On Marriage

The Talmud (Masechet Taanit 30b) states that the Fifteenth of Av (today) is one of the most joyous days of the year, one of two days on which young maidens would frolic in the vineyards in hopes of attracting a spouse. It is especially romantic day in Israel, notwithstanding that the frolicking in the vineyards is passe, and thus an appropriate time to look at the current state and foundation of marriage.

Marriage is a fundamental institution in humanity, despite the zeitgeist, and especially cherished in Judaism. It is perhaps the most important determinant of a person’s happiness in life, if appreciated and approached properly. There is no joy like the joy of a good marriage, and no misery like the misery of a bad marriage. It is therefore also a very personal institution; what works for one couple or person might not work for another. That is what makes it so unique and precious, and why its inner dynamics are off limits to others (except when they seek out assistance). Miriam was punished because she misconstrued her brother Moshe’s essence and the nature of his prophecy, but perhaps also because she intruded on one of the holy of holies of Jewish life, the privacy of marriage.

The Midrash (Eicha Rabba 3:9) cites the verse “it is good for a man to bear the burden (yoke) in his youth” (Eicha 3:27), and applies it to the three yokes in particular. “A person should carry the yoke of Torah, a wife, and a job when young.” We would not necessarily have put all three together. Certainly there are those who demarcate learning Torah from working and even learning from marrying. Others struggle with the balance between career and family, and exaggerate the time and effort needed to earn a living and shortchange their families in the process. Still others – it is quite common in the world at large – delay embarking on any of the two secular quests (career or spouse) until they have left their youth behind. But Chazal were quite clear: it is good for man, when still young, to bear these burdens. But how is that possible, and especially how are the three considered “burdens?”

The Torah Temima  maintains that all three naturally converge. An ol, in the context of the Midrash, is not a yoke such as weighs down an animal, but rather a responsibility. To feel no ol in life is to have no responsibilities in life, a plight that is attractive to the slacker but inevitably leads to boredom and sin. To have olot means that a person has everything in life – Torah because that is our foundation, a wife so that we can live in purity and overcome our innate narcissism, and a job because without work and self-sufficiency even the Torah will be lost, as in “all Torah not accompanied by work will eventually be nullified” (Avot 2:2). And to do it all “when young” is to maximize the best of the world for the greatest amount of time. It is good to start young. But what exactly is the ol? Is there nonetheless an element of difficulty or of hardship involved?

     The ol of Torah is understandable. Torah study takes time, effort, and diligence. So too the burden of work, which also takes time studying, or planning a career, and then one has to show up every day at a job. But what is the ol of a wife??? Indeed, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, one of the great Musarists of our generation, would urge bridegrooms to recite under the chupa (to themselves!) “behold I accept upon myself the yoke of this woman.” What yoke?

Rav Wolbe explained that it means that a man accepts upon himself at that sublime moment to always relate to his wife with patience, to never become angry or abrupt, to never take her for granted, to assume responsibility for her happiness, to embrace what the Talmud (Masechet Yevamot 62b) imposes on a man – to love his wife as much as he loves himself and to respect her more than he respects himself.  He undertakes never to make her cry or unhappy.

That is quite a commitment, but nothing less is expected of the Jewish husband. It is a serious obligation – and with it all people get married, and still for the best of reasons: because they have shared values and shared goals, and wish to build a life and a family together. That notion is uniform for all, but the details vary from couple to couple.

And that is why each couple is provided with a zone of privacy that enables them to thrive, to build their special home and make their unique contribution to the Jewish people.


5 responses to “On Marriage

  1. ספר איכה פרק ג
    (כז) טוֹב לַגֶּבֶר כִּי יִשָּׂא עֹל בִּנְעוּרָיו

    מדרש רבה איכה פרשה ג פסקה ט
    טוב לגבר כי ישא עול בנעוריו עול תורה עול אשה עול מלאכה

  2. Richard (Refoel Menachem) Anshluss

    Why are we always reading (not necessarily here) about a husband’s responsibility to his wife? How come we never hear about a wife’s responsibility to her husband? Is it not “PC” to write about her obligations??? Maybe the reason there are so many problems in marriages is that everyone keeps talking about the respect a man owes to his wife, but no one ever talks about the respect she owes to him.

  3. A friend from a younger time who was a work associate, a Christian, like me, and a widow, told me once, that her Jewish husband had been the most wonderful man, husband, father, and family provider that she would ever know – that no one she had met since his death could compare and so she remained single for the 13 years I knew her. He had practiced his faith, loved his parents, treated her like a queen and she swore none was his equal. I envied her that kind of marriage and soul mate, a rarity among men, I think.

  4. You know, you talk a lot about the responsibilities a man has towards his wife – to respect her, love her, not take her for granted, etc. But why you don’t you address the responsibilities a wife has towards her husband? Doesn’t she also have responsibilities?

    I think your post encapsulates one of the reasons so many marriages are failing today. For the past 40 years and counting, all we hear about is how women have to be respected, women are wonderful, how special mothers are – all of that is true, but it is equally true of men and of husbands. Yet we never hear it. Its as if its assumed that men don’t need to hear to such things. (Though lately there have been patronizing shifts primarily towards blacks, with “fatherhood initiatives.”) What apparently isn’t realized is that the message isn’t necessary for the men, its for the women. They have to hear of their responsibilities to their husbands just as much as the reverse, and if they don’t hear it, they will subtly begin to think that its not incumbent upon them.

    I would actually go further than that. I think its even MORE important for women to hear about their responsibilities towards their husbands, than it is for the reverse. With women in the workforce, provocatively (for orthodox standards) dressed, bombarded with sexual imagery left, right and center, – wives have to understand the temptations their husband face. They need to understand that what they hear from a very feminist society are not the values we believe in.

    One can debate the last paragraph, I guess, and this is probably grist for an entire post, not just a comment. Still, I was pretty surprised to see you fall prey to the same liberal malady that’s killing our country, in which only women are to be respected, but men, like modern sitcom characters, are apparently nothing more than punchlines.

  5. Well, there is much truth in what you write, but despite the zeitgeist I have always thought it foolish to state that men and women are “equal.” Equality exists in mathematics. Men and women are different – inherently – and have different needs, and the emotional needs of women in marriage exceed that of men. Most men seem to be secure enough to know that. And that is one secret to having a happy marriage.
    These days, most find such a notion either antiquated or repugnant (or both), one reason perhaps why divorce is so common and many marriages so short-lived.