Why Rabbis Did Not Set an Obligatory Age of Marriage for Women
As I wrote in my column about two months ago, the halakha was determined that, lechatchilla (optimally), men should get married from the ages of eighteen to twenty, and in a sha’at dachak (pressing situation), no later than the age of twenty-four. As for women, however, the rabbis did not set a specific age of marriage. The reason is that all the mitzvoth connected to establishing and supporting a family, and the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, was imposed on men as a chova (obligation), and on women as a mitzvah. A man who fails to learn all the fundamentals of the Torah, or fails to provide for his family, is considered a transgressor. Consequently, the rabbis instructed men to postpone marriage until the age of eighteen, so they could first learn the fundamentals of Torah and reach a stage where they could begin to support a family. Women however, who are not required to learn all the fundamentals of the Torah, and were not obligated by the Torah with the burden of providing for a family, are able to marry at an earlier age.
Similarly regarding the maximum age for marriage – since a man is obligated in the mitzvah of puru u’revuru (to be fruitful and multiply), halakha determines that it is forbidden for him to postpone marriage beyond the age of twenty, and in a sha’at dachak, twenty-four. But as for a woman, given that she is not duty-bound in the mitzvah of puru u’revuru, the rabbis did not set a maximum, obligatory age of marriage. Nevertheless, our Sages said that it is proper for a woman to marry at the earliest possible opportunity, to avoid delaying the mitzvah of puru u’revuru, and to prevent the yetzer ha’ra (evil inclination) from goading her (Sanhedrin 76a).
Parents Duty to Help Their Daughters Marry
Seeing as it is a great mitzvah for a woman to marry and have children, the Torah commands parents to help their daughters wed, and our Sages even instructed that fathers’ allocate a tenth of their wealth to help their daughters get married. Consequently, if a father died without stating how much he intended to allot for his daughters’ wedding, a tenth of his wealth is given (Ketubot 52b; 68a; S.A., E.H. 113:1). However, if a father was alive but did not want to give a tenth of his wealth to his daughter’s wedding, Beit Din (Jewish court of law) would not intervene and force him to do so (R’ma, E.H., 70:1).
Today, it is harder to assess the value of a person’s wealth, and the increase of life expectancy has also created a need to save larger amounts of money for old age. Nevertheless, it ought to be learned from this that it is a mitzvah for parents to spend a significant amount of money on their children’s weddings. God willing, I hope to clarify this matter in the future.
The Apparent Contradiction in Halakha
Returning to the issue of what age a girl should get married, apparently, there is a contradiction in this halakha. On the one hand, the Torah permitted a father to marry off his daughter from the age of birth until she matured, and by receiving the wedding money from the bridegroom (who must be at least thirteen years old) she becomes an eshet ish (a married woman). On the other hand, our Sages said:
“One may not give his daughter in betrothal when a minor, but must wait until she grows up and says: ‘I want So-and-so’” (Kiddushin 41a).
All for the Good of the Daughter
In order to understand this halakha, we must realize that until the last few generations, making a living involved hard physical labor, from morning till night, and as a result, women were dependent on men for their existence. In times of scarcity, girls’ parents had to pay a dowry to the groom so he would agree to marry their daughter and commit to bear the burden of providing for her. Without this, parents feared their daughter would remain companionless – without a husband, children, or livelihood. At times, when parents were faced with an offer for a decent groom from a good family, they were quick to marry off their daughter while still young and while they still had money for a dowry,fearing that when she grew up, they would not be able to find a respectable groom, or would not have the financial ability to give her a proper dowry.
And occasionally when times got worse, the only remaining way for poor parents to save their daughter from hunger and secure her future, so she could raise a family, was to marry her to a well-off man while she was still a minor. This is why the Torah permitted a father to marry off his young daughter.
Even in later times, during the period of the Rishonim (11th to 15th century), there was sometimes a need to marry off young girls, as the authors of Tosaphot wrote nearly 800 years ago:
“Because the exile gets more difficult with every passing day – and if a person has the capacity presently to provide his daughter with her dowry, he should marry her off even if she is a minor, for perhaps at later date he may not have that capability and his daughter will remain ‘chained’ to her spinsterhood status forever” (Kiddushin 41a, s.v. ‘assur’).
The Solution upon the Death of a Father
And if the father of a family died, for the purpose of securing the young girls’ survival, the rabbis determined that her mother and brother could marry her off. However, since their betrothal does not carry Biblical force, if the girl wished to divorce her husband, she did not require a get, but rather, refused him in front of witnesses, thus annulling her ties to him, and a document of miyun (refusal) was written for her. However, if she reached the age of twelve and showed signs of maturity but had not refused, she was his lawful wife for all intents and purposes (S.A., E.H. 155).
However, when marrying off daughters while still young was not a question of survival, the rabbis prohibited it, saying:
“One may not give his daughter in betrothal when a minor, but must wait until she grows up and says: ‘I want So-and-so’” (Kiddushin 41a; S.A., E.H. 37:8). This was the practice during good times, when Jews lived in relative comfort.
The Custom in Europe in Previous Generations
In the past hundreds of years, as the economic situation in Europe improved and stabilized, and as a result there was no longer a need to marry off young daughters to ensure their survival, this practice was completely cancelled in European countries (A.H.S. 37:33), and since the marriage took place after the girls reached the age of Bat Mitzvah and maturity – usually between the ages of thirteen to sixteen – the final decision was in their hands. Still, parents played an important role – to help their daughters find a groom and pay the dowry, which was roughly a tenth of their assets. However, the decision to marry, and the marriage itself, was made by the daughter.
The Present Situation and Challenges
Nowadays, along with the increase in the standard of living, and the ability for women to express their talents in various fields, the age of marriage for women has been delayed. There are two reasons for this:
1) Since women are able to express their talents in numerous fields, in order for them to contribute blessing and good in the world, they must learn more Torah, and have appropriate professional training.
2) In the past, young couples lived in extended family frameworks, and young women were able to give birth while the older women helped them raise their children. Today, however, when young couples manage their own, individual lives, the age of marriage is delayed until a time when a woman is able to take care of her children herself.
The Halakha Today
As we have learned, our Sages did not set an age for women to get married. In practice though, men used to get married between the ages of eighteen and twenty, while women usually married about the age of Bat Mitzvah – and in times of scarcity, even earlier.
Today, when women play more of a role in supporting the family, the appropriate age for women to get married is a bit earlier than men. Firstly, because women mature earlier, as expressed in the age of requirement for fulfilling mitzvoth being a year earlier, at the age of twelve. Second, the mitzvah of Talmud Torah for women requires less time and effort. Third, the duty of serving in the army rests on the men. However, in regards to the issue of supporting the family, women are partners with men, and on the contrary, if a woman completes her professional studies earlier, she can bear the main financial burden at the beginning of the marriage, allowing her husband to acquire a suitable profession, and as a result, they can get married at an earlier age.
In summary, the appropriate age of marriage for men today is between twenty and twenty-four, and for women, about two years earlier.
The Responsibility of Young Adults
Today, the mitzvah of marriage poses a major challenge for young adults. Within the span of a few years they are required to establish their Torah worldview, acquire a profession that suits their capabilities, and start a family; men, in addition, are required to serve in the army and further study Torah.
To accomplish this, young adults are required to plan their paths well, and not waste time during these precious years. For even after having defined our times as a sha’at dachak in which men are permitted to postpone marriage until the age of twenty-four and women slightly less in order to achieve important ideals – those who waste their time during these years nullify Torah commandments.
Therefore, it is the duty of all young people to pave themselves a path in which they can integrate all of the ideals jointly – to get married at an early age, and at the same time, acquire a profession that suits their talents, so they can support their families honorably, and contribute to the improvement of the world.
Our Sages said that parents are also commanded to help their children marry at the appropriate time (Kiddushin 29a; 30b), as it is written:
“Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters” (Jeremiah 29:6).
In other words, the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply does not end with a child’s birth, rather, it continues afterwards till they reach the age of marriage. At that point in time, parents should encourage them to get married and help with advice and financial assistance, thereby contributing to the continuation of the generations.
Society as a whole is also obligated to create the most favorable conditions for young adults to fulfill the mitzvah of marriage at the appropriate time. In order to do so, professional studies should be streamlined as best as possible, young people should be given assistance in finding affordable housing and dormitories, and women’s professional studies should begin as early as possible so that in the first years of marriage, they can offer greater support for their families.
I was glad to hear that a number of communities were inspired to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut on the loftiest level by arranging Torah lectures on matters of the day, and that my column on the subject even played a significant part in this.
Here on Har Bracha, we were also privileged to continue our custom. I cannot hesitate from recounting that on the evening of Yom Ha’atzmaut we were privileged to host the ‘Ramatiyim Men’s Choir’ from Jerusalem. They are a group of doctors and accountants, architects, businessmen and retirees, who meet once a week voluntarily to sing together in honor of God and His people, and are conducted by Mr. Richard Shavei-Tzion. They led the thanksgiving prayers and the evening services in a deep, moving, and wonderful way that is hard to describe. It is so inspiring to see such reputable people praying and singing fervently, filled with emunah and great love for Am Yisrael, for the settlers and soldiers, and for the Land of Israel which continues to be built.
This article appears in the ‘Basheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.