Kol Isha: 'Shalom bayit'

Is there not a danger to marriage when there is an expectation of self-effacement on the part of the other?

June 18, 2009 14:22
3 minute read.
Kol Isha: 'Shalom bayit'

Wedding 248.88 aj. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )

Gazing at a couple under the canopy, my sense of hope as well as trepidation stirs, for marriage can be a haven in which one finds shelter or a hell from which one runs. Every morning, in prayer, we include "fostering peace between man and wife" in the list of ethical precepts which offer reward in this world and in the world to come (B. Shabbat 127a). The midrash on the importance of shlom bayit (peace in the home) opens with a teaching by Rabbi Ishmael: "So great is peace, that God made it permissible for the great name, written in sanctity, to be blotted out in water for the sake of peace between husband and wife" (Leviticus Rabba 9:9). This alludes to the bitter waters of the sotah ritual (Numbers 5:11-31). Prompted by the suspicions of a jealous husband, curses (including God's name) are written on parchment and then dissolved in bitter waters, which the "wayward" wife must drink to determine her innocence or guilt. God becomes "effaced," as the holy name bleeds into brine. This is fatal for the woman if she is guilty of adultery (v. 27). If innocent, she conceives (v. 28), and God becomes "visible" again in the new line created between husband and wife. The midrash goes on to illustrate this principle:"Rabbi Meir would give a sermon on Friday evenings. There was a woman who was in the habit of sitting and listening to him. Once his sermon went on for a long while, and she waited until he had finished. When she arrived home, she found that the candle had gone out. Her husband asked her: 'Where have you been?' She answered, 'I stayed to listen to the preacher.' He said, 'I swear that you will not return home until you go and spit in the face of the preacher.'" The light in the home is extinguished - Shabbat candles snuffed out, words of anger exchanged, an oath harshly uttered. According to tradition, in Sarah's tent the candle stayed kindled from one Shabbat to the next while she lived. After she died, darkness hovered over the home until Isaac brought Rebecca into the tent as his wife and the light returned (Genesis Rabba 60:16). "And Isaac loved her" (Genesis 25:67). The candles burning down represent a kind of death between husband and wife - in this story, is the ensuing dark irrevocable? The midrash continues: "She stayed away [from home] one week, a second and a third. Her neighbors then said to her: 'Are you still angry with one another? Let us go to see the preacher.' As soon as Rabbi Meir saw them, he understood by means of the holy spirit [what had happened], and said, 'Is there a woman among you clever at whispering a charm over an eye?' The woman's neighbors said to her: 'If you go and spit in his eye you will release your husband [from his vow].' When she sat down before him she was filled with trepidation and said: 'Rabbi, I really know nothing about whispering charms over an eye.' He said, 'Despite that, spit in my face seven times, and I will be cured.' She did so, and he said to her, 'Go tell you husband: You told me to do it once, but I spat seven times.'" We don't hear whether the husband was appeased, or whether the couple lived happily ever after. (I rather suspect not). But we hear the voice of Rabbi Meir's astonished disciples - how could the Torah have been abused in this way? Had they known about this husband, they would have bound him and beaten him until he reconciled with his wife (Y. Sotah 1:4). Rabbi Meir takes a different tack. In his own defense, he invokes the statement of Rabbi Ishmael alluding to the dissolution of the ineffable name in the bitter waters: "If God was willing to erase His name for the sake of peace between husband and wife, should I not then emulate my creator?" While the rabbi willingly renounces his own pride for the sake of peace between husband and wife, I wonder about the woman. Where is her voice in the story? Did she not experience terrible shame in having to drivel in the face of her rabbi? Is there not a danger to the integrity of the marriage when there is an expectation of self-effacement on the part of the other? Real peace, shlom bayit, between husband and wife is contingent upon mutual respect. That is what the two Shabbat candles, shimmering side-by-side, represent - and no dissolution of the divine name or spittle on the face can replace the radiant light of such a marriage. May we merit such peace for ourselves, our friends, and our children.

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