Marriage Age in Our Times

Various responses to last week’s column on postponing pregnancy * A person who reaches the age of marriage but has not found his partner does not have to settle for a less suitable spouse * Nowadays, Torah studies and acquiring a profession take longer. How does this affect the obligation to get married by a certain age? * The heter of delaying marriage until the age of twenty-four should be halakha in our times * Why men shouldn’t be required to marry by the age of twenty as in past generations * Why is the current view that one is allowed to postpone marriage until a later age wrong * Even under changing circumstances, the principles remain the same

Replies to Last Week’s Column

Last week I commented on the slanderous accusations hurled at the “the rabbis”, who, in an attempt to promote their social agenda, allegedly invented an issur (prohibition) lacking any halachic foundation against postponing marriage and pregnancy.

In order to refute this malicious slander against the rabbis, I quoted many sources showing that indeed our Chachamim (Sages) instructed that the mitzvah of puru u’revuru (procreation) requires a man to marry by the age of twenty, and no later than the age of twenty-four. The mitzvah is so crucial and binding that in principle Beit Din (law courts) is required to coerce one to marry, but in practice, they do not do so in order to avoid quarrels (S. A. and R’ma, E.H. 1:3). If halakha requires one to get married in order to procreate, it goes without saying that it is forbidden for married couples to postpone the fulfillment of the mitzvah puru u’revuru by means of preventing pregnancy. However, when there is a special difficultly, sometimes there is a heter (halachic permission) to postpone the mitzvah and so as to clarify the halakha, rabbis are asked – and not in order to strengthen the control of the “rabbinical establishment” over the lives of men and women, as they falsely accuse.

Last week’s column received numerous responses – some were in favor, others disagreed, and some were antagonistic.

Must One Compromise in Order to Marry on Time?

Some people asked: How can a young man be ordered to marry by a certain age? It depends on if he finds a suitable partner!

Answer: Indeed, a man surely cannot be required to marry a woman he does not like. Moreover, a question arose: What should one do if he’d found a young woman who really wanted to marry him, and in his eyes she was all right, but he thought he could find a more suitable partner. The question was whether despite having already reached the age of twenty, was he permitted to wait longer in order to find a more suitable partner? I answered that although he had reached the required marriage age, he was not obligated to marry someone who he did not feel was suitable for him (see, Yafeh Le’Lev. Section 4, E.H. 1:13).

Thus, determining a required age of marriage is designed to direct a person to the appropriate period in life to fulfill the mitzvah of marriage and procreation, for which the entire world was created.

The Considerable Question of Fulfilling this Halakha Today

Yet, we still have to deal with a major problem concerning this issue. Seemingly, after reaching the age of thirteen a young Jewish man becomes obligated in all the mitzvoth, nevertheless, our Sages said that a young man is obligated to marry at the age of eighteen, and not later than twenty. The reason is that before this time, he must prepare himself for the huge challenge of raising a family, specifically in two areas: first, learning the foundations of the Torah (Mishnah Avot 5:21; Kiddushin 29b; Y. D.246:3), and second – parnasa (earning a living). During the years in which the young men learned the fundamentals of Torah, they spent part of the day helping their father work, and in the process, learned the trade from which they were able to make a living, build a house, and save money to acquire means for a livelihood (Sotah 44a; Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 5:11).

Judging by this we are in an awkward position, because in recent times the world has changed drastically; life has become more complex, and preparations for the responsibility of starting a family takes longer. In the past, a simple understanding of Tanach, mussar (morality), halakha and its reasoning was sufficient to start a Jewish home. It was enough to work with one’s father a few hours a day until the age of eighteen to acquire the professional knowhow to make a living, and even save some money for a wedding and building a house, which usually consisted of just one room. But today, in order to cope with the challenges facing a person, one needs to learn a lot more Torah. To do so, the majority of young men must learn in a yeshiva framework for at least a year after the age of eighteen, and usually longer.

Another sacred duty rests upon young men – the task of protecting the Nation and the Land while serving in the army and the fulfillment of this mitzvah also causes postponing marriage. Similarly, obtaining a profession that suits one’s talents usually requires several years of academic studies, and follows military service. And perhaps gifted students who have the ability to become scientists should postpone getting married until after obtaining a doctorate degree, so they can advance in their profession for the benefit of their family, nation, and the entire world. In addition, even the houses we are accustomed to live in are more expensive, because they are larger and equipped with water and electricity, and in order to purchase one, a person must work several years.

The Dilemma and Conclusion

If we need to delay marriage until a person has finished learning all the foundations of Torah, completed his academic studies, and purchased a home, the majority of young people would have to postpone their marriage until the age of thirty or forty.

On the other hand, such a delay is impossible in practical terms, because even though the environment we live in has become more complex, complicated and challenging, man’s mental and physical nature has not changed, and the fitting time for him to get married is at an early age. As the years go by, a person loses a part of his vibrancy that is so characteristic for the initial stages of marriage. Beyond this, there’s a limit to how long a person can fate himself to live his life as half a person, without true love that gives rise to life.

Therefore, taking into account the overall considerations and a comprehensive view of reality, on the one hand, it is necessary to delay the marriage age for a few years, but on the other hand, it is crucial to limit this postponement. Indeed, we find in the words of Chazal that until the age of twenty-four a young man is still adaptable, and therefore our Sages instructed parents to make sure their children get married by this age (see, Kiddushin 30a, and the commentators). We also find that some of the eminent poskim (Jewish law arbiters) instructed that even those who had to delay marriage, not postpone it beyond the age of twenty-four (Maharshal, Chida, and others).

Consequently, we can conclude that today halakha requires one to marry by the age twenty-four, and in pressing situations, and under certain conditions, one may delay marriage beyond that time.

Arguments against Postponing Marriage Age

Nevertheless, there are those who do not accept this decision. Some of them insist on claiming that we shouldn’t take into consideration the difficulties and challenges that modern life presents us, rather, we should continue demanding all young men get married before the age of twenty, as they did in previous generations.

However, we must reject their opinion, for we have already learned that our Sages instructed postponing marriage due to the needs of derech eretz, namely, so young men would be able to prepare themselves to support their families (Sotah 44a). And indeed, those who obligate young men to get married before the age of twenty, decree a life of poverty on the majority of their followers, and prevent them from participating in yishuv olam (development of the world) using the talents God endowed them. In addition, many of them tend to deny the great Torah mitzvah of serving in the army to protect the People and the Land.

Those who Claim the Law is Void

Others, however, argue that today, there should be no set age for marriage. They claim the age set by our Sages applied to a time when young men could study the fundamentals of the Torah, learn a profession, and build a house by the age of eighteen. Therefore, today as well, a person can postpone marriage until he has completed all of his preparations in Torah study, acquired a respectable profession, and purchased an average-sized apartment. In spite of this, there is apparently no prohibition of marrying before completing this long process, but in contrast, there is also no obligation to get married beforehand. Consequently, the halakha concerning the age of marriage has disappeared from the world.

This position, however, is also unacceptable, because the principle that our Sages determined is that it is impossible to postpone the age of marriage indefinitely. And as Rosh (Rabbenu Asher) wrote in regards to the reason our Sages determined an age for the fulfillment of the Torah mitzvah: “It cannot possibly be that one be negligent in fulfilling the mitzvah of puru u’revuru all his life”(Kiddushin 1:42). Thus, the mitzvah does
have a limit, which is after the necessary preparations have been completed prior to marriage.

Moreover, as the years pass, so does the proper time for binding the marriage, because the appropriate time emotionally for marriage is around the age of twenty, and the more time passes, one’s enthusiasm decreases, and it is harder to connect in the everlasting covenant of marriage. Therefore, young people who postpone getting married have difficulty finding their spouse, and many of them remain single for several, extremely long years. This is one of the main reasons for the disintegration of the family unit in the West. One might say that just as it is hard for twenty-five year old men to undergo basic training in a combat unit suited for eighteen-year-olds, so too is it difficult for twenty-five year olds to find their partners.

Maintaining the Principles and Objectives

Indeed, we are living in a changing world, and some of the guidance that was appropriate for previous generations, is less appropriate today. However, the principles have remained the same, just as man’s basic nature has not changed. Our job, therefore, is to refine the values and principles set by the Torah and clarified by our Sages, in accordance with the circumstances of our generation.

The principles are that the mitzvoth of marriage and procreation are among the most important commandments, as our Sages said: “But was not the world only made to be populated, as it says ‘He created it not a waste, He formed it to be inhabited”(Mishnah Gittin 41b). Another principle is that this mitzvah has a limit, and it cannot be postponed indefinitely. Man’s biological and emotional nature also requires this. Another principle is that a person should prepare responsibly prior to getting married. And another important principle is that a person should be participate in yishuv olam; just as our forefathers dug wells and established marketplaces in the past, so too, one should engage today in the development of industry, science, economy and society.

Therefore, it is possible to determine as halakha that until the age of twenty-four, which was the age one could defer getting married in a pressing situation in the past, is the age until which a person can postpone getting married l’chatchila (from the outset) today. However, if one is able to get married earlier without harming the important principles previously mentioned, may he be blessed.

Indeed, this is not an easy challenge. In order to fulfill this joyful and wonderful mitzvah, young men should hasten to acquire a profession. To do this, they also should not prolong the years of study in yeshiva beyond what is necessary. In many cases a husband can share the burden of making a living with his beloved and loving wife in order to complete his studies for a profession. Also, it is a mitzvah for parents and society to assist in providing optimal conditions for the building of young families.

With God’s help, I will deal with this issue in the future.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.