Parashat Ki tezte: What is the purpose of marriage?

There is a fascinating disagreement among our Sages as to whether or not there is in fact a commandment to get married.

jewish wedding 88 (photo credit: )
jewish wedding 88
(photo credit: )
Is there a biblical commandment to get married? Our biblical portion deals with marriage and divorce, but I would like to devote this particular commentary to the rabbinic concept of marriage. Our Sages took the two opening phrases of the above verse to refer to two separate aspects of marriage: "When a man takes a woman" refers to the act of betrothal or engagement (kiddushin or erusin; the groom's gift of a ring accepted by the bride in the presence of two proper witnesses), "and has relations with her" refers to his bringing her into his house as an expression of marriage (nissuin, literally taking her up to his home, when they actually live together as husband and wife). In Mishnaic times nissuin took place one year after the betrothal. Certainly by the Gaonic period (700-1000 CE) the two were combined in one ceremony, beginning with the betrothal, then the reading of the ketuba (marriage contract, which protected the bride with a sum of alimony in case of divorce and an insurance policy in case of the husband's death) as a form of intermission between the two ceremonies and - for the climax - the recitation of the seven blessings of marriage under a nuptial canopy symbolizing the new home. Ashkenazi Jews even conclude the ceremony with the bride and groom spending at least seven minutes alone together behind locked doors in a guarded room, demonstrating that they are setting up a united residence as husband and wife. However, despite what I have just recorded, there is a fascinating disagreement among our Sages (12th-16th centuries) as to whether or not there is in fact a commandment to get married. R. Asheri, (known as the Rosh, 1250-1327), insists that there is no such commandment; the only real command is to have children ("Be fruitful and multiply," Gen 1:28), and the natural - and legal - preparation for procreation is marriage. If one does not wish to - or is biologically incapable of - having children, marriage is not at all necessary. He derives his position from the unique formulation of the betrothal blessing: "Blessed art thou O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us against forbidden relationships... Blessed art thou, who has sanctified His nation Israel by means of the nuptial canopy and betrothal." He argues that the usual blessing which is recited prior to the performance of a commandment is clear-cut and specific: "Blessed art thou who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to...," rather than this formulation, which tells us which sexual relations are forbidden! He therefore concludes that this rather uncharacteristic blessing is praising God for providing a concept such as marriage, but is not at all a blessing over a commandment to marry (Rosh to B.T. Ketubot, chapter 2). For the Rosh, therefore, marriage itself is not a commandment; it is merely a precursor for procreation. Maimonides strongly disagrees, insisting both in his Book of Commandments (command 213) and in his magnum opus Mishne Torah (Laws of Marriage 1:1) that there is a separate and mandatory commandment incumbent upon everyone to get married. Built into this difference of opinion is a conceptual divide over the fundamental purpose of marriage as well as the possibility of birth control, or sex without procreation. According to the Rosh, marriage is solely for the purpose of procreation, and he seems to preclude the sexual act unless it can - at least potentially - lead to pregnancy. Maimonides holds open the door for the possibility of sex within marriage but without procreation, whether it be with the use of birth control (under certain conditions approved by a rabbinical authority) or after menopause. Even more significantly, Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the famed 16th-century religio-legal compendium Shulhan Aruch, opens the section dealing with the laws of personal status, "It is incumbent upon every man to marry a woman in order to be fruitful and multiply," clearly siding with the Rosh. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, a major and most authoritative decisor, disagrees, citing many other reasons for marriage aside from procreation: "Whoever has no wife is bereft of blessing, is bereft of Torah, is bereft of joy, and is considered to be only half a person." His position on marriage as a companionship between two "loving and beloved friends" looks back to the sixth of the seven nuptial blessings ("Rejoice, yes rejoice, loving and beloved friends, just as your Creator enabled you to rejoice in the ancient Garden of Eden..."), as well as to the introduction to the Laws of Personal Status of the Tur written by Rabbenu Ya'acov, the son of the Rosh, who says, "May the name of the Holy One blessed be He, be praised, because He wishes only good for his creatures, and He knows that it is not good for the human being to be alone, therefore, He made for him a helpmate, a wife. An additional purpose (but not the main reason) is that it is the intent of creation that the human being be fruitful and multiplies, and that is impossible without a helpmate." These two authorities, Rabbenu Ya'acov and Rabbi Moshe Isserles, confirm the view of Maimonides, that marriage and the act of sexual communication between a loving couple expresses a relationship beyond procreation - as important as procreation may be - and that human beings require loving companions who will mitigate existential and social loneliness and will allow for loving partnership in the rearing (not only bearing) of a family. Indeed, the Talmud (B.T. Yevamot) prescribes marriage even for elderly individuals for whom procreation is biologically impossible, based upon the verse, "It is not good for the human being to be alone." From this perspective, the blessing at the time of betrothal becomes very clear. Husband and wife have an exclusive relationship, a oneness of body and soul, which enables them to be very special "loving friends" with a mutual commitment of faithfulness more powerful than any other human bond. Hence other sexual relationships are forbidden, and the Almighty sanctifies His nation by means of a commandment more exalted than any other, an act whose very name is sanctification (kiddushin), the commandment of marriage. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges amd Graduate Programs, and cheif rabbi of Efrat.