Baker Academic

Monday, January 28, 2013

More about Marriage in Antiquity - Le Donne

In my previous post, most honorable Theophilus, I wrote a bit about some helpful distinctions drawn by Michael Satlow. Christian asks:

Would you be willing to share some of those distinctions in a separate post?

Christian, here are a couple examples.

One distinction that I found helpful was the dissonance between the Bavli rabbis and the Yerushalmi rabbis on the impetus for marriage. In other words, why marry?  It seems that the earlier Judean voices promote marriage because it helps to establish men as civic entities. Familial, financial, and social well-being flows from the institution of marriage. The later Babylonian voices are not as certain that marriage is entirely positive. Perhaps it might take an otherwise pious man away from religious study.  However, most of these rabbis argue that marriage provides an outlet for a man's sexual appetites.  This second position is somewhat similar to Paul's stance.  Satlow notes that there is no attempt by the rabbis to convince women to marry; it is just assumed that they don't need convincing.  This is one of those times when the historian is negligent if s/he doesn't offer an argument from silence: the social pressures on fathers to find a match for their daughters were enormous.  Moreover - and this is my observation, not Satlow's - a single woman was seen as a problem to be solved, not a person to be celebrated.

Another distinction that I found helpful was between ideals and normalcy.  For example, the Babylonian voices are adamant that marriage around the time of puberty is best.  This stance works alongside their fear of sexual urges.  So you find some rabbis saying things like this:
“A man of twenty who has not married spends all his days in sin.” … “Up to twenty years, the Holy One—blessed be He—sits and watches for a man, when he should marry a wife. When his twentieth year arrives and he has still not married, He says, ‘Let him rot!’” … “I desired more than my colleagues to marry at sixteen. Had I married at fourteen I could have said to Satan, ‘An arrow in your eye!’” (B. Qid. 29b-30a)
Here you see a few ideals for marriage. Yet other texts demonstrate that these ideals were often difficult to live up to.  The Bavli rabbis strongly urge a range of 14-20 as the window for righteous marriage, but ideals and reality are two different things.



  1. Anthony, I'm sure the following is all stuff you know better than I do (and please correct me when you think it's necessary -- I'm only casually familiar with Talmud), but I think your listening audience could use a little Talmud 101. What follows is general information, and there are always exceptions.

    The Talmud consists of two parts: (1) the Mishnah, written around 200 CE, which is a statement of Jewish law, and (2) the Gemara, which is commentary on the Mishnah. In nearly every case where you see the Talmud quoted, what's being quoted is the Gemara. There are two versions of Gemara, the Palestinian Gemara (4th century) and the Babylonian Gemara (late 5th century). The Babylonian Gemara is the longer of the two, the more authoritative for Jews and the one that's most frequently studied by Jews.

    The Mishnah is typically written in a dense, terse style. It's not easy to understand, hence the need for Gemara. The Gemara, in contrast, is relatively free-wheeling. It usually contains contrasting opinions from multiple rabbis. The Gemara usually starts out explaining the text of the Mishnah, but as the Gemara continues, the rabbis often drift into side topics.

    It's a difficult matter to determine what is authoritative in Talmud. In theory, one might regard the Mishnah like statutory law, and the Gemara like decisions reached by judges based on the statutory law. But in practice, this analogy breaks down, and what Jews regard as authoritative might be some later Rabbi's commentary on the Mishnah or Gemara. It's even more difficult to figure out what Jews regarded as authoritative when the Talmud was written. And things get nearly impossible when we look to the Talmud as a source for Jewish history.

    When someone cites Talmud to me, I try to find the cited text in context. I look to see if the tractate is focused on the subject in question. In the case of the text cited above, the relevant tractate is Kiddushin, which DOES address marriage! That's good. But oddly, the piece of the Mishnah addressed by the cited text has nothing to do with marriage -- it addresses when sons (and sometimes daughters) are obligated to perform a father's obligations, and when a father is obligated to perform a son's (and sometimes a daughter's) obligations. The Gemara discussion starts with the Mishnah and then wanders into the father's obligation to teach his son, which wanders further into a discussion of when study takes precedence over marriage. Then follows a story of a young man who excused his failure to wear a head covering on his not being married. Then follows the text cited above, which is followed by yet more opinions on the right age to marry -- one group of rabbis says between 16 and 22, another says between 18 and 24.

    What all this means is really up to an expert in Talmud to figure out. I assume that Satlow is such a person. But for the rest of us, me included, we have to be very careful. In the text cited above, the Rabbis are addressing marriage not in a discussion of marriage, but in an extended "riff" on how a man should best time his marriage to improve his ability to study. Think about this in a modern context: if you ask how much time a teenager should study versus playing sports, the answer will vary depending on whether the teenager is a potential scholarship athlete. And after the teenager has grown up, his answer to the same question may differ, especially if he wants to make a point on the importance of study or sports practice.

    1. Thanks for this Larry. My point (following Satlow) was that there is a difference between ideals and regular practice. Do you disagree with this assessment?


    2. I agree strongly with your point, that there's a difference between ideals and regular practice. I think that this is an important point to make when considering a passage from Talmud, particularly where Talmud is not being read solely for its own sake. I thought it would be helpful to add something about the importance of context. In this case, my reading of this Talmud text is that the context is about the importance of study, and the ideal being discussed is how to best time one's marriage so as to be an ideal scholar. That's not exactly the same thing as discussing the ideal age to marry.

    3. I would only add that "written in 200 CE" does not mean composed in 200 CE... this is to say that many of these teachings represent earlier rabbis.

    4. Agreed about some teachings going back prior to 200 CE. Maybe most of them. The $64 question is: which ones?

      Talmud is hard. Lucky for you, you have Jacob Neusner's private phone number! I know you're not Jewish, but if you were Jewish, you'd be about the best connected Jew I know.

    5. If I could only get Jack to give me the Pope's private phone number... then I would be the most well-connected Christian that I know.