Jewish Marriage in Antiquity

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Marriage today might be a highly contested topic, but certainly no more than it was in antiquity. Ancient Jews, like their non-Jewish neighbors, grappled with what have become perennial issues of marriage, from its idealistic definitions to its many practical forms to questions of who should or should not wed. In this book, Michael Satlow offers the first in-depth synthetic study of Jewish marriage in antiquity, from ca. 500 B.C.E. to 614 C.E. Placing Jewish marriage in its cultural milieu, Satlow investigates whether there was anything essentially "Jewish" about the institution as it was discussed and practiced. Moreover, he considers the social and economic aspects of marriage as both a personal relationship and a religious bond, and explores how the Jews of antiquity negotiated the gap between marital realities and their ideals.

Focusing on the various experiences of Jews throughout the Mediterranean basin and in Babylonia, Satlow argues that different communities, even rabbinic ones, constructed their own "Jewish" marriage: they read their received traditions and rituals through the lens of a basic understanding of marriage that they shared with their non-Jewish neighbors. He also maintains that Jews idealized marriage in a way that responded to the ideals of their respective societies, mediating between such values as honor and the far messier realities of marital life. Employing Jewish and non-Jewish literary texts, papyri, inscriptions, and material artifacts, Satlow paints a vibrant portrait of ancient Judaism while sharpening and clarifying present discussions on modern marriage for Jews and non-Jews alike.


  • SKU: 9780691002552
  • SKU10: 069100255X
  • Title: Jewish Marriage in Antiquity
  • Qty Remaining Online: 104
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Date Published: Apr 2001
  • Pages: 434
  • Weight lbs: 1.76
  • Dimensions: 9.21" L x 6.14" W x 1.00" H
  • Features: Index, Dust Cover, Bibliography
  • Themes: Theometrics | Academic; Topical | Family;
  • Subject: Judaism - Rituals & Practice

Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One


“THERE ARE TWELVE good measures in the world, and any man who does not have a wife in his house who is good in [her] deeds is prevented from [enjoying] all of them. He dwells without good, without happiness, without blessing, without peace, without a help, without atonement, without a wall, without Torah, without life, without satisfaction, without wealth, [and] without a crown.”1 So begins a beautifully calligraphied page found in the Cairo Geniza, which then continues with proof texts for each of these twelve assertions. The nucleus of this “sermon in praise of a wife,” as S. D. Goitein calls it, is found in a single talmudic sugya.2 For the darshan, marriage to a good wife is an unqualified good; he goes as far as to embellish the core of his sermon with laudatory aspects of marriage found outside of his base sugya and even of classical rabbinic literature as it has reached us.3 This obscure, nameless darshan’s interpretation of B. Yevamot 62b has been particularly enduring. Yet while such an interpretation of this sugya makes a good sermon, it makes poor history. The sugya as a whole is in fact an attempt to answer the question, Why should a man marry?, and the answer that it gives is far more complex than recognized by our darshan.

For any society that supports marriage as a social institution—which is to say virtually every society—the question, Why marry?, and the answers to it, are crucial. On the one hand, they serve the concrete function of convincing people to marry, thus physically reproducing the institution. Thus societies, like those of Jews and non-Jews in antiquity, that offer quite distinct social roles to men and women frequently deploy different persuasive means to convince men and women to marry. On the other hand, within a given society’s justification of marriage can also be found an articulation of how that society understands marriage, which in turn is a key to understanding more complex issues of group values and identity. When, for example, modern Americans say that one should marry for love, they are also reflecting the value placed on the individual and his/her “happiness,” and are thus also reinforcing other social institutions (e.g., democracy) that depend on this same value.

Our darshan states clearly that a man should marry because it brings him twelve “goods,” some abstract and some quite concrete. The full sugya upon which he bases himself, B. Yevamot 61b–64a, does not provide nearly as clear, nor as positive, an answer. But what this sugya, like the many classical works upon which it appears to have been modeled, does reveal are the tensions of the culture that created it. Hence, this chapter has two primary goals.

First, by closely reading and placing this sugya within two larger contexts, that of contemporary non-Jewish views of marriage and that of themes found elsewhere in the Babylonian Talmud, I will try to recover the function of this sugya, that is, how it might have been read and used as an argument for marriage. Second, beginning from the justifications for marriage given by the traditions that comprise this sugya, I will thematically survey how, and why, the varied Jewish communities in antiquity answered the question, Why marry?


According to the Mishnah, “A man should not cease from [attempting to fulfill the commandment] of procreation unless he has children. The School of Shammai says, ‘[In order to fulfill the commandment to procreate he must have] two boys.’ The School of Hillel says, ‘A boy and a girl, as it is written,

“Male and female he created them” [Gen. 5:2].’”4 The Babylonian Talmud’s discussion of this mishnah is composed primarily of two intertwined, but independent, commentaries. One of these commentaries is on the mishnah proper (i.e., the obligation to procreate), the other is on marriage. Because, as we shall see, there are fundamental differences between the ways that Palestinians and Babylonians discussed marriage, I have italicized dicta attributed to Palestinians.

The Talmud begins its commentary thus:

(I) But if he has children, he may abstain from procreation, but he may not abstain from having a wife.
This is a help to Rav Naïman who said in the name of Shmuel,5 “Even if a man has several children, he is forbidden to live without a wife, as it is said, ‘it is not good for man to be alone’ [Gen. 2:18].”6
But some say that if he has children, he may abstain both from procreation and from having a wife.
You could say that this is an objection to the saying of Rav Naïman in the name of Shmuel!
No. If he has no children he marries a woman capable of bearing children.7 But if he has children, he [can] marry a woman not capable of bearing children. What is the practical difference? That he may sell a Torah scroll [in order to contract a marriage only] in order [to marry a woman capable of bearing] children.

If the reason that a man marries is to bear “legitimate” children, then once he has borne the number of children legally required of him, he no longer has any reason, or at least obligation, to marry. Not so, the redactor argues, following the opinion of the single amoraic authority (Shmuel) that he cites. Marriage is in itself an obligation. Because, though, marriage to a woman incapable of procreation is of a lesser “level” than marriage to a fertile woman, a man is not permitted to sell a holy object (Torah scroll) in order to raise the money needed to contract such a marriage. The redactor cites this originally Palestinian halaka as part of his attempt to reconcile two seemingly conflicting statements.8 After a long discussion (omitted here) of the scriptural foundations of the views of the Schools of Hillel and Shammai, the sugya returns to the topic of marriage, enumerating the benefits of a wife:

(II) Rabbi Tanhum ben R. Hanilai said,9 “Any man who lives without a wife lives without happiness, without blessing, and without good.10 ‘Without happiness,’ as it is written, ‘And you shall . . . rejoice with your household’[Deut. 14:26]. ‘Without blessing,’ as it is written, ‘that a blessing may rest upon your home’ [Ezek. 44:30]. ‘Without good,’ as it is written, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ [Gen. 2:18].” In the West [i.e., Palestine] they say,11 “Without a help, without wisdom, without Torah, without a wall, without a dwelling. ‘Without a help,’ as it is written, ‘I will make a fitting helper for him’ [Gen. 2:18]. ‘Without wisdom,’ as it is written, ‘Truly I cannot help myself; I have been deprived of resourcefulness’ [Job 6:13].12 ‘Without a wall,’ as it is written, ‘. . . a woman encircles a man’ [Jer. 31:21]. ‘Without a dwelling,’ as it is written, ‘You will know that all is well in your tent; when you visit your home you will never fail’ [Job 5:24].

This is the basis for the “sermon in praise of a wife” cited above. Eight laudatory aspects of marriage, all somewhat abstract, are ascribed to Palestinians, and nearly each one is given a proof text.13 The choice of proof texts is not arbitrary. Almost every proof text is based on the appearance of some word for “house,” thus tacitly identifying a man’s “house” with his “wife.” That is, the assumption underlying the use of these proof texts is that marriage is not only about procreation, but also is about the creation of a household.

The introduction of Job 5:24 serves as a pivot that allows the redactor to insert the following brief exchange:

(III) Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “Any man who knows that his wife is a ‘fearer of heaven’ and does not visit her is called a sinner, as it is written, ‘You will know that all is well in your tent ’” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “A man is required to visit his wife before he goes on a trip, as it is written, ‘You will know that all is well in your tent ’”
But is it from here [Job 5:24] that we learn [that a man should have sex with his wife before going on a trip]? Rather, it is from the verse “your urge shall be for your husband . . . ” [Gen. 3:16], which teaches that a woman desires her husband when he sets off on a journey.14 R. Yosef said, “This [i.e., visiting] is only necessary near her period.”15 How near?
Rabbah16 [said,] “A phase.”
These words apply only to a voluntary journey, but for a journey done for the sake of a miüvah, [the obligation to visit one’s wife does not apply because] he is preoccupied.

Read as a whole, this section reduces a husband’s sexual obligation to his wife. According to a baraita attributed to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, a man should have sex with his wife whenever he sets out on a journey.17 The sugya then twice limits the obligation. First, the husband’s obligation to have sex with his wife before beginning a journey is limited to the time when her “desire” is strong, which was thought by the rabbis to be near to her period. Now an additional limitation is imposed: not only is a man no longer obligated to have sex with his wife whenever he begins a journey, but he is not even obligated when his wife actually experiences sexual desire if this desire does not occur at the time thought by the rabbis to be most appropriate for female sexual desire.18 According to Rashi’s interpretation of Rabbah (which is based on a discussion in B. Nid. 63b), this sexual obligation is limited to the twelve hour period before her period is expected, yet is forbidden if her period usually begins during that “phase,” i.e., day or night.

At the end of the section this redactor further limits a man’s sexual obligation. The obligation applies only when a man is going on a “voluntary” journey, one made not for the sake of a commandment. Overall, then, the redactor limits a husband’s obligation to have sex with his wife before departing on a journey to the cases when he is leaving for a “voluntary” journey twelve hours before his wife expects her period. This is not the only place where the redactor of the Babylonian Talmud attempts to limit a man’s sexual obligations to his wife.19 The sugya continues with a baraita also based on Job 5:24:

(IV) Our Rabbis taught: One who loves his wife like himself, and honors her more than himself, and raises his sons and daughters along the straight path, and marries them close to their reaching puberty, about him Scripture says, and you will know that your tent is in peace.One who loves his neighbors, and draws his relatives close, and marries the daughter of his sister, and loans a selato a poor person in need, about him Scripture says, Then when you will call, the Lord will answer; When you will cry He will say, Here I am’” [Isa. 58:9].

This baraita is unattested in any Palestinian document.20 In chapter 10 I discuss the marital ideals expressed in the first part of the baraita. In this sugya, at least the first part of the baraita appears to have been included for its germane exposition of Job 5:24. In any case, it is a fitting conclusion to the first discussion of the merits of marriage.

The second discussion of the merits of marriage opens with a mnemonic and then continues:21

(V) R. Eleazar said, Every man (adam) without a wife is not a man, as it is said, When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God; male and female He created them. [And when they were created, He blessed them] and called them Man[Gen. 5:12].

And R. Eleazar said, Every man who does not have land is not a man, as it is said, The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He gave over to man[Ps. 115:16].22 And R. Eleazar said, Why is it written, . . . I will make a fitting helper for him[Gen. 2:18]? If he merits, she will help him, but if he does not merit, [she will be] against him.And some say: R. Eleazar objected, It is written against himbut we read for him’—if he merits, [she is] for him, but if he does not merit, she opposes him.Rabbi Yosi found Elijah and said to him, It is written, I will make for him a helper’—how does a wife help a man?He said to him, A man brings wheatis the wheat ground? [A man brings] flaxcan he wear flax?23 When she is present, she causes his eyes to shine, and causes him to stand on his feet.And R. Eleazar said, Why is it written, This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh[Gen. 2:23]? This teaches that Adam had intercourse with every beast and living creature and his mind was not cooled until he had intercourse with Eve.

With the exception of a single interpolation (“and some say”), this is a collection of four dicta attributed to R. Eleazar, a third generation Palestinian amora. In the first, he seems to advance a kind of argument from nature for marriage: the first human (Adam) was created both male and female; hence a man’s attainment of complete being as a “man” (adam) depends on recreating this unity, through the social institution of marriage. R. Eleazar appears to be expressing a similar idea in his last dictum, which implies that Adam and Eve were “naturally” made for each other.24 R. Eleazar’s other two dicta, and the story about R.



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