World of the sages: Opportunities of starting afresh

We would hope that every groom would affirm the praiseworthiness of his bride.

What do you say to a bride and groom when you see them on their wedding day? Undoubtedly you would wish them “mazal tov,” perhaps inquiring as to their feelings on this exciting day. The Talmud recalls a simple yet cryptic question that people would ask grooms in the Land of Israel: “Matza or Motze?” (B. Berachot 8a; B. Yevamot 63b). The Talmud elucidates this enigmatic query. Each term is a reference to a different verse: Matza is taken from the verse “He who has found (matza) a wife has found goodness and obtains favor from God” (Proverbs 18:22); Motze hints at the verse “And I find (u'motze) more bitter than death, the woman, whose heart is snares and nets and her hands are fetters, he who pleases God shall flee from her, but the sinner shall be caught by her” (Ecclesiastes 7:26). Essentially, the groom was being asked whether he had married a worthy bride. This is indeed a strange question to pose to a newlywed. First, we would hope that every groom would unhesitatingly affirm the praiseworthiness and merit of his bride. We might be justified in questioning whether a groom who finds a woman “worse than death” should enter the marriage in the first place. Second, even if we can find some justification for the question, is the groom really qualified, in the midst of the joy of the wedding, to assess his bride? Such a determination can only be made over time, once the couple has begun to build a life together. If indeed he finds his bride lacking, then comfort, encouragement and wise counsel are in order, not declarations of a preference for death. Third, what is the purpose of seeking this interim report? It would appear that posing such a query would only succeed in sowing the seeds of doubt in the mind of a young groom, urging him to scrutinize his bride with renewed zeal. Lastly, the Hafetz Haim, Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen of Radin (19th-20th century, Poland), probes this practice from the angle of his special interest: guarding one's tongue. The Hafetz Haim points out that in all likelihood this question and the groom's answer would be considered lashon hara (slander), given that lashon hara can be transgressed even with a mere hint and certainly with two code-words “Matza or Motze?” and even when the truth is being told. How could the sages sanction such conduct? Rabbi Yoshiya Pinto (1565-1648), a talmudist and kabbalist, addresses these difficulties. Rabbi Pinto spent his years serving as a rabbi in Damascus, apart from a sojourn in the Land of Israel he arrived in Jerusalem in 1617, moved to Safed in 1625, but left a year later following his son's death. Among Rabbi Pinto's writings some of which remain in manuscript is a popular commentary to the aggadic portions of the Talmud, compiled in the wake of his son's untimely death. Rabbi Pinto begins by citing the rabbinic tradition that a person's sins are forgiven on the day of marriage (B. Yevamot 63b). The source of this tradition is a biblical discrepancy. One of the wives of Esau was the daughter of Ishmael. In one place her name is recorded as Basemath (Genesis 36:3), yet earlier, when Esau married her, she is referred to as Mahalath (ibid 28:9). Noting this variation, the sages read the name Mahalath as a descriptive term rather than a proper noun. Mahalath comes from the Hebrew root meaning forgiveness. Since she is known as Mahalath only when she marries Esau, the sages conclude that the sins of newlyweds are pardoned on the occasion of their marriage (Y. Bikurim 65c-d; Midrash Shmuel 17:1). A newlywed, therefore, has two possible paths stretching into the future. Past misdeeds can be forsaken and a new life begun. In this case, the groom has truly found (matza) goodness by marrying. Alternatively, follies of life as a single may not be abandoned and the prospect of wiping the slate clean squandered. In this scenario, the wasted opportunity of a fresh start makes the chosen transition to married life objectively worse than the imposed transition of death. Thus Rabbi Pinto proposes that the question “Matza or Motze?” was more of a warning or reminder than a query. The Hafetz Haim also hints at this approach. First, he points out that the prohibition of lashon hara does not apply when the matter is already known to all. We must assume that all know whether the bride is worthy, and hence asking the groom for his thoughts would not be a violation of the purity of speech. Though this explanation solves the lashon hara issue, it does not assuage the aforementioned difficulties with the passage. In a second explanation, the Hafetz Haim subtly notes that though lashon hara is permitted, there is a distinct utility in relaying the truth. The author does not, however, relate what the special purpose might be in this case. An oral tradition expands the Hafetz Haim's second explanation the questioners did not wait around for an answer. They were intent on asking the question and letting the impact sink in as they made a hasty exit. The intent was to remind the groom of the opportunity that lay before him to choose between a life of matza or a life of motze. This choice, according to the Hafetz Haim, is not a one-time decision. A path that may have been matza filled with goodness, can too quickly turn to motze a life bereft of spiritual fulfillment, where death is the preferred path. This understanding is encapsulated in the variation between the past tense verb matza and the present tense verb motze. Any chance to start afresh is a precious opportunity that should not be squandered. Jewish tradition teaches that the prospect of turning over a new leaf presents itself when a couple embarks upon a new life together. This is not the only juncture when we are afforded such an opportunity. The annual Yom Kippur is also focused on starting afresh. These valuable opportunities should be actively seized. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.