Lilmod Torah Ve'lisa Ishah: To Marry or To Learn? An Analysis of the Halachic Sequence of Events by Ned Krasnopolsky

(2018/5778)

Should a person learn Torah first, and then marry, or vice versa? The Gemara on Kiddushin 29b records an opinion cited in a beraita, followed by a statement provided by Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmuel. The beraita records that a person should study Torah first, and only then proceed to marry. However, if one is incapable of learning prior to marriage, he should marry and then study Torah. On the other hand, Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmuel states that one should marry first, and only then study Torah. After Rav Yehuda’s statement, Rabbi Yochanan asks the question, “A millstone around his neck, and he will engage in Torah?” attacking Rav Yehuda’s assertion that a man should marry first. The Gemara resolves the difficulty raised by Rabbi Yochanan by designating the opinions of the beraita and Rav Yehuda to specific communities. One statement would apply in Babylon, while the other would apply in the land of Israel. Rabbi Yochanan’s statement can be understood in a variety of ways, and a closer analysis will yield a further awareness of the factors involved in the determination of the halachic progression of events.

Rashi explains that Rav Yehuda’s statement would apply in Babylon, as the residents of Babylon would travel to the land of Israel to learn. They would be away from their wives, and would thus be able to study Torah. Since they are not in the home, they would not have to perform any domestic activities which would otherwise detract from their Torah learning. On the other hand, those in the land of Israel had no such release. They did not have to travel to learn, so the domestic responsibilities fell upon them. Rabbi Yochanan’s statement would apply to them. Most notably, Rashi explains that those who married before learning would be able to learn without any inappropriate thoughts. Rashi seemingly presents the “Babylon marriage-first” route as the ideal order. It is by far the most productive path, as it both eliminates inappropriate thoughts, hirhurim, and does not hinder Torah learning.

Rabbeinu  Tam  disagrees  with  Rashi’s  geographic distribution of the original stances presented in the Gemara. He raises two issues with Rashi’s approach: the man will still have inappropriate thoughts involving his wife due to their separation, and the man needs to support his family and if he leaves he will not be able to provide for them. Instead, Rabbeinu Tam offers an approach which relies upon the economic circumstances in Babylon and the land of Israel. In Israel, the people were rich, and could afford to travel to learn while continuing to provide for their wives. Therefore, Shmuel’s statement would apply to them. In Babylon, however, the people were poor, and were thus unable to travel to learn without limiting their wives’ financial support. Rabbi Yochanan’s statement would apply to them, as they had to provide for their families. Regardless, both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam establish that the presence of a potential for inappropriate thoughts, hirhurim, affects the halachic sequence of events. It should be noted that Rabbeinu Tam places a greater emphasis on the man’s domestic responsibility.

The creation of a pure environment through marriage is a concept spread throughout Shas, and its ramifications are abundant. The Gemara in Kiddushin continues with an anecdote involving Rav Hunah and Rav Hamnunah. When Rav Hunah learned that Rav Hamnunah was not married, he refused to look at him until he wedded. Rav Hunah also believed that one who has not married before the age of twenty has incurred sinful thoughts for the remainder of his life. The Meiri echoes this sentiment, and presents the “learn-first” path as the ideal; however, he is also comfortable with the idea of marrying first and then learning, assuming that the woman is able to sustain the household. The elimination of inappropriate thoughts impacts a person’s capacity for Talmud Torah. Rav Chisda believed that the fact that he married at the young age of sixteen was directly responsible for his superior learning skills. He goes on to say that if he married at fourteen, the Satan would never be able to affect him. The Talmud Bavli records similar ideas in a variety of masechtot. The Gemara on Menachot 110a defines one who “learns Torah in purity” as one who learns after getting married. The Gemara on Yoma 72b draws a similar parallel.

Clearly, marriage affects a person in a positive manner, both in his learning and mindset. However, the halakha prima facie may not be primarily motivated by these positive consequences. The Gemara on Yevamot 63b presents what at first glance appears to be an entirely different motivator all together—the mitzvah of peru u’revu. The Gemara states, “Someone who does not busy himself in peru u’revu is like a murderer per Rabbi Eliezer… like someone who degrades G-d per Rabbi Yaakov…. and Ben Azai holds that it is as if they are a murder and degrade G-d.” Clearly, the Gemara places a great emphasis on the mitzvah of peru u’revu. But would the commandment to multiply be grounds for the delay of Talmud Torah? A closer look into Ben Azai’s execution of his own statement will provide a commentary on this tension. Following Ben Azai’s declaration, those around him pointed out that he himself was not married, and that he should have followed his own advice and married. Ben Azai responded to them, “What shall I do, as my soul yearns for Torah, and I do not wish to deal with anything else. It is possible for the world to be maintained by others, who are engaged in the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply.” This can be interpreted as either an inverse of the Bereita's allowance on Kiddushin 29b claiming that Ben Azai was an “ones” who was physically incapable of removing himself from Torah study, or as a special dispensation, or petur, due to his special attraction to the Torah.

The difference between the two interpretations of Ben Azai’s predicament is monumental, and it serves as a segway into the positions of the Rambam, Tur, and Rosh concerning the proper halakhic sequence of events. The Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:5) writes that ideally, a person should learn Torah before getting married, because his da’at will not be free to learn after he marries. However, in the event where that is not possible due to the fact that “Yitzro mitga’ber alav  ad she’nimtza she’ein libo panui, his urge for matters overcomes him, and his heart will not be open to learn,” then he should marry first and then learn. There is a subtle balance between “da’ato,” his intellectual mindset, and “libo,” his emotional mindset. Rambam continues that everyone must learn Torah— “rich and poor, healthy and sick, young and old, even a married man with a wife and children to support.” The Rambam clearly expresses the difficulty of learning whilst married, yet he maintains that everyone is obligated. In Hilchot Ishut 15:2, he states that a man is obligated in peru u’revu from the age of seventeen, and if he is still unmarried by twenty he has  neglected a mitzvat asei. There are two conflicting obligations at play. However, the Rambam mitigates some of the tension through a permission for regular individuals to delay marriage if they are occupied with Torah and do not wish to become burdened with sustaining a wife.

The Rambam addresses characters like Ben Azai in  Hilchot Ishut 15:3. He writes, “One who yearns for Torah and studies it and cleaves into it always, as Ben Azai did, commits no sin thereby. That is, providing his sexual desire does not get the better of him. If it does, he is required to marry even if he already has children, in order that he not come to thoughts of sin.” The Rambam compares Ben Azai’s special attraction to Torah in terms of cleaving—deveikut”. Similar language is used in describing the relationship between a man and wife.

Particularly, in Sefer Bereishit 2:24, the phrase “Ve’davak be’ishto” is used. The Gemara on Kiddushin 30b also supports the Rambam’s comparison; the source for teaching a son a trade comes from the pasuk, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (Kohelet 9:9). If “ishah” is interpreted as Torah, then just like a father must teach his son Torah, he must teach him a trade. The Rambam clearly sees Torah as a potential replacement for a wife, at least for individuals like Ben Azai. Thus, Ben Azai is not an exception to the rule. He was patur from peru u’revu because he was already “married” to Torah. Granted, those of Ben Azai’s caliber are certainly able to withstand the pressures of sexual desire, however, as the Rambam implies, not everyone can maintain the proper balance. Quoted in the Tur (Y.D. Hilchot Talmud Torah 246), the  Rosh questions the Rambam’s authorization for the delay of marriage if one is busy with Torah. The delay would never end. He understands Ben Azai as the exception and maintains that no other significant of halachot can be extrapolated from it. He was incapable of marrying due to a physical incapability. It was a case of ones, and only he was able to sidestep the mitzvah of peru u’revu. Therefore, a regular individual should marry, and then learn. The Tur qualifies the Rosh’s opinion with a development of the mitzvah of peru u’revu. He explains, “the purpose of man is to reproduce, as it is not good for man to be alone; therefore, there is a commandment to get married. Anyone who lives without a woman lives without goodness, blessing, Torah, and peace. Anyone who does not marry is not a man, and when a person marries he is absolved of all sin.” Peru  u’revu , according to the Tur, is a man’s telos.

The Rosh and Tur approach, at first appear to prioritize marriage over Talmud Torah. After all, one needs marriage to fulfill the mitzvah of peru u’revu and to eventually transmit the Torah to the next generation. However, this is not necessarily the correct assessment. In fact, this prioritization leads to the creation of a certain tension between Talmud Torah and marriage from the degradation of da’at due to domestic responsibilities, and an almost expected disbalance between the man’s emotional and intellectual mentalities. A far less tense solution exists-- a hybrid approach. Essentially, as alluded to in the Tur, marriage increases the quality of learning due to a dissolvement of hirhurim. Granted, the husband will accept some domestic responsibilities, but the state of marriage will greatly enhance his Talmud Torah. The Gemarot in Yevamot and Menachot, along with the statement of Rav Chisda all confirm this approach.

Overall, the various motivations come together to establish both the ideal and the effects of learning Torah while married. While at first glance, the motivations in the Gemara seemed to be dissimilar, after close analysis, they certainly all aim for the same goal: an increase in the quality of Talmud Torah.

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