Choosing a Spouse

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein









Choosing a Spouse


Adapted by Ariel Braunstein

Translated by Kaeren Fish



A) Did Eliezer transgress through “divining”?


He said: “Lord God of my master Avraham; I pray You, send me good speed this day and show kindness to my master Avraham. Behold, I stand here at the water well, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let it be that the maiden to whom I say, ‘Let down your pitcher, I pray you, that I may drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – that it will be she whom You have chosen for your servant, for Yitzchak, and thereby I shall know that You have shown kindness to my master.”


Chazal offer two different views of this act of divination on the part of Eliezer, Avraham’s servant.


In the Midrash Rabba, as well as the Gemara (Ta’anit 4a), we find: “Three people requested improperly, and two of them nevertheless were answered properly…” One of these is Eliezer. The Gemara, elaborating on the possible outcome of such seemingly irresponsible decision-making, wonders, – “And what if [the maiden who fed watered his camels] turned out to be lame or blind? [Nevertheless,] he was answered properly – and Rivka appeared.” In other words, his reliance on omens could have led to an undesirable outcome, but God responded to his sign with favor, for the sake of Avraham.


Contrary to this approach we find the opinion of Tosafot in Chullin (95b).  After the Gemara cites Eliezer’s actions as a paradigm of divination (nichush), Tosafot ask: According to those who say divination is forbidden to gentiles, how could Eliezer engage in divining? They answer that Eliezer was genuinely seeking a girl from Avraham’s family, and while the text records him as giving her jewelry and afterwards asking who she was, the events are not recorded chronologically and in fact it happened the other way around. Indeed, we find that in Eliezer’s account of the meeting as told to the family of Betuel, he recalls first asking as to her identity and only afterwards giving her the bracelets. If this is so, then there is no divination here, since he based his decision on facts.


The Rambam (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 11:4) seems to interpret the Midrash Rabba as stating that Eliezer transgressed the biblical prohibition against divination, by proceeding on the basis of omens which he had established for himself. Ra’avad disagrees:


This is a great mistake, for such a thing is indeed permitted. Perhaps he [the Rambam] was misled by the formulation [in the Gemara, Chullin 95b], ‘Any divination which is not like that of Eliezer, servant of Avraham, or like that of Yonatan, son of  Shaul, is not considered divination,’ understanding it as having been said by way of prohibition. But this is not the case; it means simply, as it is written, that ‘it is not appropriate to rely’ [on such signs]. How could he [the Rambam] suspect such righteous people as them of this transgression? If they were alive today, he would suffer fiery lashes at their hands.”


B) Logical considerations


The Ran (Chullin ad loc.) cites this disagreement between the Rambam and Raavad and writes:


“I find the words of Raavad surprising, for the Gemara states explicitly that the matter is mentioned by way of prohibition. In any case, we need to provide some explanation, for it is unthinkable that these righteous people would engage in divination.

It would appear to me that the explanation is that the sort of divination which is prohibited is where a person makes his actions dependent upon a sign which in itself has no logical connection the action, for or against – such as if a person’s slice of bread falls from his hand, or if a deer stops in his path. These and the suchlike recall the practices of the Emorites.

However, if a person chooses signs which logically are beneficial or detrimental to the matter at hand, then it is not considered divination, for everything in the world operates this way. A person who says, ‘If it rains I shall not set out on the road; if it does not rain – I shall set out,’ is not divining; this is simply the normal way of going about things. Eliezer and Yehonatan made their decisions dependent on the same sort of signs. Eliezer knew that Yitzchak could be matched only with a wife worthy of him. Therefore, he made a sign for himself: that if the woman would be so pleasant in her actions and perfect in character that when he asked, ‘I pray you, let me sip a little water’, she would answer him generously, ‘I shall water your camels, too’ – she would be the one designated by God for Yitzchak.”


The distinction that the Ran is making here concerns the relevance of the sign. A divination concerning a day of bad luck and things going wrong, which arises from seeing a black cat cross one’s path, has no basis and falls into the category of “the practices of the Emorites.” However, a serious forecast, based on causes relating to a certain action, following which the adoption of a certain course of action is reasonable and logical, is permissible. Such was the case with Eliezer.


C) The main consideration in choosing a wife for Yitzchak


Furthermore, Eliezer is not trying to test Rivka’s habits and actions in and of themselves. He is not trying to ascertain whether she will indeed give water to a person who asks, since the obvious answer to such a request is “Drink”; that is what the situation requires of anyone. Rather, what Eliezer seeks is kindness that goes beyond the everyday; he hopes that her answer will be, “I shall water your camels also.” He is attempting to find out something about Rivka’s attributes and character. Performing a regular, mundane act of kindness, agreeing to help as expected of her, is not sufficient. What he wants is an exceptional act that demonstrates a goodhearted nature in which kindness is deeply rooted.


However, this ‘test’ has dual significance. Eliezer is not simply looking for good qualities in the maiden; he is looking for someone who will marry Yitzchak and become part of the household of Avraham. Of course, Yitzchak could marry a girl with standard qualities, but the aim here is to find a wife who identifies with the Avraham’s messages and values, someone whose kindness is an integral part of her soul and personality.


D) Decisive factors in choosing a spouse


At the beginning of next week’s parasha, Toldot, we become aware of Rivka’s infertility. The Torah records that Yitzchak “entreated the Lord in the presence of/on account of (le-nokhach) his wife.” The Gemara (Yevamot 64a) learns from the word “le-nokhach” that Yitzchak, too, was barren. Rashi (ad loc.), in contrast, explains the expression by citing the Midrash: “He stood in one corner and prayed, while she stood in the other corner and prayed.”


On the simplest level, Rashi is explaining the verse thus in order to dispute the interpretation (espoused by Rashbam) that “le-nokhach ishto” means “on behalf of his wife.” However, Rashi’s comment also has deeper significance.


Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.” The love between man and woman arises from more than each admiring the beauty and character of the other. It arises mainly from their joint observation, understanding and appreciation of a third, additional reality which is loftier and mightier and more wondrous than themselves. What reality could be greater, more enriching and of greater significance than the reality of God? Therefore, one of them stands on one side and the other on the other side, the eyes of both are lifted heavenward, towards God; each prays for him/herself and his/her spouse, and together they are answered and they grow spiritually.


The choice of a spouse pertains not only to Yitzchak but to each and every one of us. It is unthinkable that a young man who has spent several years in yeshiva will think that after leaving yeshiva his task is merely to struggle in order to avoid a spiritual decline. To the contrary, even after leaving yeshiva one must continue to grow and develop in Torah – and, of course, establish a home. Establishing a home is part of one’s growth in Torah. A ben yeshiva must seek a partner whose wish is for her husband to be a talmid chakham, and even if he will not achieve this, her wish should be for her husband to study Torah and to continue to develop in Torah and spirituality. And he, reciprocally, should help facilitate his wife’s Torah study and spiritual advancement.


The choice of a wife involves two important areas: 1. fulfilling Torah and mitzvot, and 2. the couple’s relationship. In terms of Torah and mitzvot, there is the personal level and the family level. On the personal level, the question is whether the woman wants her husband to go out and work, once in a while attending a shiur or opening a Gemara, or whether it is important to her that her husband devote his free time to immersing himself in the world of Torah and developing his personality. On the family level, the question is whether the couple wants their children to be just “nice” or whether the trait of “I shall water your camels also” is inculcated in them; will they become part of a secular environment or will they be immersed in the Torah environment of their parents’ home?


Torah study can affect a couple’s relationship negatively or positively. From the negative perspective, Torah study can generate loneliness: the husband sits immersed in his Gemara, while at home the wife sits feeling alone and miserable, not understanding and not interested in what her husband is doing. This sort of atmosphere can affect the husband’s learning; worse, it can damage the couple’s relationship. A more positive perspective would be that as the husband studies in the beit midrash, the wife is happy that her husband is occupying himself with Torah. Even better, if the husband is studying Torah and his wife, too, is sitting with an open Gemara in front of her, then together they encounter the exalted reality of God in the Torah and bring up and educate their children accordingly.


In our times, choosing a wife is not a simple matter. Until not so long ago, a person returning home from work at the end of the day did not have many possibilities available for spending the evening hours. After putting the children to bed, one could go to sleep or spend some time studying Torah. In our day, there are limitless possibilities for entertainment and distraction, and our culture is geared towards pleasure. Fortunately, in our times Torah study and a religious life of Torah and values are important to women, too. Addressing and overcoming temptations requires a team of two, a husband and wife who together can establish a Jewish home and develop an atmosphere of Torah and mitzvot within it.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Chayei Sara 5769 [2008].)