Jewish views on marriage

Jewish views on marriage
Jozef Israëls: A Jewish wedding 1903

In Judaism, marriage is viewed as a contractual bond commanded by God in which a man and a woman come together to create a relationship in which God is directly involved.[Deut. 24:1] Though procreation is not the sole purpose, a Jewish marriage is also expected to fulfill the commandment to have children.[Gen. 1:28] The main focus centers around the relationship between the husband and wife. On the spiritual level, marriage is understood to mean that the husband and wife are merging together into a single soul. This is why a man is considered "incomplete" if he is not married, as his soul is only one part of a larger whole that remains to be unified.[1][2]



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In Jewish law, an engagement (shidukhin) is a contract between a man and a woman where they mutually promise to marry each other at some future time and the terms on which it shall take place.[3] The promise may be made by the intending parties or by their respective parents or other relatives on their behalf.[4] The promise is formalized in a document known as the Shtar Tena'im, the "Document of Conditions", which is read prior to the badekin. After this reading, the mothers of the future bride and groom break a plate. Today, some sign the contract on the day of the wedding, some do it as an earlier ceremony, and some do not do it at all.

In Haredi communities, many marriages are arranged by a professional match-maker ("shadchan") who receives a "brokerage-fee" for his or her services. The parents may be actively involved in the matchmaking procedure, but the young couple is not forced to marry. The Shidduch is thus a system of arranged introductions rather than arranged marriages.

Betrothal and marriage

In Jewish law, marriage consists of two separate acts, called erusin (or kiddushin, meaning sanctification), which is the betrothal ceremony, and nissu'in or chupah, the actual ceremony for the marriage. Erusin changes the couple's interpersonal status, while nissu'in brings about the legal consequences of the change of status. In Talmudic times, these two ceremonies usually took place up to a year apart; the bride lived with her parents until the actual marriage ceremony (nissuin), which would take place in a room or tent that the groom had set up for her. Since the Middle Ages the two ceremonies have taken place as a combined ceremony performed in public.

According to the Talmud,[5] erusin involves the groom handing an object to the bride - either an object of value such as a ring, or a document stating that she is being betrothed to him. In order to be valid, this must be done in the presence of two unrelated male witnesses. After erusin, the laws of adultery apply, and the marriage cannot be dissolved without a religious divorce. After nisuin, the couple may live together.


Marital harmony

Marital harmony, known as "shlom bayit," is valued in Jewish tradition. The Talmud argues that a man should love his wife as much as he loves himself, and honour her more than he honours himself;[6] indeed, one who honours his wife was said, by the classical rabbis, to be rewarded with wealth.[7] Similarly, a husband was expected to discuss with his wife any worldly matters that might arise in his life.[7] Tough love was frowned upon; the Talmud forbids a husband from being overbearing to his household,[8] and domestic abuse by him was also condemned.[9] It was said of a wife that God counts her tears.[9]

As for the wife, the greatest praise the Talmudic rabbis offered to any woman was that given to a wife who fulfils the wishes of her husband;[10] to this end, an early midrash argues that a wife should not leave the home too frequently.[11] A wife, also, was expected to be modest, even if the only other person present with her was her husband.[12] It was believed in classical times that God's presence dwelt in a pure and loving home.[13]

Conjugal rights and obligations

Marriage obligations and rights in Judaism are ultimately based on those apparent in the Bible, although they have been filtered and expanded on by many prominent rabbinic authorities throughout history. According to the non-traditional view, in the Bible the wife is treated as a possession owned by her husband,[14] but later Judaism imposed several obligations on the husband, effectively giving the wife several rights and freedoms;[14] indeed, being a Jewish wife was often a more favourable situation than being a wife in many other cultures.[14] For example, the Talmud establishes the principle that a wife is entitled, but not compelled, to the same dignity and social standing as her husband,[15][16] and is entitled to keep any additional advantages she had as a result of her social status before her marriage.[15][16]

In the traditional view, the Bible itself gives the wife rights, as per Exodus 21:10, although the rabbis may have added others later. The rights of the husband and wife are described in tractate Ketubot in the Talmud, which explains how the rabbis balanced the two sets of rights.

In the Bible

Biblical Hebrew has two words for "husband": ba'al (also meaning "master"), and ish (also meaning "man", parallel to isha meaning "woman" or "wife"). The words are contrasted in Hosea 2:18 (2:16 in Christian Bibles), where God speaks to Israel as though it is his wife: "On that day, says the Lord, you will call [me] 'my husband' (ish), and will no longer call me 'my master' (ba'al)."

Women were not isolated from society. The Bible refers to the presence of women at festive events.[17][18][19][20][21][22] and they take part in public rejoicing, song, and dance.[23][24]

A wife was also seen as being of high value, and was therefore, usually, carefully looked after.[14][17] Early nomadic communities practised a form of marriage known as beena, in which a wife would own a tent of her own, within which she retains complete independence from her husband;[25] this principle appears to survive in parts of early Israelite society, as some early passages of the bible appear to portray certain wives as each owning a tent as a personal possession[25] (specifically, Jael,[26] Sarah,[27] and Jacob's wives[28]). In later times, the bible describes wives as being given the innermost room(s) of the husband's house, as her own private area to which men were not permitted;[29][30] in the case of wealthy husbands, the bible describes their wives as having each been given an entire house for this purpose.[31][32]

It was not, however, a life of complete freedom. The descriptions of the bible suggest that a wife was expected to perform certain household tasks: spinning, sewing, weaving, manufacture of clothing, fetching of water, baking of bread, and animal husbandry.[33][34][35][36] The Book of Proverbs contains an entire acrostic about the duties which would be performed by a virtuous wife.[37]

The husband too, is indirectly implied to have some responsibilities to his wife. The Covenant Code orders men who have two wives (polygynously) to not deprive the first wife of food, of clothing, nor of sexual activity;[38] if the husband does not provide the first wife with these things, she is to be divorced, without cost to her.[39] The Talmud interprets this as a requirement for a man to provide food and clothing to, and have sex with, each of his wives, even if he only has one.[9]

As a polygynous society, the Israelites did not have any laws which imposed marital fidelity on men.[40][41] Adulterous married women and adulterous betrothed women, however, were subject to the death penalty by the biblical laws against adultery, as were their male accomplices.[42][43][44] According to the Priestly Code of the Book of Numbers, if a pregnant[45] woman was suspected of adultery, she was to be subjected to the Ordeal of Bitter Water,[46] a form of trial by ordeal, but one that took a miracle to convict. The literary prophets indicate that adultery was a frequent occurrence, despite their strong protests against it,[47][48][49][50] and these legal strictnesses.[40]

In the Talmud and Rabbinic Judaism

The Talmud sets a minimum provision which a husband must provide to his wife:

  • enough bread for at least two meals a day[9]
  • sufficient oil for cooking and for lighting purposes[9]
  • sufficient wood for cooking[9]
  • fruit and vegetables[9]
  • wine, if it is customary in the locality for women to drink it[9]
  • three meals consisting of fish and meat, on each shabbat[9]
  • a silver coin (Hebrew: ma'ah) each week, as pocket-money.[9]

Rabbinic courts could compel the husband to make this provision, if he fails to do so voluntarily.[51] Moses Schreiber, a prominent opponent of early Reform Judaism, argued that if a man could not provide his wife with this minimum, he should be compelled to divorce her;[52] other Jewish rabbis argued that a man should be compelled to hire himself out, as a day-labourer, if he cannot otherwise make this provision to his wife.[9]

According to prominent Jewish writers of the Middle Ages, if a man is absent from his wife for a long period, the wife should be allowed to sell her husband's property, if necessary to sustain herself.[53][54] Similarly, they argued that if a wife had to take out a loan to pay for her sustenance during such absence, her husband had to pay the debt on his return.[53][54]

In order to offset the husband's duty to support his wife, she was required by the Talmud to surrender all her earnings to her husband, together with any profit she makes by accident, and the right of usufruct on her property;[55] the wife was not required to do this if she wished to support herself.[55] Although the wife always retained ownership of her property itself, if she died while still married to her husband, he was to be her heir, according to the opinion of the Talmud;[55] this principle, though, was modified, in various ways, by the rabbis of the Middle Ages.[9]

Home and household

In Jewish tradition the husband was expected to provide a home for his wife, furnished in accordance to local custom, appropriate for the husband's status;[9] the marital couple were expected to live together in this home, although if the husband's choice of work made it difficult to do so, the Talmud excuses him from the obligation.[56] Traditionally, if the husband changed his usual abode, the wife was considered to have a duty to move with him.[9] In the Middle Ages, it was argued that if a person continued to refuse to live with their spouse, the spouse in question had sufficient grounds for divorce[57][58]

Most Jewish religious authorities held that a husband must allow his wife to eat at the same table as him, even if he gave his wife enough money to provide for herself.[9] By contrast, if a husband mistreated his wife, or lived in a disreputable neighbourhood, the Jewish religious authorities would permit the wife to move to another home elsewhere, and would compel the husband to finance her life there.[9]

Expanding on the household tasks which the bible implies a wife should undertake,[14] rabbinic literature requires her to perform all the housework (such as baking, cooking, washing, caring for her children, etc.), unless her marriage had given the husband a large dowry;[9] in the latter situation, the wife was expected only to tend to supposedly affectionate tasks, such as making his bed, and serving him his food.[9] Jewish tradition expected the husband to provide the bed linen and kitchen utensils.[9] If the wife had young twin children, the Talmud made her husband responsible for caring for one of them.[59]


The Talmud elaborates on the biblical requirement of the husband to provide his wife with clothing, by insisting that each year he must provide each wife with 50 zuzim's-worth of clothing,[60] including garments appropriate to each season of the year.[9] The Talmudic rabbis insist that this annual clothing gift should include one hat, one belt, and three pairs of shoes[61] (one pair for each of the three main annual festivals: Passover, Shabu'ot, and Sukkoth[60]). The husband was also expected by the classical rabbis to provide his wife with jewellery and perfumes if he lived in an area where this was customary.[9]

Physical obligations

The Talmud argues that a husband is responsible for the protection of his wife's body. If his wife became ill, then he would be compelled, by the Talmud, to defray any medical expense which might be incurred in relation to this;[55] the Talmud requires him to ensure that the wife receives care.[55] Although he technically had the right to divorce his wife, enabling him to avoid paying for her medical costs, several prominent rabbis throughout history condemned such a course of action as inhuman behaviour, even if the wife was suffering from a prolonged illness.[9]

If the wife dies, even if not due to illness, the Talmud's stipulations require the husband to arrange, and pay for, her burial;[62] the burial must, in the opinion of the Talmud, be one conducted in a manner befitting the husband's social status, and in accordance with the local custom.[62] Prominent rabbis of the Middle Ages clarified this, stating that the husband must make any provisions required by local burial customs, potentially including the hiring of mourners and the erection of a tombstone.[63][64] According to the Talmud, and later rabbinic writers, if the husband was absent or refused to do these things, a rabbinical court should arrange the wife's funeral, selling some of the husband's property in order to defray the costs.[63][64]

If the wife was captured, the husband was required by the Talmud and later writers to pay the ransom demanded for her release;[65][66][67][68] there is some debate whether the husband was required only to pay up to the wife's market value as a slave,[69] or whether he must pay any ransom, even to the point of having to sell his possessions to raise the funds.[9] If the husband and wife were both taken captive, the historic Jewish view was that the rabbinic courts should first pay the ransom for the wife, selling some of the husband's property in order to raise the funds.[65][66][67][68]


In the classical era the attitude of rabbinic scholars towards adultery was comparatively mild;[41] although the Talmud allowed people to be convicted of adultery merely on the basis of circumstantial evidence,[70] it forbids conviction if

  • the woman had been raped, rather than consenting to the crime,[71] or
  • the woman had mistaken the paramour for her husband,[41] or
  • the woman had not already been cautioned, by her husband, in the presence of two witnesses, before the time the crime allegedly took place, against intimately associating with the paramour in question,[70] or
  • the woman had not known the intimate details of the laws against adultery, before she committed the crime[41]

These rules made it practically impossible to convict any woman of adultery, and in nearly every case women were acquitted.[41] However,a Kohen (Jewish priest) was compelled to divorce his wife if she had been raped, due to the religious belief that a priest should be untainted.[41][72]

Even when a woman was convicted, the punishment was comparatively mild; the death penalty (for all crimes) was abolished in 40 AD,[73] possibly under pressure from the Roman overlords, and adulteresses were flogged instead.[41] Nevertheless, the husbands of convicted adulteresses were not permitted by the Talmud to forgive their guilty wives, instead being compelled to divorce them;[74] according to Maimonides, a conviction for adultery nullified any right that the wife's marriage contract (Hebrew: ketubah) gave her to a compensation payment for being divorced.[75] Once divorced, an adulteress was not permitted, according to the Talmudic writers, to marry her paramour.[76]

As for men who committed adultery (with another man's wife), Abba ben Joseph and Abba Arika are both quoted in the Talmud as expressing abhorrence, and arguing that such men would be condemned to Gehenna.[77]

Family purity

The laws of "family purity" (tohorat hamishpacha) are considered an important part of an Orthodox Jewish marriage and adherence to them is (in Orthodox Judaism) regarded as a prerequisite of marriage. This involves observance of the various details of the menstrual niddah laws. Orthodox brides and grooms often attend classes on this subject prior to the wedding. The Niddah laws are regarded as an intrinsic part of marital life (rather than just associated with women). Together with a few other rules, including those about the ejaculation of semen, these are collectively termed "family purity".

Sexual relations

Regular sexual relations are expected between husband and wife. This obligation is known as "onah."[78] In Jewish tradition, sexual relations are the obligation of a man to his wife. Although engagement in sexual relations should be entirely at the discretion of the woman, a wife should not withhold or use sex as a negotiating ploy.

Child marriage

In Ashkenazi communities in the Middle Ages girls were married off very young in the Jewish community.[79] Some of the rabbis in the Talmud were in favor of having boys marry as soon as they reached the age of majority.[6] Those unmarried after the age of twenty were considered cursed by God.[80] Torah study was viewed as a valid reason for delaying marriage, but life-long celibacy was discouraged.[81] Despite the young threshold for marriage, a large age gap between the spouses was opposed.[82][83] In modern times child marriage is extremely rare in the Jewish community; it is banned by law in most countries.


Rates of marriage between Jews and non-Jews have increased in countries other than Israel (the Jewish diaspora). According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, 47% of marriages involving Jews in the United States between 1996 and 2001 were with non-Jewish partners. Jewish leaders in different branches generally agree that possible assimilation is a crisis, but they differ on the proper response to intermarriage.

  • All branches of Orthodox Judaism refuse to accept any validity or legitimacy of intermarriages.
  • Conservative Judaism does not sanction intermarriage, but encourages acceptance of the non-Jewish spouse within the family, hoping that such acceptance will lead to conversion.
  • Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism permit total personal autonomy in interpretation of Jewish Law, and intermarriage is not forbidden. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis are free to take their own approach to performing marriages between a Jewish and non-Jewish partner. Many but not all seek agreement from the couple that the children will be raised as Jewish.

There are also differences between streams on what constitutes an intermarriage, arising from their differing criteria for being Jewish in the first place. Orthodox and Conservative streams do not accept as Jewish a person whose mother is not Jewish, nor a convert whose conversion was conducted under the authority of a more liberal stream.

Marriage in Israel

Civil marriage does not exist in Israel, and the only institutionalized form of Jewish marriage is the religious one, i.e. a marriage conducted under the auspices of the rabbinate. Specifically, marriage of Israeli Jews must be conducted according to halakha, as viewed by Orthodox Judaism. One consequence is that Jews in Israel who cannot marry according to Jewish law (e.g. a kohen and a divorcée, or a Jew and one who is not halachically Jewish) cannot marry at all. This has led for calls, mostly from the secular segment of the Israeli public, for the institution of civil marriage. Many people are affected by the restrictions. In Israel in the early twentyfirst century there are approximately "300,000 Israelis who cannot marry because one of the partners is not Jewish, or his or her Jewishness cannot be established."[citation needed]

Some secular Israelis travel abroad to have civil marriages, either because they do not wish an Orthodox wedding or because their union cannot be sanctioned by halakha. These marriages are legally recognized in Israel, though not recognized by the rabbinate as Jewish.

All legal marriages performed in Israel must be carried out by religious authorities of an approved religion. Couples of different religions, or none, cannot legally marry in Israel, whether citizens or not.


Halakha (Jewish law) allows for divorce. The document of divorce is termed a get. The final divorce ceremony involves the husband giving the get document into the hand of the wife or her agent, but the wife may sue in rabbinical court to initiate the divorce. In such a case, a husband may be compelled to give the get, if he has violated any of his numerous obligations; this was traditionally accomplished by beating and or monetary coercion. The rationale was that since he was required to divorce his wife due to his (or her) violations of the contract, his good inclination really desires to divorce her, and we are only helping him to do what he wants to do anyway. In this case, the wife may or may not be entitled to a ketuba payment.

Judaism recognized the right of a wife abused physically or psychologically to a divorce at least from around the 12th century.

Conservative Judaism follows halacha, though differently than Orthodox Judaism. Reform Jews usually use an egalitarian form of the Ketubah at their weddings. They generally do not issue Jewish divorces, seeing a civil divorce as both necessary and sufficient; however, some Reform rabbis encourage the couple to go through a Jewish divorce procedure. Conservative and Orthodox Judaism do not recognize civil law as overriding religious law, and thus do not view a civil divorce as sufficient. Thus, a man or woman may be considered divorced by the Reform Jewish community, but still married by the Conservative community. Orthodox Judaism does not recognize Reform weddings because, if they did, the children of a Reform woman who remarried would be considered mamzerim, the children of an adulterous relationship, a personal status that does not allow a person to marry a non-mamzer. This allows Reform Jews to become, and marry, Orthodox Jews should they choose to.


Traditionally, when a husband fled or his whereabouts were unknown for any reason, the woman was considered an agunah (literally “an anchored woman”) and was not allowed to remarry because in traditional Judaism divorce can only be initiated by the husband. Prior to modern communication death of the husband while in a distant land was a common cause of this situation. In modern times when a husband refuses to issue a get due to money, property or custody battles, the woman who cannot remarry is considered a Michuseres Get, not an agunah. A man in this situation would not be termed a Misarev Get (literally "a refuser of a divorce document") unless a valid Beis Din had required him to issue a Get. The term agunah is often used in such circumstances; however, it is not technically accurate.

Within both the Conservative and Orthodox communities there are efforts to avoid situations where a woman is not able to obtain a Jewish divorce from her husband, and to deal with such problems after the fact by using various Jewish and secular legal methods. However, none of the legal solutions address the agunah problem in the case of a missing husband.

There have been reports that in order to prevent their wives from becoming Agunot, Jewish men who realized their fate during the terrorist attacks of 9/11 faxed gittim to their wives from their offices in the World Trade towers.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Yebomoth 62b.
  2. ^ "Why Marry?". Retrieved 2007-12-19. 
  3. ^ The Principles of Jewish Law, Ed Menachem Elon, ISBN 0-7065-1415-7, p 353.
  4. ^ (Kiddushin 9b)
  5. ^ Kiddushin 1:1
  6. ^ a b Sanhedrin 76b
  7. ^ a b Baba Metzia 59b
  8. ^ Gittin 6b
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Husband and Wife", a publication now in the public domain.
  10. ^ Nedarim 66b
  11. ^ Genesis Rabbah 65:2
  12. ^ Shabbat 140b
  13. ^ Sotah 17a
  14. ^ a b c d e This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "marriage", a publication now in the public domain.
  15. ^ a b Ketubot 48a
  16. ^ a b Ketubot 61a
  17. ^ a b This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "marriage", a publication now in the public domain.
  18. ^ Exodus 21:22
  19. ^ Deuteronomy 25:11
  20. ^ 2:5+&verse=&src=! Ruth 2:5+
  21. ^ 1 Samuel 9:11
  22. ^ 2 Samuel 20:16
  23. ^ Exodus 15:20-21
  24. ^ Judges 16:27
  25. ^ a b William Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in early Arabia, (1885), 167
  26. ^ Judges 4:7
  27. ^ Genesis 24:26
  28. ^ Genesis 31:33-34
  29. ^ Judges 15:1
  30. ^ Judges 16:9
  31. ^ 1 Kings 7:8
  32. ^ 2 Kings 24:15
  33. ^ Genesis 29:9
  34. ^ Exodus 2:16
  35. ^ 1 Samuel 2:19
  36. ^ 1 Samuel 8:13
  37. ^ Proverbs 31:10-31
  38. ^ Exodus 21:10
  39. ^ Exodus 21:11
  40. ^ a b This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "Jealousy, Ordeal of", a publication now in the public domain.
  41. ^ a b c d e f g This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Adultery", a publication now in the public domain.
  42. ^ Ezekiel 16:40
  43. ^ Leviticus 20:10
  44. ^ Deuteronomy 22:22-25
  45. ^ Peake's commentary on the Bible (1962 edition), ad loc
  46. ^ Numbers 5:11-31
  47. ^ Jeremiah 7:9
  48. ^ Jeremiah 23:10
  49. ^ Hosea 4:2
  50. ^ Malachi 3:5
  51. ^ Ketubot 77a
  52. ^ Moses Schreiber, Hatam Sofer on Eben ha-'Ezer, 131-132
  53. ^ a b Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Ishut 12:10-22
  54. ^ a b Jacob ben Asher, Eben ha-'Ezer, 70
  55. ^ a b c d e Ketubot 46b-47b
  56. ^ Ketubot 61b
  57. ^ Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Ishut 14:1-16
  58. ^ Jacob ben Asher, Eben ha-'Ezer, 76-77
  59. ^ Ketubot 59b
  60. ^ a b This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Costume", a publication now in the public domain.
  61. ^ Ketubot 64b
  62. ^ a b Ketubot 46a-47b
  63. ^ a b Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Ishut 14:23-24
  64. ^ a b Jacob ben Asher, Eben ha-'Ezer, 89
  65. ^ a b Ketubot 51a
  66. ^ a b Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Ishut 14:18-22
  67. ^ a b Jacob ben Asher, Eben ha-'Ezer, 78
  68. ^ a b Joseph Karo, Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 252:10
  69. ^ Gittin, 45a
  70. ^ a b Sotah 1:2
  71. ^ Ketubot 51b
  72. ^ Yebamot 56b
  73. ^ Sanhedrin 41
  74. ^ Sotah 6:1
  75. ^ Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Ishut 24:6
  76. ^ Sotah 5:1
  77. ^ Sotah 4b
  78. ^ Judaism 101: Kosher Sex
  79. ^ Kiddushin (tosafot) 41a
  80. ^ Kiddushin 29b
  81. ^ Yebamot 63b
  82. ^ Yebamot 44a
  83. ^ Sanhedrin 76a

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