formed it ex nihilo—from nothing into something. If a con­tractor is given the job of building a house from scratch, it is relatively easy. There are no standing walls to bother him and no limits to constrain him. He is able to do what he wants to create the perfect home. But what happens when an individual moves into a home that is dilapidated? What if the walls are crooked and he has to straighten them out? What if the pre-existing plumbing is a shambles? It is a lot harder to make that structure into a perfect home. We find a direct parallel in the Splitting of the Red Sea. The nature of water is to flow. But what did G‑d do at the Sea? He took the fluid nature of water and transformed it into the nature of solid rock.15 He had to completely change the substance from its elemental norm. The same is true of marriage. There are two different people who come from two different homes with two different back­grounds. It is not challenging enough that one is a male and one is a female. Beyond that, he likes the windows open; she likes the windows closed. He likes the country. She likes the city. His mother made gefilte fish this way. Her mother made gefilte fish that way. So we have these two opposites coming together and trying to merge as one. In order for the marriage to work, the nature and constitution of each individual must change.

Now we can understand why it is as difficult for G‑d to cre­ate a marriage as it is to split the Red Sea, because in order for two people to come together, each must change his or her ingrained habits and ways. In order for a marriage to survive, and better yet, thrive, there needs to be a third element, a third partner, G‑d, who helps the two natures to fuse.

At the Splitting of the Sea, G‑d blew a wind all night long to keep the water standing. Why? Because if we are going to transform the very nature of something, we must continuously infuse that element with new life, breath and force. Therefore a marriage—which requires constant change by the two individu­als involved—must be continuously infused with the spirit of G‑d. This is the true ches, the true chayos: man, woman and G‑d coming together in the eternal covenant of marriage.