The Meaning of “Bashert” in Rabbinic Judaism and its Implications

YUTOPIA's 10 Year Anniversary SpecialIntroduction 1

In colloquial Jewish vernacular, the description “bashert” essentially means “from God” or the consequence of divine intervention. When someone refers to an event as “bashert,” he is asserting that the invisible Hand of God was intimately involved in its fruition. This is usually due to the improbably circumstances surrounding the event, or its heretofore unappreciated fortuitous outcome. Bashert is perhaps most used in the context of dating and marriage, where the divine intervention refers to the finding, or even the preordained selection, of one’s spouse. Thus the word “bashert” has become synonymous with “soul mate,” the person whom one was divinely ordained to marry.

The primary source for the Jewish idea of a soul mate is the statement by R. Yehuda in the name of Rav in B. Sotah 2a:

א”ר שמואל בר רב יצחק: כי הוה פתח ריש לקיש בסוטה, אמר הכי: אין מזווגין לו לאדם אשה אלא לפי מעשיו, שנא’: +תהלים קכה+ כי לא ינוח שבט הרשע על גורל הצדיקים. אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר ר’ יוחנן: וקשין לזווגן כקריעת ים סוף, שנאמר: +תהלים סח+ אלהים מושיב יחידים ביתה מוציא אסירים בכושרות. איני? והא אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: ארבעים יום קודם יצירת הולד, בת קול יוצאת ואומרת: בת פלוני לפלוני בית פלוני לפלוני שדה פלוני לפלוני! לא קשיא: הא בזוג ראשון, הא בזוג שני.

R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: When Resh Lakish began to expound [the subject of] Sotah, he spoke thus: They only pair a woman with a man according to his deeds; as it is said: For the sceptre of wickedness shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous (Ps. 125:3). Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Johanan: It is as difficult to pair them as was the division of the Red Sea; as it is said: God setteth the solitary in families: He bringeth out the prisoners into prosperity (Ps. 68:7)! But it is not so; Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: Forty days before the formation of a child, a heavenly voice issues forth and proclaims, The daughter of this person is for that person; the house of this person is for that person; the field of this person is for that person! — There is no contradiction, the latter dictum referring to a first marriage and the former to a second marriage.[Emphasis added]

Although the idea of divinely matched soul mate is certainly romantic, it does pose significant theological problems especially in the aftermath of divorce or abusive relationships. Perhaps the most significant theological challenge to the preordained bashert is the denial of one’s free will. In fact this definition of bashert is explicitly rejected by Maimonides on these very grounds in his Shemoneh Perakim Chapter 8.

שמונה פרקים לרמב”ם פרק ח
אבל הלשון הנמצא לחכמים, והוא אומרם: “הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים” – הרי הוא אמת, ומכוון אל מה שזכרנו, אלא שהרבה יטעו בו בני אדם, ויחשבו בקצת מעשי האדם הבחיריים – שהוא מוכרח עליהם, כגון הזיווג לפלונית, או היות זה הממון בידו. וזה אינו אמת, כי זאת האשה, אם היתה לקיחתה בכתובה וקידושין, והיא מותרת, ונשאה לפריה ורביה – הרי זו מצוה, וה’ לא יגזור בעשיית מצוה; ואם היה בנשואיה פגם – הרי היא עבירה, וה’ לא יגזור בעבירה.

[There is no contradiction to this from the following] statement of our Sages: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” 2 This statement is true and conforms to the conceptual framework that we have explained. Nevertheless, many people err with regard to it and imagine that a person is fated with regard to many of the matters in which he is given free choice: e.g., whether he will marry a particular woman or acquire a sum of money through theft.

This is absolutely not true. For if a person marries a woman, granting her a marriage contract and performing the rites of kiddushin, he is performing a mitzvah, 3 and God does not decree that we will perform any mitzvot. Should the marriage be forbidden, [entering into it] is a sin, and God does not decree that we will perform any sins. 4

Given the theological difficulties inherent in the classical definition of “bashert,” and based on numerous alternative contradictory sources in Rabbinic literature, I will propose a radical reinterpretation of the passage in B. Sotah 2a and redefine the Talmudic approach to bashert. Those who are personally committed to believing in a Jewish concept of a soul mate should minimally interpret this essay as an explanation for Maimonides who does seem to contradict an explicit Talmudic passage. 5 Otherwise, I hope to offer an approach which best represents the myriad of opinions found in the Rabbinic sources, and thus provide a more accurate and defensible portrayal of the compelte Rabbinic tradition.


Rabbinic Sources Supporting Bashert

As noted in the introduction, most discussions regarding bashert begin with B. Sotah 2a. The statement cited above that, “Forty days before the creation of a child, a heavenly voice issues forth and proclaims, The daughter of this person is for that person…” is the most deterministic. Not only is one’s spouse ordained by heaven, but it is decided before one is even alive by Jewish standards. This statement implies each person has one bashert, a preordained soul mate. It is interesting to note that there is no mention of the quality of a couple’s relationship, only that their union is ultimately inevitable. This is the most extreme example of a Rabbinic opinion advocating a predestined bashert.

Similar interventionist sentiments are found in B. Mo’ed Katan 18b, though here we find not predestination but determinism.

ומי אמר שמואל שמא יקדמנו אחר? והאמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל: בכל יום ויום בת קול יוצאת ואומרת: בת פלוני לפלוני, שדה פלוני לפלוני! – אלא: שמא יקדמנו אחר ברחמים. כי הא דרבא שמעיה לההוא גברא דבעי רחמי ואמר: תזדמן לי פלניתא. – אמר ליה: לא תיבעי רחמי הכי. אי חזיא לך – לא אזלא מינך, ואי לא – כפרת בה’.

Said Samuel, ‘One is allowed to betroth a woman during the festival week, [the reason being] lest another [rival suitor] anticipate him’…But [yet], could Samuel have said ‘Lest another [rival suitor] anticipate him’? Surely Rav Judah, as citing Samuel, said: every day an echo issues forth [on high] announcing, “The daughter of So-and-so is [to be a wife] to So-and-so”.‘ [Similarly]. ‘Such and such a field is [to belong] to So and-so’. — No; what it means is, ‘Lest another [rival suitor] anticipate him’ by means of prayer, as is illustrated by what occurred to Rava, who overheard a certain fellow praying for grace saying: ‘May that girl be destined to be mine!’ Said Rava to the man: ‘Pray not for grace thus; if she be meet for you, you will not lose her, and if not, you have challenged Providence’. 6 Later he overheard him praying that either he should die before her or she before him. Said Rava to him: ‘[Praying Jack], did I not tell you not to pray for grace in this matter?’ Thus said Rav in the name of R. Reuben b. Estrobile, from the Torah, from the Prophets and from the Hagiographa it may be shown that a woman is [destined to] a man by God. From the Torah: Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, The thing proceedeth from the Lord (Gen. 24:50). From the Prophets: But his [Samson’s] father and mother knew not that it was of the Lord (Judges 14:4). And from the Hagiographa: House and riches are the inheritance of fathers, but a prudent wife is from the Lord (Prov. 19:14).

Shmuel’s statement is similar to Rav’s in that there is some heavenly hand involved in the matchmaking process, but unlike Rav’s predetermination, Shmuel allows for theoretical possibility that one’s bashert can change on a daily basis. 7

The story involving Rava is intriguing for several reasons. On one hand it appears that he believes a spouse is in fact determined by God, but on the other it seems possible to overturn the divine mandate to some degree, and even then at his own risk. 8 At any rate, Rava seems to hold a dual position of a divine plan which requires some form of human intervention.

Though not strictly “Talmudic,” Genesis Rabba 68:4 records an exchange between the Tanna R. Yosi and an unnamed woman in which R. Yosi repeats the sentiment found in B. Sotah 2a that setting up two individuals is as difficult for God as splitting the red sea.

רבי יהודה בר סימון פתח (תהלים סח) אלהים מושיב יחידים ביתה, מטרונה שאלה את ר’ יוסי בר חלפתא אמרה לו לכמה ימים ברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את עולמו אמר לה לששת ימים כדכתיב (שמות כ) כי ששת ימים עשה ה’ את השמים ואת הארץ, אמרה לו מה הוא עושה מאותה שעה ועד עכשיו, אמר לה הקדוש ברוך הוא יושב ומזווג זיווגים בתו של פלוני לפלוני, אשתו של פלוני לפלוני, ממונו של פלוני לפלוני, אמרה לו ודא הוא אומנתיה אף אני יכולה לעשות כן כמה עבדים כמה שפחות יש לי לשעה קלה אני יכולה לזווגן, אמר לה אם קלה היא בעיניך, קשה היא לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא כקריעת ים סוף, הלך לו ר’ יוסי בר חלפתא מה עשתה נטלה אלף עבדים ואלף שפחות והעמידה אותן שורות שורות אמרה פלן יסב לפלונית ופלונית תיסב לפלוני, וזיווגה אותן בלילה אחת, למחר אתון לגבה דין מוחיה פציעא, דין עינו שמיטא, דין רגליה תבירא, אמרה להון מה לכון, דא אמרה לית אנא בעי לדין, ודין אמר לית אנא בעי לדא, מיד שלחה והביאה את ר’ יוסי בר חלפתא אמרה לו לית אלוה כאלהכון אמת היא תורתכון נאה ומשובחת יפה אמרת, אמר לא כך אמרתי לך אם קלה היא בעיניך קשה היא לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא כקריעת ים סוף, הקדוש ברוך הוא מה עושה להן מזווגן בעל כרחן שלא בטובתן, הה”ד (תהלים סח) אלהים מושיב יחידים ביתה מוציא אסירים בכושרות, מהו בכושרות בכי ושירות, מאן דבעי אומר שירה ומאן דלא בעי בכי

R. Judah b. Simon commenced his exposition with, God maketh individuals to dwell in a house (Ps. 68:7). A [Roman] matron asked R. Jose: “In how many days did the Holy One, blessed be He, create His world?” “In six days,” he answered. “Then what has He been doing since then?” “He sits and makes matches,” he answered, “assigning this man to that woman, and this woman to that man.” “If that is difficult,” she gibed, “I too can do the same.” She went and matched [her slaves], giving this man to that woman, this woman to that man and so on. Some time after those who were thus united went and beat one another, this woman saying, “I do not want this man,” while this man protested, “I do not want that woman.” (Straightway she summoned R. Jose b. Halafta and admitted to him: “There is no god like your God: it is true, your Torah is indeed beautiful and praiseworthy, and you spoke the truth!”) Said he to her: “If it is easy in your eyes, it is as difficult before the Holy One, blessed be He, as the dividing of the Red Sea.” What is the proof? “God maketh individuals to dwell in a house; He bringeth out the prisoners into prosperity (ba- kosharoth).” (What does “ba-kosharoth” mean? Weeping (beki) and song (shiroth): he who desires [his companion] utters song: and he who does not, weeps).

Here too we have a rabbinic passage which posits divine intervention, even at the expense of human desires. Not only is God responsible for matchmaking, but it appears that we mortals must live with the divine’s decision, regardless if we are happy with God’s choice.

Rabbinic Sources Against Bashert

As we have seen so far there is ample evidence in rabbinic sources supporting the idea of some divine intervention in the matchmaking process, but there are also several Rabbinic statements which seem to disregard this idea, if not contradict it completely. These sources ignore the divine role in the matchmaking process and instead focus exclusively on the human element in spousal selection and assuming the responsibilities for a “poor” match.

Our first source is T. Sotah 5:11:

המקדש את האשה מפני שהוא בוש מאביה מאחיה מקרוביה לסוף שקוברתו וכן היא שנתקדשה לו מפני שהיא בושה מאביו מאחיו ומקרוביו לסוף שקוברה היה ר’ מאיר אומ’ הנושא אשה שאינה הוגנת לו עובר משם חמשה לאוין משם בל תקום ומשם בל תטור בל תשנא את אחיך בלבביך ואהבת לרעך כמוך וחי אחיך עמך ולא עוד אלא שמבטל פריה ורביה מן העולם

One who marries a woman because he is embarrassed by her father, brother, or relatives, in the end they will cause his burial. Similarly, if a woman marries a man because she is embarrassed by his father, brothers, or relatives, in the end they will cause his burial. R. Meir used to say: Someone who marries a woman who is not suited to him violates five prohibitions: 1. Do not take revenge (Lev. 19:18) 2. Do not bear a grudge (ibid) 3. Do not hate your friend in your heart (Lev. 19:17) 4. Love your friend as yourself (Lev. 19:18) and 5. Your brother shall live among you (Lev. 25:36). And not only this, but he prevents procreation from the world.

Despite R. Meir’s legalistic formulation that one violates five prohibitions, it is my sense that this is an example of rabbinic homiletic hyperbole, not unlike the contemporary colloquialism of using the word for commandment – “mitzvah” – to mean “good deed.” Aside from the obvious fact that “love they neighbor” is a positive mandate and not a “prohibition,” these violations would be nearly impossible to enforce in a Jewish court. 9

We find in Rabbinic literature additional admonitions and warnings against marrying an unfit spouse, such as B. Kiddushin 70a and B. Kiddushin 70b.

אמר רבה בר בר חנה: כל הנושא אשה שאינה הוגנת לו, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו חרשו לכל העולם כולו וזרעו מלח, שנאמר: +נחמיה ז+ ואלה העולים מתל מלח תל חרשא.

Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said: He who takes a wife who is not fitting for him, the Writ stigmatizes him as though he had ploughed the whole world and sown it with salt, as it is said: And these were they which went up front Tel-melah, Tel-harsha.

אמר רבי אבין בר רב אדא אמר רב: כל הנושא אשה שאינה הוגנת לו, כשהקב”ה משרה שכינתו, מעיד על כל השבטים ואין מעיד עליו, שנאמר: +תהלים קכב+ שבטי יה עדות לישראל, אימתי הוי עדות לישראל? בזמן שהשבטים שבטי יה.

R. Abin b. R. Adda said in Rav’s name: Whoever takes a wife who is not fit for him, when the Holy One, blessed be He, causes His divine Presence to rest [on Israel], He testifies concerning all the tribes [that they are His people], but does not testify unto him, for it is said: The tribes of the Lord are a testimony unto Israel: when is it ‘a testimony unto Israel’? When the tribes are ‘tribes of the Lord’.

Even if one’s spouse is deemed appropriate, the Sages denounce those who marry for ulterior motives, as we find in (B. Kiddushin 70a).

אמר רבה בר רב אדא אמר רב: כל הנושא אשה לשום ממון – הויין לו בנים שאינן מהוגנים, שנאמר: +הושע ה+ בה’ בגדו כי בנים זרים ילדו; ושמא תאמר: ממון פלט? תלמוד לומר: +הושע ה+ עתה יאכלם חדש את חלקיהם; ושמא תאמר: חלקו ולא חלקה? תלמוד לומר: חלקיהם; ושמא תאמר: לזמן מרובה? ת”ל: חדש. מאי משמע? אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק: חדש נכנס וחדש יצא וממונם אבד.

Rabbah son of R. Adda said in Rav’s name: He who takes a wife for the sake of money will have unworthy children, as it is said: They have dealt treacherously against the Lord; for they have borne strange children. And should you think, their money is saved [to them], — therefore it is stated: Now shall the new moon devour them with their portions. And should you say, his portion, but not hers: therefore it is stated: ‘their portions’. And should you say [only] after a long time — therefore it is said: ‘the new moon’. What does this imply? — Said R. Nahman b. Isaac: A month comes and a month goes and their money is lost.

Should one think marrying an unfit spouse only angers God, one only need imagine how one’s own family would react. 10 Consider B. Ketubot 28b.

אחד מן האחין שנשא אשה שאינה הוגנת לו, באין בני משפחה ומביאין חבית מליאה פירות, ושוברין אותה באמצע רחבה, ואומרים: אחינו בית ישראל שמעו, אחינו פלוני נשא אשה שאינה הוגנת לו, ומתייראים אנו שמא יתערב זרעו בזרעינו, בואו וקחו לכם דוגמא לדורות שלא יתערב זרעו בזרעינו

If one of the brothers has married a woman who is unworthy of him, the sons of the family come together, bring a cask full of fruit, break it in the middle of the open place and say, “Brethren of the house of Israel, hear. Our brother So-and-so has married a woman who is not worthy of him, and we are afraid lest his descendants will be united with our descendants. Come and take for yourselves a sign for future generations, that his descendants shall not be united with our descendants.”

We find a similar practice recorded in the Yerushalmi (Y. Ketubot 2:10 26d).

אמר רבי יוסי בי רבי בון אף מי שהיה נושא אשה שאינה הוגנת לו קרוביו ממלין חביות קליות ואגוזים ושוברין לפני התינוקות והתינוקות מלקטין ואומרים נקצץ פלוני ממשפחתו ובשעה שהיה מגרשה היו עושין לו כן ואומרים חזר פלוני למשפחתו

Said R. Yosah b. R. Bun, “Also he who married a woman who was unworthy of his status – his relatives would bring jugs and fill them with parched corn and nuts and break them before the children, and the children would collect the parched corn and nuts and say, ‘Mr. So-and-so is cut off from his family.’ When he would divorce the woman, they would perform the same rite and say, ‘Mr. So-and-so has gotten back to his family.'”

Finally, and perhaps most significant, is that marrying an unfit spouse may in fact have halakhic implications if one is a priest. Should a kohein marry a woman unbecoming of his status, he cannot accept the Terumah donations dispensed directly from the threshing floor, ostensibly as a “fine” for disgracing his family (T. Terumot 10:18, B. Yevamot 100a).

Aside from the subjective relativism of a “fit” marriage or underlying motivations, the Rabbinic sages considered some unions to be objectively better than others. Priests were expected to marry within their caste, and a daughter of a priest marrying outside of the priestly class was considered by R. Yohanan to not even be in the fulfilling of a commandment, unless her husband happened to be a Torah scholar. Torah scholars were singled out as desirable spouses, or at the very least, people designated as ‘amei ha’aretz were considered among the worst type of potential partners. The Talmud does not record this information fatalistically as matches determined or directed by God, but rather as priorities one should maintain when seeking out a potential life partner. Scholars and daughters of scholars were particularly desirable, whereas marrying ‘amei ha-aretz or common ignoramuses was to be avoided at all costs (B. Berachot 34b, B. Pesachim 49).

The Talmud even provides a useful hierarchy of desirable marriages (B. Pesachim 49b).

תנו רבנן: לעולם ימכור אדם כל מה שיש לו וישא בת תלמיד חכם. לא מצא בת תלמיד חכם – ישא בת גדולי הדור. לא מצא בת גדולי הדור – ישא בת ראשי כנסיות, לא מצא בת ראשי כנסיות – ישא בת גבאי צדקה. לא מצא בת גבאי צדקה – ישא בת מלמדי תינוקות. ולא ישא בת עמי הארץ, מפני שהן שקץ, ונשותיהן שרץ, ועל בנותיהן הוא אומר +דברים כז+ ארור שכב עם כל בהמה.

Our Rabbis taught: Let a man always sell all he has and marry the daughter of a scholar. If he does not find the daughter of a scholar, let him marry the daughter of [one of] the great men of the generation. If he does not find the daughter of [one of] the great men of the generation, let him marry the daughter of the head of synagogues. If he does not find the daughter of the head of synagogues, let him marry the daughter of a charity treasurer. If he does not find the daughter of a charity treasurer, let him marry the daughter of an elementary school-teacher, but let him not marry the daughter of an ‘am ha-arez, because they are detestable and their wives are vermin, and of their daughters it is said, Cursed be he that lieth with any manner of beast.

All of this assumes of course that one does in fact manage to get married. According to two opinions in B. Kiddushin 29b, a man ought to be married by the time he turns twenty.

משתבח ליה רב חסדא לרב הונא בדרב המנונא דאדם גדול הוא, א”ל: כשיבא לידך הביאהו לידי. כי אתא, חזייה דלא פריס סודרא, א”ל: מאי טעמא לא פריסת סודרא? א”ל: דלא נסיבנא. אהדרינהו לאפיה מיניה, א”ל: חזי, דלא חזית להו לאפי עד דנסבת. רב הונא לטעמיה, דאמר: בן עשרים שנה ולא נשא אשה – כל ימיו בעבירה. בעבירה סלקא דעתך? אלא אימא: כל ימיו בהרהור עבירה. אמר רבא, וכן תנא דבי ר’ ישמעאל: עד כ’ שנה, יושב הקדוש ברוך הוא ומצפה לאדם מתי ישא אשה, כיון שהגיע כ’ ולא נשא, אומר: תיפח עצמותיו.

R. Hisda praised R. Hamnuna before R. Huna as a great man. Said he to him, ‘When he visits you, bring him to me. When he arrived, he saw that he wore no [head-]covering. ‘Why have you no head-dress?’ asked he. ‘Because I am not married,’ was the reply. Thereupon he [R. Huna] turned his face away from him. ‘See to it that you do not appear before me [again] before you are married,’ said he. R. Huna was thus in accordance with his views. For he said: He who is twenty years of age and is not married spends all his days in sin. ‘In sin’ — can you really think so? — But say, spends all his days in sinful thoughts. Rava said, and the School of R. Ishmael taught likewise: Until the age of twenty, the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and waits. When will he take a wife? As soon as one attains twenty and has not married, He exclaims, ‘Blasted be his bones!’

According to Rava’s statement here, God himself badgers single men – despite the Rava’s earlier supposition from B. Moed Katan 18b that if a woman was actually meant for someone he would not be taken from him.

What is certain is that these sources shift the responsibility of marriage from a divinely ordained bashert to the free will of the participants. After all, one cannot be held accountable for an “unfit” marriage, nor can one be expected one to seek out particular qualities in a potential spouse, if the choice was already made in heaven or if simply following Divine Will. Those who are committed to the idea of a bashert may attempt some form of retroactive theological reframing, attempting to strike some balance between the preordained and freewill. For example, perhaps God did have a plan but you chose not to follow though. Or perhaps, one could have multiple basherts such that one actually has several options. This is also a form of retroactive theology. For example, a couple who breaks off an engagement initially would be on the path to marrying their preordained, but their decision to change either altered God’s plan or perhaps it was never God’s plan in the first place. The problem with this approaches, aside from the hubris associated with intuiting the true will of the Divine, is that none of them have any basis or support in the Rabbinic texts themselves.

One can appreciate the sentiment in trying to reconcile conflicting rabbinic statements, especially when these conflicting statements are attributed to the same individual. However, any attempt at reinterpretation must still be supported with textual evidence or logical reasoning. In proposing my own reinterpretation, I will concede up front that I am engaging in conjecture. I am not arguing definitively what the Sages truly meant, but I do believe I can offer a plausible solution to the conflicting statements regarding bashert, by assuming the perspective of these statements in light of what the Talmud relates about the Sages’ own personal approaches to marriage.


The Sages in Context

Reish Lakish and R. Yohahan

B. Sotah 2a is most often cited for the opinion of Rav which we will address later, but the often overlooked opinions of Reish Lakish and R. Yohanan are no less significant. Recall their statements as cited earlier:

R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: When Resh Lakish began to expound [the subject of] Sotah, he spoke thus: They only pair a woman with a man according to his deeds; as it is said: For the sceptre of wickedness shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous (Ps. 125:3). Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Johanan: It is as difficult to pair them as was the division of the Red Sea; as it is said: God setteth the solitary in families: He bringeth out the prisoners into prosperity (Ps. 68:7)!

According to Reish Lakish, people are matched based on there actions. R. Johanan does not reject or contradict Reish Lakish’s opinion, rather he adds that the process of matching two individuals is considerably difficult. Without addressing the respective merits of these opinions, we may be able to understand why Reish Lakish and R. Yohanan would make their assertions based on their own personal experience. Consider the following narrative in B. Bava Metziah 84a:

יומא חד הוה קא סחי רבי יוחנן בירדנא, חזייה ריש לקיש ושוור לירדנא אבתריה, אמר ליה: חילך לאורייתא! – אמר ליה: שופרך לנשי! – אמר ליה: אי הדרת בך – יהיבנא לך אחותי, דשפירא מינאי. קביל עליה.

One day R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan, when Resh Lakish saw him and leapt into the Jordan after him. Said he [R. Johanan] to him, ‘Your strength should be for the Torah.’ — ‘Your beauty,’ he replied, ‘should be for women.’ ‘If you will repent,’ said he, ‘I will give you my sister [in marriage], who is more beautiful than I.’

Thus, is is only fitting that Reish Lakish would state that people are set up based on their actions, as he himself was set up with his wife based on his actions – a lesson learned from his eventual teacher R. Yochanan. As for R. Yochanan, it should also not be surprising that he would emphasize the difficulty in setting up individuals. 11 Despite R. Yochanan’s sister’s exceptional beauty, she not only was unable to find a spouse, but the best her brother could do for her was to bring home an only recently reformed criminal (I can only imagine what that conversation must have been like). 12 In this context their opinions on bashert and matchmaking reflect their personal experiences more than exegesis or rational theology.

Rava

This biographical approach may help us resolve the conflicting options attributed to Rava: that God waits for someone to get married, while maintaining that the person to whomever one is intended will not be taken from him. 13 The Talmud relates that the daughter of R. Hisda was once sitting on her father’s lap while two of his students, Rava and Rami Bar Hama were present. R. Hisda asked his daughter which of the two she would like to marry, to which she replied, “both of them.” Rava then responded, “I will be second” (B. Bava Batra 12b). The Talmud relates that R. Hisda’s daughter did later marry Rami Bar Hama who subsequently died, and she eventually married Rava as her second husband (B. Berachot 44a, B. Berachot 47b, B. Yevamot 34b, B. Chagigah 5a).

It is reasonable to assume that when R. Hisda’s daughter was sitting on R. Hisda’s lap she would have been a minor, perhaps even a child. Let us further assume the passage of time until she married Rami Bar Hama and allow for some time of marriage. According to B. Yevamot 34b, she only married Rava ten years after the death of Rami Bar Hama. If we are to take all these accounts as historically valid, we find that an innocuous statement made in one’s youth actually came to true decades later. 14

We have no way of knowing the point in his life when Rava made his respective statements, but I will conjecture that his statement “if she is meant for you, she will not be taken from you” is best understood to have been asserted after his marriage to R. Hisda’s daughter. After all, when one’s future spouse is accurately predicted in one’s youth – even including an intermediate marriage to someone else – it would be difficult for a man of faith to ascribe such prescience to mere coincidence.

Shmuel

One possible deficiency in our methodology is that the Talmud does not record complete biographies of the Sages. Thus we do not find useful biographical evidence for the Tanna R. Yosi cited in Genesis Rabba 68:4 nor the Amora Shmuel who states that the divine matchmaking echo emanates from heaven on a daily basis. However, while the Talmud does not record useful information regarding Shmuel’s marital life, it does attribute to Shmuel a particular approach to the institution of marriage. According to Shmuel men had to take special precautions to avoid succumbing to licentious behavior. It was he who stated that a woman’s voice is considered “nakedness” (B. Berachot 24a) and that a man should not service women regardless if she was an adult or a minor, or even inquire as to a woman’s wellbeing (B. Kiddushin 70a). Furthermore, even if one were married, he was under strict halakhic pressure to bear children. If a couple did not have children after ten years of marriage, Shmuel is quoted as requiring the husband to be coerced into divorcing his wife (B. Ketuvot 77a).

Given Shmuel’s puritanical perspective, it should not be surprising to find Shmuel is quoted as saying, “a man is forbidden to live without a wife.” If a man has not yet fulfilled his biblical obligation to procreate, he should find a wife young enough to bear children. Otherwise, even if he has already fulfilled his obligation of procreation, he can only sastify his innate human desires in a sacred context through the institution of a halakhic marriage, for otherwise he would likely succumb to sinning (B. Yevamot 61b).

For Shmuel, it is the institution of marriage which is the constant, not an individual’s particular relationship. Since one’s marital status is subject to change – e.g. through death or divorce – Shmuel cannot accept that a person has only one predetermined match. The divine echo needs to emanate daily, perhaps announcing a different match each day, adjusting to a person’s changing circumstance.

Rav

Our approach to understanding bashert has been to place the specific statements in the greater context of the individual Sages’ own experiences or halakhic worldview. We will now apply this method to gain a better understanding of Rav, whose predestinative approach to bashert still maintains the greatest currency in colloquial Jewish thought.

First, we should point out that even within the statements attributed to Rav we find potential conflicts regarding bashert. In B. Kiddushin 41a, Rav is cited as saying that a person cannot marry his spouse unless he physically sees her first, lest he find something offensive in her and risk violating the Biblical mandate to “love thy neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Should the match have been predetermined in heaven, such a requirement would be needless, for after all, whomever a person would marry would in fact represent the fulfillment of the Divine Will, regardless of her physical appearance.

The Talmud further records instances where Rav himself did not conduct himself in accordance with his own dictum. In a halakhic discussion found on B. Yevamot 45a, Rav states that the offspring of a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish man is not a mamzer. The Talmud also relates an instance of a man attempting to force Rav to act in accordance with his own ruling.

דההוא דאתא לקמיה דרב, אמר ליה: עובד כוכבים ועבד הבא על בת ישראל, מהו? אמר לו: הולד כשר; אמר ליה: הב לי ברתך! לא יהיבנא לך. אמר שימי בר חייא לרב, אמרי אינשי: גמלא במדי אקבא רקדא, הא קבא והא גמלא והא מדי ולא רקדא! א”ל: אי ניהוי כיהושע בן נון, לא יהיבנא ליה ברתי. א”ל: אי הוה כיהושע בן נון, אי מר לא יהיב ליה – אחריני יהבי ליה, האי, אי מר לא יהיב ליה – אחריני לא יהבי ליה. לא הוה קאזיל מקמיה, יהיב ביה עיניה ושכיב

For once a man appeared before Rav and asked him, ‘What [is the legal position of the child] where an idolater or a slave had intercourse with the daughter of an Israelite’? ‘The child is legitimate’, the Master replied. ‘Give me then your daughter’ said the man. ‘I will not give her to you’ [was the Master’s reply]. Said Shimi b. Hiyya to Rav. ‘People say that in Media a camel can dance on a kab; here is the kab, here is the camel and here is Media, but there is no dancing’! [I.e., Rav had displayed originality and marvelous courage by his ruling, and yet stops short of carrying it into practice.] ‘Had he been equal to Joshua the son of Nun I would not have given him my daughter’, the Master replied. ‘Had he been like Joshua the son of Nun’, the other retorted, ‘others would have given him their daughters, if the Master had not given him his; but with this man, if the Master will not give him, others also will not give him’. As the man refused to go away he fixed his eye upon him and he died.

While there is much to be discussed regarding this exchange, what is notable for our purposes is that Rav does not invoke his own dictum that one’s spouse is already predetermined from before the time one was born. In fact Rav appears to hold the freedom of choice may belong to a girl’s father who is marrying off his daughter (B. Sanhedrin 76b). Not only does Rav’s predestinaiton not apply where his daughter is concerned, it appears from B. Yevamot 37b that he himself did not in accordance with his own doctrine.

ר’ אליעזר בן יעקב אומר: הרי שבא על נשים הרבה ואין יודע על איזהו מהן בא, וכן היא שבאו עליה אנשים הרבה ואינה יודעת מאיזה מהן קבלה, נמצא אב נושא את בתו ואח נושא את אחותו, ונתמלא כל העולם כולו ממזרין, ועל זה נאמר: +ויקרא י”ט+ ומלאה הארץ זמה. ורבא? אמר לך, הכי קאמר: זו מה היא. יתר על כן אמר ר’ אליעזר בן יעקב: לא ישא אדם אשה במדינה זו וילך וישא אשה במדינה אחרת, שמא יזדווגו זה לזה, ונמצא אח נושא את אחותו. איני? והא רב כי איקלע לדרדשיר, [מכריז] ואמר: מאן הויא ליומא? ורב נחמן כי איקלע לשכנציב, [מכריז] ואמר: מאן הויא ליומא? שאני רבנן, דפקיע שמייהו.

R. Eliezer b. Jacob: A man shall not marry a wife in one country and then proceed to marry one in another country, since [their children] might marry one another and the result might be that a brother would marry his sister. But, surely, this could not be [the accepted ruling], for Rav, whenever he happened to visit Dardeshir, used to announce, ‘Who would be mine for the day’! So also R, Nahman, whenever he happened to visit Shekunzib, used to announce, ‘Who would be mine for the day’! — The Rabbis came under a special category since they are well known. [Emphasis added]

We have no way of knowing who, if anyone, actually accepted Rav’s offer. As odd as this practice might seem today, we ought not expect someone who personally believes in the predestination of one’s spouse to act in such a manner. Which leaves us with the question, to what extent did Rav actually believe his own statement that one’s spouse is predetermined even before one’s birth, the ultimate ideal of a bashert.

Here too I suggest we may find insight from Talmudic statements describing Rav’s own marriage, which the Talmud describes as particularly difficult (B. Yevamot 63a).

רב הוה קא מצערא ליה דביתהו, כי אמר לה עבידי לי טלופחי – עבדא ליה חימצי, חימצי – עבדא ליה טלופחי. כי גדל חייא בריה, אפיך לה. אמר ליה: איעליא לך אמך! אמר ליה: אנא הוא דקא אפיכנא לה. אמר ליה, היינו דקא אמרי אינשי: דנפיק מינך טעמא מלפך, את לא תעביד הכי, שנאמר: +ירמיהו ט’+ למדו לשונם דבר שקר העוה וגו’.

Rav was constantly tormented by his wife. If he told her, ‘Prepare me lentils’, she would prepare him small peas; [and if he asked for] small peas, she prepared him lentils. When his son Hiyya grew up he gave her [his father’s instruction] in the reverse order. ‘Your mother’, Rav once remarked to him, ‘has improved’! ‘It was I’, the other replied, ‘who reversed [your orders] to her’. ‘This is what people say’, the first said to him, ‘Thine own offspring teaches thee reason’; you, however, must not continue to do so’ for it is said, They have taught their tongue to speak lies, they weary themselves etc’.

The Gemara continues by demonstrating that Rav learned his equanimity from his teacher R. Hiyya.

רבי חייא הוה קא מצערא ליה דביתהו, כי הוה משכח מידי, צייר ליה בסודריה ומייתי ניהלה. אמר ליה רב: והא קא מצערא ליה למר! א”ל: דיינו שמגדלות בנינו, ומצילות אותנו מן החטא.

R. Hiyya was constantly tormented by his wife. He, nevertheless, whenever he obtained anything suitable wrapped it up in his scarf and brought it to her. Said Rav to him, ‘But, surely, she is tormenting the Master!’ — ‘It is sufficient for us’, the other replied, ‘that they rear up our children and deliver us from sin’.

Rav’s tradition of pragmatism, which he received from R. Hiyya, is similar to what we have seen from his contemporary Shmuel. The institution of marriage is essential for religious life in that through marriage one fulfills obligations and may avoid sexual transgressions. According to this tradition, marriage is not simply to be understood as a means by which one’s personal satisfaction is fulfilled, but rather it serves a higher religious purpose which transcends one’s personal happiness. How may one endure the personal challenges which inevitably arise in any relationship? It is my conjecture that given the context of Rav’s personal experience, his statement that one’s spouse is predetermined is less an assertion of metaphysical theological fact, but rather reflects a useful attitude one ought to take towards their spouse after marriage.

Reevaluating Bashert

Current social convention tends to use the idea of a “bashert” in the context of dating, not marriage. I believe this is not only contrary to the original Rabbinic meaning but a strong contributor to the pathology of Jewish relationships. Someone focusing on finding one’s sole divinely assigned bashert will naturally be more selective in the process, and perhaps even resort to signs of God’s invisible hand in directing one’s life. It encourages and embraces fatalism and, as Maimonides objected, removes the element of human choice from the equation.

On the other hand, consider a marriage which, though generally manageable, may have more challenges. The marriage may not be “bad” in the sense that there some form of spousal abuse, but perhaps an otherwise good marriage is going through a rough patch. If one spouse thinks the other is dispensable, it is much easier to simply quit the relationship and divorce. However, when one values one’s spouse as one who had been predetermiend by God himself, then the the idea of a bashert is not intended to create a marriage but to preserve one.

In 1976, Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker controversially described dating and marriage as the consequence of a rational decision making process.

According to the economic approach, a person decides to marry when the utility expected from marriage exceeds that expected from remaining single or from additional search of a suitable mate. Similarly, a married person terminates his (or her) marriage when the utility anticipated from being single or marrying someone else exceeds the loss in utility from separation, including losses due to physical separation from one’s children, division of joint assets, legal fees, and so forth. Since many persons are looking for mates, a market in marriages may be said to exist: each person tries to do the best he can, given that everyone else in the market is trying to do the best they can (Becker, 1976:10) [Emphasis Original]

For many this approach can be cold and calculating, but Becker’s “market” metaphor was already anticipated in the Talmud, in this often cited (and sung) passage from B. Ketubot 16b-17a.

תנו רבנן: כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה? בית שמאי אומרים: כלה כמות שהיא, ובית הלל אומרים: כלה נאה וחסודה. אמרו להן ב”ש לב”ה: הרי שהיתה חיגרת או סומא, אומרי’ לה, כלה נאה וחסודה? והתורה אמרה: +שמות כ”ג+ מדבר שקר תרחק! אמרו להם ב”ה לב”ש: לדבריכם, מי שלקח מקח רע מן השוק, ישבחנו בעיניו או יגננו בעיניו? הוי אומר: ישבחנו בעיניו, מכאן אמרו חכמים: לעולם תהא דעתו של אדם מעורבת עם הבריות.

Our Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride? Beth Shammai say: The bride as she is. And Beth Hillel say: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’! Beth Shammai said to Beth Hillel: If she was lame or blind, does one say of her: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’? Whereas the Torah said, ‘Keep thee far from a false matter’ (Ex. 23:7). Said Beth Hillel to Beth Shammai: According to your words, if one has made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise it in his eyes or depreciate it? Surely, one should praise it in his eyes. Therefore, the Sages said: Always should the disposition of man be pleasant with people. [Emphasis Added]

The point of this analogy is that someone who has acquired something in a market should not be made to feel bad with his purchase. If this applies to fungible commodities, then certainly it should apply to one’s choice of life partner, where relationships are not interchangeable. By approaching one’s own marriage as an divinely destined, the value of this relationship rises exponentially. After all, how could someone ever part with a gift from God.

I would like to conclude with one final observation. The verse “God returns the individuals home” (Ps. 68:7) recurs in discussions of marriage as we have seen (B. Sotah 2a, Genesis Rabba 68:4, also Y. Kiddushin 3:12 64c). According to Midrash Tehillim, the meaining of this verse is, “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). The divine intervention of bashert is not applied to individuals as much as the institution is to his people. We maintain the free will of deciding whom we marry, just as it is in our hands to view our spouses as the divine gifts which they are.

Notes:

  1. The following essay was initially prepared and presented in honor of the Auf Ruf of my friend, chavruta, and world-class educator Rabbi Mordy Friedman at the Hotel Paradise (now Leonardo) in Be’er Sheva in June 2002. But this study is also meaningful to me for other personal reasons. One of my greatest resentments in popular Judaism is the pervasive tendency among laity and Rabbis to cite one passage – in or out of context – as the singular opinion on a theological issue, often to the exclusion of all other conflicting sources. Even the specific corpus of Rabbinic literature is so vast that it is rare that one singular text may be honestly presented as exemplary of the entire body of work. Utilizing the academic methodologies I studied under Dr. Yaakov Elman in Revel and inspired by having finished reading Ephraim Urbach’s The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs cover to cover, I began compiling a series of classes in Rabbinic Thought and Theology or Machshevet Hazal. This essay on bashert was my first foray into my endeavor to prove that Torah does not necessitate obedience to a mono-dogmatic religion, while also attempting to dispell a popular, though possibly debilitating, theological myth.

    While I have given this essay as a class on multiple occasions, I had refrained from publishing it in essay form, preferring to wait until the event of my own engagement. Given the uncertainty of when that may actually occur (as an aside, any comments referring to my personal dating status will summarily be deleted) I decided that now would be as good of an alternative occasion as any being part of YUTOPIA’s 10th Anniversary and Tu B’Av.

  2. B. Berachot 32b, B. Megillah 25a, B. Niddah 16b
  3. See Hilkhot Ishut 1:2
  4. Translation by R. Eliyahu Touger p. 48
  5. Although there is no requirement to accept all aggadic statements as literal fact, it is unusual to reject a Talmudic passage so definitively.
  6. I recall reading an article in Beit Yitzchak in which Rabbi Yosef Blau posits two possible reads for “בה” – either meaning “denying God” reading the “ה” as an abbreviation for God or “בה” referring to “her” – as if to say when a man prays that he marry a particular woman, he is denying that women’s free fill to choose for herself.
  7. There is somewhat of a dispute as to the authenticity of Shmuel’s statement in Mo’ed Katan. Bach and Soncino revise Shmuel’s statement to match Rav’s predestination from Sotah. However, in addition to the Vilna editions, almost all available variant manuscripts confirm the distinction between Rav and Shmuel, specifically London – BL Harl. 5508 (400), Oxford Opp. Add. fol. 23, and Vatican 134 cite Rav and Shmuel’s distinct positions in Mo’ed Katan. One notable exception is Munich 95 which attributes to Shmuel an amalgamation – that for 40 days before the formation of the child the echo emanates on a daily basis. Thus based on the available manuscripts and for reasons which will be explained below, it is my opinion that the opinions of Rav and Shmuel remain distinct – with Rav believing in a single echo of predestination and Shmuel view of an echo emanating daily.
  8. It is also interesting that the Biblical source for bashert is Laban, who is typically not understood to be an honorable character, and in context his statement is more self-serving than an actual statement of theology which we’d expect people to follow.
  9. Despite the undeniable entertainment value of prosecuting someone for marrying an “unfit” spouse.
  10. Some do not need to imagine.
  11. The stammaitic emendation that R. Yochanan was referring to a second marriage does not seem to be part of R. Yochanan’s statement itself, but rather an early stammaitic attempt to reconcile conflicting sentiments appears in the narrative of R. Yosi in Genesis Rabba 68:4, as it is repeated in B. Sanhedrin 22a
  12. And perhaps Reish Lakish was referring to the superficiality of his own marriage when he offered as exegesis to Ecc. 6:9, “טוב מראה עינים באשה יותר מגופו של מעשה” (B. Yoma 74b).
  13. Rava also says that a prospective match should inquire to his future bride’s brothers (B. Bava Batra 110a).
  14. Consider R. Yochanan’s statement that after the destruction of the temple, prophecy was given to children (B. Bava Batra 12b).
Posted in YUTOPIA's 10th Year Anniversary. Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

8 Responses