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Choosing a Spouse


Is it possible to ensure children’s spiritual future? Of what importance are the brothers of a proposed match? Do the halachos mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch apply today? What should one prefer – a nice family, or a girl with good middos (character traits)? What do you choose when getting both is not an option? Which match is preferable – the daughter of a family with an impressive ancestry, or the daughter of a talmid chacham of simpler origin? Who is considered a talmid chacham today? Which girls can make a potentially good match despite being born to unlearned fathers? Why do mothers influence their children more than their fathers?


In this week’s parasha we read: “Aaron took to himself for a wife, Elisheva, the daughter of Aminadav, the sister of Nachshon, and she bore him Nadav and Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar” (Shemos 6:23). The Gemara (Bave Basre 110a) points out that the words “the sister of Nachshon” seem superfluous – why do we need to know who her brother is? The Gemara answers that who her brother is, is an essential factor in choosing a wife because most children turn out like their mother’s brothers.

The Gemara continues with a chilling anecdote that clearly illustrates this point: Moshe Rabbenu’s wife, Tzippora was a righteous convert whose father had originally been an idol priest. Despite her piety and her father’s subsequent conversion, his grandson Yehonoson became an idol priest just like his great-grandfather. Aharon, though, who married Elisheva, Nachshon’s sister, merited all his descendants were priests in the Mishkan and Mikdash. The Gemara concludes: “Rabbi Elazar says: A person should always cleave to good people [i.e. marry a woman from a good family] as this is beneficial for the offspring of that marriage. As in the case of Moshe, who married a daughter of Yisro, who was a priest of idolatry, Yehonoson, who was also a priest of idolatry, descended from him. However Aaron, who married the daughter of Aminadav, who was of distinguished lineage in the tribe of Yehuda, merited having Pinchas descend from him” (Bave Basre 109b).

The Shelitot (Sheilta 41) chose to focus on this topic in his discussion of this week’s parasha, and we will follow in his footsteps. What characteristics should one look for in choosing a marriage partner? What family is considered of good lineage? And how does this apply nowadays?

Brothers Bestow

The Shelitos (ibid) explains that one should look specifically to marry a woman with righteous brothers because the merits of both father and mother are necessary to ensure their children turn out good.

The Meiri (Bave Basre 109b) explains that every action one does should be dedicated for G-d — not because it is the normal thing to do, or to satisfy a need or desire. When marrying, while it is essential to ensure the relationship is viable, one should also think about the future generations – intend to establish a Torah-true home which will create a kiddush Hashem and increase G-dliness in the world. This we learn from the way Aharon chose his marriage partner. Since he based his choice, not only, but also on her brothers and their spiritual stature, he merited that none of his descendants are mentioned in the Tanach as leaving the fold or worshipping idols.

The Maharal (Gur Arye, Shemos 6:23) explains why children tend to turn out like their mother’s brothers: children generally inherit their mother’s emotional and spiritual makeup. Another reason is that it is impossible to assess a woman’s spirituality. Since the only way to gain insight is through a male, the closest male relatives are her brothers, and they should be examined.

What does the Maharal mean? Can’t anyone assess another person’s spiritual strivings?

The Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Netiv Habitachon, chapter 1) explains that the male force is the tzura – the concept or form of everything in the world; the female force is the chomer – the physical matter that gives a concept substance and allows it to descend into the physical world. While a man gives his home its general direction and spiritual aims, the wife makes them reality and expresses these concepts physically.

The Gemara (Avoda Zara 39a) illustrates this point with a story: “There was a woman who married a Talmid Chacham and would tie tefillin on his hand. Later she married a tax collector and would tie tax-seals on his hand (tax collectors were considered thieves because they were unfair). Here we learn of the influence a husband has on his wife’s piety.” The wife in this story did her job faithfully – she turned her husband’s vision into reality. But the vision must come from the male. If his vision is pious – her deeds will reflect that piety. And if his vision is wicked – her actions will be wicked.

This is why defining a female’s spirituality is tricky – because she is reflective, she can easily change herself to accommodate any lifestyle. Her children, though, will inherit her basic personality. Her brothers, as her closest male relatives, are the best indicator of their sister’s personality.

Maavar Yabok (41, chapter 15) writes that a mother is the strongest influence on her children’s future so marrying a good wife is of utmost importance. He adds that the main reason for children’s spiritual failing is because of their mother’s lack of modesty.

While these sources attribute children’s spiritual development completely to their mother, the Pri Megadim (OC 128:62) differentiates between boys and girls: while boys tend to be influenced by their mother’s personality, girls tend to follow their father’s character traits. This is based on the Gemara (Nidda 31a). Therefore, in order for the girls to turn out alright one must ensure that the females in the boy’s family are virtuous.

Moshe and Tzippora

While the above mentioned Gemara seems to criticize Moshe for marrying Tzippora and praise Aharon for his marriage to Elisheva, it is important to put this criticism in context:

While Yehonoson, Moshe’s grandchild, was certainly mistaken (see this week’s editorial for further details), Moshe Rabbenu clearly influenced him and his life. Moshe Rabbenu’s other descendants were also prominent people as the pasuk in Divrei Hayomim (I 23:17) reads: “And the sons of Eliezer were; Rechavia the chief, and Eliezer had no other sons, but the sons of Rechavia multiplied greatly”, which Chazal understand as indicative of their prominence.

An additional hint to Moshe Rabbenu’s progeny’s stature is related to Gershom, his son, whom Moshe saw worthy of filling his shoes (Rashi, Bamidbar 27:15). Despite his greatness, G-d demanded that Yehoshua be appointed in his place, to which Moshe acquiesced.

Moshe and Tzippora established a wonderful, excellent family, but Aharon saw exceptional success with his children because he made the extra effort to look into his future wife’s brothers — unlike Moshe, who understandably could not do so since he married during his flight from Pharaoh’s wrath and lived as a guest in Midian. While marrying into a prominent family is important, the first and foremost concern must be to marry a virtuous woman. The Gemara teaches that only where choosing between options is possible should one prefer a righteous family over one less so.

The Meiri expresses this point clearly (Shabbos 11a): while one must investigate the family of a proposed match, her own characteristics come before that. A woman with bad character traits is the worst thing in the world.

Practical Application

The Rambam (Issurei Bia 21:32) and Shulchan Aruch (EH 2:6) don’t mention these points in their list of characteristics to look out for in a potential wife. The Shela, though, (Va’eira, Derech Chaim Tochachat Mussar 20), adds these points: “And anyone who disregards Chazal’s words is detaching himself from life.” (See Rabbi Yom Tov Zanger’s essay [Tel Talpiyot 64 p. 147] explaining why this halacha was dropped from halachic literature.)

Apparently, a woman’s brothers are important, but only if everything else is in place. If one will be forced to forgo other important features, he must carefully weigh what’s more important. This explains why the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch mention the more significant details first, and only when left with a choice, like Aharon Hakohen, should one regard those of lesser importance.

Sefer Chassidim (chapter 378) writes that G-d will hold it against anyone who bears wicked children if he could have married a woman with righteous brothers and chose one with evil brothers.

Characteristics of a Good Wife

The Shulchan Aruch (EH 2:6) lists the characteristics a prospective wife should have:

  1. The most important is for her father to be a talmid chacham. Likewise, a father must do everything he can to marry his daughters to talmidei chachamim.
  2. If a talmid chacham’s daughter is not available one should focus on searching for a daughter of great people – virtuous people who keep the mitzvos, even if unlearned themselves (Pesachim 49b, Rashi).
  3. The next level is the daughter of a public figure – people who do things for the Jewish People.
  4. If even this kind of match is not available one should search for the daughter of someone involved in tzedakah collection, because people involved in tzedakah collection are usually only appointed if they have good middos.
  5. The daughter of a rebbe who teaches small children comes in next.

It is forbidden to marry a daughter of one who is unscrupulous in his mitzva performance.

Prominent Family

Various sources point out to the importance of ensuring the family one marries into is a prominent one. The Chayei Adam (in his introduction) explains that the virtue of a prominent family is only meant to exclude any concern of mamzerus. If this is not a concern, any Jewish family can be considered prominent. The only greater virtue in a family is if the prospective bride’s father is a talmid chacham, and even more so – if he writes chidushim.

Some people have detailed family trees linking them to famous Torah personalities. Preferring these families over others is senseless, writes the Chayei Adam, as ever since the Primordial Serpent engaged with Chava in the Garden of Eden, no family is all good or all bad. Good and bad are always mixed together. Even the best families have members who didn’t turn out well, and even the worst families can have wonderful people. Nevertheless, a talmid chacham’s daughter from a simple family is a better match than one from a family related to all the Jewish leaders past and present whose father is unlearned.

Descendants of pious people enjoy the protection of their forefather’s merits. Therefore this may be a consideration in making a match with them.

Daughter of an Ignorant Father

The Taz (EH 2:3) explains that the reason one must refrain from marrying the daughter of an ignorant man is because she is raised thinking that a Torah scholar only enjoys the Next World and it’s reward, while she wants to enjoy this World’s pleasures. In contrast, the talmid chacham’s daughter is well aware of the Torah scholar’s pleasures in This World and is accustomed to them, besides for the pleasures and rewards of the Next World. This prospective wife will encourage her husband to save on expenses and invest in Torah study instead of amassing wealth, ensuring they both enjoy the true pleasures of this World and The Next.

Therefore, explains the Taz, if the ignorant man’s daughter is wise, one can certainly agree to the match. Contemporary poskim have ruled (Kehilos Yaakov, Yevamos 49, and others) that any girl who received a Beis Yaakov education, even if her father is unlearned, can be considered a talmid chacham’s daughter since she understands the value and pleasures of spiritual endeavors and wishes to establish a Torah-true home.

The Taz explains why Chazal forbade a father from allowing his daughter to marry an ignorant person along the same lines: since he is unlearned, he cannot teach his wife halachos, and even when he hears a halacha from a talmid chacham he disregards it. Therefore, the daughter of an unlearned person who is careful with halachos and respects talmidei chachomim and follows them, does not meet the above criteria and is not included in the prohibition.

Defining Talmid Chacham

Who is the Talmid Chacham whose daughter one is advised to marry? The Taz, as explained above, maintains it is a woman who understands the value of spiritual endeavors and appreciates them. The Rambam (Isurei Bieah 21:32) and Levush (EH 2:6) explain that the purpose is to ensure one’s children’s spiritual future should their father pass away.

The Chida writes (Birkei Yosef EH 2:2) that although today nobody meets the requirements defining them as a halachic talmid chacham, this halacha remains in place, and one must do everything to marry the daughter of one considered a talmid chacham. The most defining feature of a talmid chacham is his yiras Shomayim – Fear of Heaven.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

The Chida (Birkei Yosef EH 2:3) encourages one who feels his spirituality will suffer if he follows the Shulchan Aruch’s rules to choose a partner who matches his personality and helps him flourish instead of following the Shulchan Aruch’s list.

One of the leaders of our generation was a young man in the Ponevezh Yeshiva. He was offered a match with the daughter of one of the generation’s Torah leaders, but the mashgiach, Rabbi Yechezkeil Levenstein advised him to turn down the offer and instead, marry the daughter of a simple family whose parents loved Torah. “The prominent father,” explained Rabbi Levenstien, “has an exceptional approach to avodas Hashem. If you marry his daughter, she will have a hard time accepting and appreciating your ways. But the simple man’s daughter will appreciate whatever you do, and encourage you.” The young man followed his mashgiach’s advice and married a girl from a simple family. His growth in Torah is a gift to our generation.

Marrying Money

Sefer Chassidim (Chapter 381) tells of a man who came to the scholar and told him he had nothing with which to make a living. He was offered two matches: one with the daughter of a poor Torah scholar, and another – with wealthy people offering a large dowery with which he could live comfortably. He asked “Which match should I prefer?” The wise man said that in this case, marrying into money is preferable, since the test of poverty may cause him to steal.

The Chida (Birkei Yosef EH 2:4) notes this ruling l’halacha, adding (footnote 6), that if the unlearned wealthy father promises to foot all the bills, marrying his daughter is permitted. The reason for the prohibition to marry the daughter of an unlearned father is because she’ll demand her husband make a living instead of learning Torah. Therefore, if her father is wealthy and promises to provide the couple with all their needs, marrying her is permitted and there is no room for concern he may lose his money.

Rabbi Yehonoson Abelman (Zichron Yehonoson, introduction) maintains that marrying the pampered daughter of a wealthy family requires careful consideration. Living up to her expectations may become a burden which could eventually pull one out away from Torah study. The Steipler would often refer people to this passage when presented questions of this nature.

When he was a young boy, Rabbi Yehonoson came to Vilna, and a match with Rabbi Yisroel Salanter’s granddaughter was suggested to him. The young Yehonoson was afraid to agree to the match because there were wealthy people who promised him large doweries, and Rabbi Yisroel’s son in law, while a great Torah scholar, was unable to match their financial offers. Rabbi Yehonoson was afraid he wouldn’t be able to learn Torah without the added financial support. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter’s daughter, the girl’s mother told him: “Look, if you marry one of the wealthy girls, you will, indeed receive a large dowery, but you will be forced to live on a high standard, and the money will disappear faster. Then, you’ll be forced to go out and work to meet the needs of your papered wife. Our daughter, on the other hand, wants you to sit and learn Torah for the rest of your life. She makes do with little, and will allow you to grow into a Torah scholar.”

Rabbi Yehonoson accepted her advice and married her daughter. And indeed, he grew and blossomed into a great talmid chacham.

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