World of the Sages: Whom you marry

The Talmud urges us to host the wise and use our possessions for the benefit of scholars.

Our society acknowledges that in recognition of achievements or contributions, certain people deserve to be accorded respect and even material benefits. In Jewish tradition, one class that undeniably falls into this category is the scholarly. Thus throughout rabbinic literature we find statements expressing the value of supporting the wise, providing them with material benefits and giving them preferential treatment. The Talmud urges us to host the wise and use our possessions for the benefit of scholars. This act is lauded and compared to other great religious activities, such as offering sacrifices in the Temple or bringing the first fruits to the Temple (B. Berachot 10b; 63b; Vayikra Rabba 34:13). Those who toil in Torah are also given preference when charity is distributed (Kohelet Rabba 11:1). According to one commentator, money set aside for charity can be given to those who study Torah even if they do not fit all the criteria to be considered needy (Rabbi Moses Margoliot, 18th century, Lithuania). Helping the wise is so efficacious that, according to one source, a simpleton who assists scholars in this world will be taught Torah in the world-to-come (Yalkut Reuveni). Indeed, attaching oneself to a scholar is akin to cleaving to the Holy Presence (B. Ketubot 111b). But the greatest gift one can grant the wise is to give one's daughter's hand in marriage to a scholar. Thus the Talmud tells us that the prophets only prophesied for those who marry off their daughters to the wise, do business on behalf of scholars and use their possessions for the benefit of such intellectuals (B. Berachot 34b). The importance of marrying the wise is so great that in a responsum one halachic authority granted it legal status. Following Laban's words - "This is not done in our place to give the younger one before the eldest one" (Genesis 29:26) - normally older children marry before younger children. Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam (1904-1994), the Klausenburger Rebbe, ruled that a younger daughter can marry a scholar even though her older brother is still single, for such a union brings blessing into the house and will benefit the older, unmarried sibling. Talmudic advice is not only directed at the parents of a young girl seeking to find her a match. Elsewhere in the Talmud, instructions are provided for a groom looking for a bride (B. Pessahim 49b): A person should sell all his possessions and marry the daughter of a wise person. If he cannot find the daughter of a scholar, he should marry the daughter of one of the greats of the generation who excel in good deeds. If no such brides are available, he should marry the daughter of a head of synagogue. Where this is not a possibility, the daughters of those honest custodians charged with the collection and distribution of charity are the next preference. If such a bride cannot be found, then he should seek a daughter of a schoolteacher. The Talmud further discourages marrying the daughter of the unlearned. Thus parents are advised to find scholars for their daughters, while young men are encouraged to look for daughters of the wise. In the context of this two-pronged advice, we recall a tale from 19th century hassidic Poland. At the age of 14, having married the daughter of the famed Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel (1787-1859), Rabbi Avraham Bornstein of Sochachew (1839-1910) was once asked whether he was satisfied being the son-in-law of this illustrious personality. Before answering the question, Rabbi Avraham described the first attempt at finding him a suitable match. Renowned as a serious talmudist within the hassidic camp, it was suggested that he marry the daughter of Rabbi Haim Halberstam of Nowy Sanc (1793-1876), known as the Sanzer Rebbe, a famous halachic respondent and influential hassidic master. A meeting between the father of the bride and the prospective son-in-law was arranged. The goal of the appointment was for the Sanzer Rebbe to ascertain whether the young scholar was an appropriate match for his daughter. Since the Talmud says that a father should ensure that his daughter marry a scholar, the Sanzer Rebbe opened the meeting by testing the young Rabbi Avraham on finer points of Jewish law. After much Talmud page turning, questions and answers, arguments and counter-arguments, the Sanzer Rebbe was satisfied: The young Rabbi Avraham was truly a noteworthy scholar and he would be a worthy son-in-law. The Sanzer Rebbe closed the tome of Talmud and with a smile congratulated the young Rabbi Avraham. For his part, the precocious youthful scholar did not feel that the interview had finished, and he reopened the volume of Talmud in his hands, saying: "Our sages teach us that a person should sell all his possessions and marry the daughter of a scholar. Now it is my turn to test you." Incensed at the cheek of this young whippersnapper, the Sanzer Rebbe promptly threw him out, ending any chance of a match. Taking a step back from the specific recommendations outlined above, the thrust of the words of our sages is that scholars should be afforded material benefits. Those who are involved in intellectual pursuits should not only reap abstract, intangible rewards, they should also merit assistance in this-worldly matters. Thus we urge people with material wealth to assist scholars. One authority writes that the entire community is accountable for supporting Torah scholars. This responsibility goes beyond regular charity obligations and should be considered a salary in lieu of the time they invest in study on behalf of the community (Rabbi Haim ben Betzalel, 16th century, Poland-France-Germany). Indeed, a skeptic could always dismiss these statements as self-serving attempts to encourage the masses to provide financial support for the academic ranks. Yet a level-headed reading reveals the community's value system. While the sources talk of "marrying off daughters" which may be distant from our contemporary reality, these timeless texts still carry a lasting message. As a society we wish to encourage intellectual pursuits and we do so by supporting people who have dedicated themselves to the quest for knowledge, understanding and wisdom. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.