It’s true that in the times of the Bible and Talmud that child marriages were permitted. An attempt at marriage initiated by a male minor is nugatory (Kiddushin 50b) and doesn’t even require a divorce (Yevamot 112b). The Talmud, however, teaches that a father can betroth his daughter (on her journey from ketannah to na’arah to bogeret) of only three years and one day old (Sanhedrin 55b, Kiddushin 41). She can later protest (me’un) and get out of the marriage (Even Ha’Ezer 155). Yet, we also know that, according to many, these betrothals are forbidden because a bride needs to be able to decide whom she wants to marry (and a child cannot know that). Tosafot gives economic context to the position in the medieval time:
Now we are accustomed to marry off our daughters even when they are minors. This is so, because every day the exile becomes stronger. Thus, if a person is able to provide his daughter with a dowry, perhaps at some later time he will be unable to do so, and his daughter will remain a spinster forever.
Indeed, there are many sources that emphasized the earlier a woman is married off the better the situation for all involved (due to finances, reproduction, and culture), while others challenge this belief. The Shulchan Aruch forbids marrying minors (Even Ha’ezer 37:8), but the Rema quotes the previously mentioned Tosafot (that in exile, early marriages are crucial). However, the Remah teaches that a ba’al nefesh (a spiritual and ethical person) will not be sexually involved with minors (Yoreh Deah, 193:1). In a similar vein, the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) recommended 18 as the proper age for marriage and marital relations. Perhaps Rambam was most adamant that children not be married:
Even though the father has the right to betroth his daughter when she is a minor or when she is a maiden […i.e., ages 12 to 12.5] to whomever he wishes, it is not fitting that he should do so. Rather, the Sages commanded that one should not betroth his daughter when she is a minor until she matures and says, “I want so-and-so.” It is likewise not fit that a man should betroth a minor girl, nor should he betroth a woman until he sees her and she is fit in his eyes, lest she not find favor in his eyes, and he will divorce her or lie with her even though he hates her.
The language discussing marriage and sexuality in the traditional texts can often feel very foreign and alienating to us today. Jewish law has allowed for great flexibility for leaders of different eras and cultures to adapt based on the needs of the time. Today, it is clear that only adult marriages are appropriate even if some Jewish legal authorities technically permitted child marriage in certain circumstances in the past. There is a very long, complex, and rich discourse about marriage in Jewish law that is far beyond the scope that will be presented here.
In the industrialized western world, child marriage is rare. In 1950 in Israel, the National Rabbinical Conference forbade men to marry women under the age of 16. In the United States, nearly all states allow men and women to marry without parental consent only at age 18. From about age 16 until 18, parental (or guardian or court) consent is usually required, with pregnancy often being a deciding factor in permitting marriage. Many states will not allow children younger than age 15 to marry, although some states (California, Delaware, Mississippi) have no specified age limit, North Carolina is 14, in New Hampshire, brides can be 13 and grooms can be 14, and, shockingly, in Massachusetts, brides are permitted to be 12 and grooms 14. Nevertheless, these early marriages are extremely rare. The Pew Research Center reported that the average age for a first marriage for Americans is 26.9 for women and 29.8 for men. In industrialized northern Europe, the average age at first marriage is even older. On the other hand, in developing countries the age of first marriage is much younger, such as in Afghanistan, where the average is 20.2 years. Generally, as statistics evidence, the poorer the society, the more prevalent child marriage will be.
Child Marriage (usually defined as marriage before the age 15 for girls) is still a major problem today. In the developing world, more than 10 percent of girls are forcibly married by age 15, and the United Nations estimates that 25 to 50 percent of girls in these areas give birth to their first child before they reach the age of 18. The highest prevalence of child marriage occurs in sub-Saharan Africa (where current estimates suggest that child marriage will double by 2030). The leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 is related to pregnancy and childbirth, and those younger than 15 years old have an especially high mortality rate. According to the International Center for Research on Women, girls younger than 15 (who have undeveloped bodies) are five times more likely than women in their 20s to die in childbirth. These adverse health effects extend to their children as well. According to UNICEF, the children of mothers younger than 18 are 60 percent more likely to die during their first year of life.
India, which has a lower prevalence of child marriage, nevertheless has the largest single number of child brides in spite of official laws that forbid marriage before age 18. A 2014 Council on Foreign Relations report noted that about 40 percent of the 70 million child brides worldwide are in India, and about 14,000 Indian girls from age 8 to 15 are married each day. The report noted many disadvantages for these child brides:
• Child marriage prevents girls from finishing school, which further diminishes their ability to earn an income and gain power within the family.
• They suffer twice the beatings of other brides, are three times more likely to be raped (8 of 10 child brides surveyed reported that their first sexual experience was forced).
• They are more likely to acquire a sexually transmitted disease, and have the highest rate among married women for maternal death.
In 2010, then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton launched a campaign to eliminate child marriage by 2030, noting that unless this was accomplished, other health and economic progress could not take place. In Kenya, for example, if all the girls who were married had instead been educated through secondary school, it would add approximately the equivalent of $3.4 billion annually to the nation’s income, a staggering amount in such a poor nation. The amount of economic, social, and health progress that could be made with that kind of financial resources is unfathomable.
Eliminating child marriage will take a good deal of effort, as girls are often bartered as brides to pay off debts. This is exacerbated in times of economic hardship, such as drought or civil war, which is why in many areas the incidence is predicted to increase. In addition, many poor people have misconceptions concerning child marriage, including the idea that girls will be better off married, that they will have less of a chance of being raped if they are married, and are encouraged to marry their girls early because, if the girl is raped, she will not be acceptable as a bride. Clearly, there is an uphill battle ahead, and it will take the creation of a more just world society with better economic equality and less violence to adequately address this terrible problem.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”