Rabbinic Views On Love Before & After Marriage

Marc B. Shapiro writes:

There is an interesting responsum of R Yair Hayyim Bacharach, Havot Yair, no. 60, that deals with a man and woman who were in love and get married despite the strong opposition of the woman’s father. The story is quite romantic. It describes how during an epidemic in Worms in 1636 the beautiful and intelligent only daughter of one of the rich leaders of the local Jewish community falls ill. There is a man who had fallen in love with her and wants to take care of her in her illness. We are told that this man is tall and handsome, yet he comes from “the other side of the tracks” (i.e., from the lower class). He is able to get the agreement of both the father and daughter that if he takes care of the woman, which would be at great personal risk to himself, and she recovers, that they will marry. The woman indeed recovers but the man himself becomes sick, and the roles are reversed. The woman now takes care of him, which is only fitting since he caught the illness taking care of her. She too has fallen in with him and fortunately he survives, meaning that they are now able to marry. However, the father wishes to go back on his side of the agreement, which obligated him to provide a dowry, and that is the halakhic matter that the responsum focuses on.

Elchanan Reiner has argued that the entire story is a fiction, and what R. Bacharach, one of the most important 17th century halakhic authorities, has done is create a love story in line with the romantic stories that were appearing at this time in general literature. The story can therefore be seen as similar to a parable that is created for use in a sermon.[1]
The story R. Bacharach records is about a woman, indeed an only daughter, from a rich and important family. On the other side you have a poor man with no financial future. These are two people who in traditional Jewish society (and general society as well) normally would never be allowed or even want to come together. Yet because of the unusual circumstances of the epidemic, the man who dreams of the woman he could normally never have, is able to arrange a way to spend time with her and cross the boundary that otherwise would have kept them apart.
In the end we are inspired to see how love conquers all. For the sake of love the woman defies her father and gives up all the wealth that would be hers if she would only listen to her father and reject what her heart is telling her. It is a case of love vs. money, position, and power, and love wins. R. Bacharach mentions that when the father refuses to allow the marriage, the daughter says to him שעל כל פנים תזדקק לו הן בהיתר הן באיסור. What this means is that she threatens her father that if he doesn’t allow her to marry the man she loves, that she will be with him, i.e., sleep with him, anyway. For his part, the father says that he will not give her a dowry, and in the end ולקחה המשרת חנם. In other words, they married, but without any money from her father. They did what virtually no one else in 17th century Jewish society did. They married for love, choosing their own partners, without concern for status or money. According to Reiner, what R. Bacharach has given us in abridged form is nothing less than a Jewish version of Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story.
The late R. Raphael Posen responded to Reiner’s article, rejecting completely the latter’s hypothesis.[2] He acknowledges that the case described in R. Bacharach’s responsum may be theoretical, and notes that there are many such theoretical cases in the responsa literature. As for the romantic elements in the responsum, he states that in responsa one can find much “juicier” stories than the one discussed by Reiner, and there are also cases of lovers’ entanglements from completely different eras. Posen refers in particular to two responsa that appear in the Tashbetz. These responsa predate R. Bacharach by a couple of centuries. They also were written in North Africa, a place that did not have the sort of romantic literature that according to Reiner was the model for R. Bacharach’s responsum…

R. Daniel Eidensohn has called attention to a similar approach attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, that you should love your wife as you love your tefillin. That is because with each of them you have the opportunity to fulfill mitzvot. See here. I don’t think this sort of interpretation will find much appeal in modern times, as it completely ignores the most obvious, and most important, type of love from husband to wife, which one hopes is present in every marriage. In fact, it is not only in modern times that such an interpretation would not be appealing, as all of the pre-modern sources that speak about loving one’s wife are indeed referring to real love.
R. Levi Yitzhak’s stress on love of one’s wife since she gives one the ability to perform mitzvot (i.e., purely utilitarian) is also at odds with other hasidic sentiments. For example, there is a famous story about a hasidic rebbe who was ill. A Lithuanian rabbi came to visit him late one night. He knocked on the door and when the rebbe answered the door, the rabbi said, “I have come to fulfill the mitzvah of bikur cholim”. The rebbe replied, “It is very late now, and I am tired and not in the mood to be the cheftza for your mitzvah.” This story is told among hasidim as a way to knock the non-hasidim. The lesson is that the Lithuanian rabbi should have come to visit the rebbe because he had the basic human emotion of wanting to show empathy to another who was suffering. Instead, he showed that this was foreign to his way of thinking, and his primary goal was simply to fulfill the mitzvah. And for that, the rebbe was not interested in taking part…

In his Sefer ha-Hayyim,[10] R. Hayyim notes that the demons want to connect themselves with scholars or even with any men. However, this is difficult since men are on the highest spiritual level, and thus distant from the demons. Therefore, the demons connect themselves to women who are on a lower spiritual level than men, and thus closer to the demons. In other words, at the bottom you have demons, women are above them, and men stand at the top. As R. Hayyim explains, both demons and women share an important characteristic, namely, that they are naturally defective: חסירי היצירה. As proof for this contention about women, he cites Sanhedrin 22b:
אשה גולם היא ואינה כורתת ברית אלא למי שעשאה כלי
“A woman [before marriage] is a shapeless lump, and concludes a covenant only with him who transforms her [into] a [useful] vessel.”
The fact that the Talmud refers to a woman as a “shapeless lump” is proof for R. Hayyim that she is on a lower level than a man, and this basic division is not altered after marriage.
This then leads R. Hayyim to call attention to Exodus 22:17 which states מכשפה לא תחיה, “Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live.” He asks, why is only a sorceress mentioned, and not a sorcerer מכשף? He also calls attention to Avot 2:8, מרבה נשים מרבה כשפים, “The more wives, the more witchcraft,” which also makes the connection of sorcery to women. R. Hayyim explains that because of the closeness of women and demons the Torah was concerned that women would seek to “go down” and achieve completeness by connecting themselves with the demonic forces below them. This wasn’t such a worry when it came to men since they were “two levels above” the domain of the demons.
All of this is quite interesting, and R. Hayyim ben Betzalel was very happy with this explanation (which must be causing some readers to pull their hair out.) After offering it he expressed pride in what he wrote:
והנה לא קדמני אדם בפירוש זה והוא ענין נכון אצלי.
So what does this have to do with what I have been discussing in the post? R. Hayyim warns men not to be too connected to women (which includes their wives) since this will mean that they are trying to complete themselves and find perfection by means of someone who is on a lower level than them. I believe this to be in complete opposition to the modern romantic notion that men and women can be soulmates, for one cannot be a soulmate with one whose soul is literally on a lower level.[11]…

R. Jonathan Eybeschuetz, in a sermon delivered in Metz in 1744, declared that “from this point on” he would only write a betrothal contract if the man and woman give their solemn agreement not to touch one another until after the wedding.[14]
As is clear from the sermon of R. Eybeschuetz just referred to,[15] many engaged couples were ignoring the law of negiah. Even Mendelssohn did not follow it, as we see from a letter he wrote to his fiancée. “Even the kisses that I stole from your lips were mixed with some bitterness, for the approaching separation made me heavy of heart and incapable of enjoying a pure pleasure.”[16]
In his autobiography, R. Leon Modena records the following about his young fiancée who was on her deathbed. He was 19 years old at the time.

On the day she died, she summoned me and embraced and kissed me. She said, “I know that this is bold behavior, but God knows that during the one year of our engagement we did not touch each other even with our little fingers. Now, at the time of death, the rights of the dying are mine. I was not allowed to become your wife, but what can I do, for thus it is decreed in heaven. May God’s will be done.”[17]

This story reminded me of an incident R. Jacob Emden records in his autobiography, although the details are entirely different. The translation of this lengthy passage is by Jacob J. Schacter in his outstanding dissertation on R. Emden.[18]

“A miracle also occurred to me, especially relevant to matters spiritual. (It was) a miracle similar to that of Joseph the righteous and (even) slightly more so. I was a young man, tender in years, in the full strength of my passion. I had been separated from my wife for a long time and greatly desired a woman. A very pretty unmarried young girl who was my cousin happened to meet me there and was alone with me. She brazenly demonstrated great love to me, came close to me and almost kissed me. Even when I was lying in my bed, she came to cover me well on the couch, in a close loving manner. Truthfully, had I hearkened to the advice of my instinct she would not have denied my desire at all. Several times it (indeed) almost happened, as a fire (consumes) the chaff. Frequently there was no one in the house with me but her. They (i.e. the members of her family) were also not accustomed to come for they stayed in the store on the marketplace, occupied with their livelihood all day. Had God not given me great strength, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power (Gen. 49:3), to overcome my fiery instinct which once almost forced me to do its bidding, (and) were it not for the grace of God which was great upon me, (I would have been unable) to withstand this very powerful temptation, greater than all temptations. I was a man at the prime of my strength and passion. There was a very pleasant beautiful woman before me who demonstrated for me all manner of love and closeness many times. She was related to me, unmarried, a tender child and recently widowed. She may have been ritually pure or would have ritually purified herself had I requested it. If I had wanted to fulfill my passionate desire for her, I was absolutely certain that she would not reveal my secret. I controlled my instinct, conquered my passion and determined to kill it. My heart was hollow and I did not . . . Blessed be the Lord who gives strength to the weary for I was saved from this flaming fire.”

Schacter does not translate the next sentence in the memoir in which R. Emden expresses the wish that as a reward for standing firm, he and his descendants until the end of time will be protected from sexual temptation…

…R. Kalir told his female congregants that on Shabbat morning they should leave the synagogue and go home before the end of services. This was to prevent men and women mixing which would happen if the women were still there when services ended.[22] It is hard to believe that he found much of a receptive audience for this request.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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