The Meaning of “Bashert” in Rabbinic Judaism and its Implications
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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.
- 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. ↩
- B. Berachot 32b, B. Megillah 25a, B. Niddah 16b ↩
- See Hilkhot Ishut 1:2 ↩
- Translation by R. Eliyahu Touger p. 48 ↩
- Although there is no requirement to accept all aggadic statements as literal fact, it is unusual to reject a Talmudic passage so definitively. ↩