Why is women’s age of marriage not determined by halakha, as it is for men? * The ancient custom of giving ten percent of one’s assets to a marry a daughter * The rabbinic prohibition of marrying-off a juvenile daughter, and under what circumstances was it permitted * Once the economic situation in Europe improved, the marriage age of women rose * Two reasons why nowadays, the age of marriage for women is later * At present, the appropriate age for women to marry is between the ages of 18 to 22 * The responsibility of young people to plan their time well, and arrive prepared to their wedding at the proper age * The mitzvah of parents and the entire public to help young people on their road to marriage
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 (obligatory), 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. Therefore, 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 imposed with the burden of supporting a family by the Torah as a chova, are able to marry earlier.
Likewise 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 for a woman, given that the mitzvah of puru u’revuru was not imposed upon her as a chova, 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 get married and have children, the Torah commands parents to help their daughters get married, and our Sages even instructed fathers’ to allocate a tenth of their wealth to help their daughters get married. Consequently, if a father died without stating how much he intended to give for his daughters’ wedding, a tenth of his wealth is given (Ketubot 52b; 68a; S.A., E.H. 113:1). However, if the 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 lengthening 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
Going back 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, it must first be explained that until the last few generations, making a living involved hard physical labor, all day long, 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 she was still young, and while they still had money for a dowry, out of fear 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 scarcity increased, 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 little. For that reason the Torah permitted a father to marry off his young daughter.
Even during the period of the Rishonim at times, there was a need to marry off young girls, as the authors of Tosaphot wrote nearly 800 years ago: “Because every single day the exile worsens, and if at the present time a man has the ability to give his daughter a dowry, lest after a short time he is not able to, and his daughter remain unmarried forever” (Kiddushin 41a, “asur”).
The Solution upon the Death of a Father
And if the father of a family died, for the purpose of securing the young girls’ existence, the rabbis determined that her mother and brother could marry her off. However, since her betrothal by them does not carry Biblical-force, if she 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 mi’un (refusal) was written for her. However, if she reached the age of twelve and showed signs of puberty 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 periods in which Jews lived in relative comfort.
The Custom in Europe in Previous Times
In the past centuries, as the economic situation in Europe improved and stabilized and 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 marriage took place after the girls reached the age of Bat Mitzvah and puberty – usually between the ages of thirteen to sixteen – the final decision was in their hands. Still, parents had an important role to play – helping their daughters find a groom and paying the dowry, the value of which was roughly a tenth of their assets. However, the decision to get married, and the approval of the marriage itself, was made by the daughters.
Today’s Situation and Challenges
Nowadays, together with the increase in the standard of living, and the ability for women to express their talents in various fields, women’s marriage age 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 development.
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 make 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.
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 part in supporting the family, the appropriate age for women to get married is a bit earlier than men. First, because women mature earlier, in the same manner as the age of requirement for fulfilling mitzvoth is a year earlier, at the age of twelve. Second, the mitzvah of Talmud Torah for them 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. In fact, if a woman completes her professional studies earlier, she can bear the main financial burden at the beginning of the marriage, and thus allow her husband to acquire a suitable profession, and thus be able to 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 a few years they are required to establish their Torah worldview, acquire a profession that suits their capabilities, and start a family – while in addition, men are required to serve in the army and learn more Torah.
For this, young adults are required to plan their paths well, and not waste time in 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, so they can accomplish important values – those who waste their time during these years nullify Torah commandments.
Therefore, it is the duty of each and every young person to pave a path in which they can integrate all of the values together – to marry at an early age, and nonetheless, 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 get married at an 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 the birth of children, rather, it continues afterwards till the children reach the age of marriage; at that point, parents should encourage them to get married and help them 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 proper 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 to begin women’s professional studies as early as possible, so that in the first years of marriage they can help support their families more.
I was glad to hear that a number of communities were inspired to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut on the highest level by arranging Torah lectures on matters of the day, and that even my column on the subject played a significant part.
And even here on Har Bracha, we were privileged to continue our custom. I cannot refrain 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 rebuilt.
This article appears in the ‘Basheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.