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Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Who Cares About a Matchmaker, Anyway?

Opposing rabbinic conceptions of marriage and matchmaking in Ashkenaz and Sepharad

Ephraim Kanarfogel
April 06, 2017
Photo: Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons
Jewish wedding ring. Chased and enameled gold and filigrees, early 14th century, found at Colmar (Alsace, France) in 1863.Photo: Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons
Jewish wedding ring. Chased and enameled gold and filigrees, early 14th century, found at Colmar (Alsace, France) in 1863.Photo: Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons

Recent studies have traced the parameters of matchmaking in medieval European Jewish society, seeking as well to identify attitudes toward marriage more broadly in both the northern and southern regions (Ashkenaz and Sepharad). Based on the many texts that have been published or are still in manuscript, it is possible to propose an overarching theory that accounts for differences between the two regions, encompassing both those that have been noted heretofore and others that have not yet received attention.

Modern scholarship has detected a striking difference between Sepharad and Ashkenaz regarding the use and prevalence of matchmakers (shadkhanim). Spanish rabbinic literature during the 12th and 13th centuries barely refers to matchmakers and does not discuss their function. At the same time, a leading northern French tosafist, Samson ben Abraham of Sens (Rash mi-Shants, who emigrated to Israel c. 1210, where he died in 1214), points to effective shadkhanim who were operating freely in northern France by the late 12th century. Moreover, the German tosafist Simḥah of Speyer (d. c. 1230) writes that it was “common to pay shadkhanim quite handsomely,” while a parallel ruling by R. Simḥah’s contemporary, Barukh ben Samuel of Mainz (d. 1221), along with that of Barukh’s son, Samuel Bamberg, confirm the regular presence of such figures. Sefer Ḥasidim, the compendium of pietism and ethics that reflects Jewish life in Germany at this time, also acknowledges the role of shadkhanim.

Indeed, precisely because matchmaking had become so entrenched in Ashkenaz by the 13th century, Meir ben Barukh (Maharam) of Rothenburg (d. 1293) sought to diminish the exorbitant payments that were being made even to less effective shadkhanim, especially in light of an incident that had occurred in Erfurt. Nonetheless, while Maharam’s recommendation, to pay the shadkhan only a base fee for his time, is recorded first in Sefer Mordekhai (composed by Mordekhai ben Hillel, Meir’s student), the (earlier) view of Simḥah of Speyer, that the shadkhan must be paid whatever he was promised, is then cited as a counter-position. Moreover, Sefer Mordekhai indicates that additional support for R. Simḥah’s position emerges from a ruling by Isaac ben Samuel (RʺI) of Dampierre (d. 1189), that a diviner who adjured demons (shedim) in order to locate a lost object is entitled to receive the overly large sum that he had been promised, since this is what people expect to pay for such an important and unusual service. As reported by his student R. Judah Sirleon, RʺI similarly applied his approach to allow for the overly generous payment of doctors or healers as well.

A subsequent passage in Sefer Mordekhai shows that Maharam’s insistence on the successes and standing of a shadkhan as the determinants of his compensation mirrored the thinking of Joseph ben Abraham, the son-in-law of one of R. Meir’s northern French teachers, Yeḥiel of Paris. Maharam’s conclusion, however, was questioned by another of his own students, Ḥayyim ben Isaac Or Zarua.‘ Indeed, Ḥayyim broke with his teacher in this matter and supported the position of Samson of Sens, as his father Isaac ben Moses Or Zarua‘ had presented it: Matchmakers are to be paid the agreed upon amount in any case. They are entitled to the large payments proposed by their clients since they possess special abilities.

The discussions that took place between Meir of Rothenburg and his students about the payment of shadkhanim document the functioning of matchmakers within Ashkenazic society through the end of the 13th century and beyond. Indeed, by the end of the 14th century, in both Germany and northern France (in the aftermath of the Black Death), the role of shadkhan was often assumed by rabbinic leaders, who commanded large fees.

Matchmakers were welcomed throughout medieval Ashkenaz because they increased the possibilities for finding appropriate mates, irrespective of what parents and other family members were doing. Indeed, in the initial passage presented above from Samson of Sens, the matchmaker was not hired by the parents but by the prospective bride. As with medical treatment and the locating of lost objects where a specialized agent could accomplish things that others could not, the successful matchmaker, by dint of his charisma, savvy, and persistence, was worth a great deal to his client. However, as noted above, rabbinic authorities in medieval Spain had no discussion of the shadkhan and his role, because their communities did not typically employ them.


Several responsa by Solomon ben Abraham ibn Adret (Rashba) of Barcelona (c. 1235–1310) stress that it was the parents (and grandparents) who were tasked by Hispano-Jewish society with finding a mate for their children. Rashba rules that the bond or surety that parents often pledged when a proposed marriage was agreed upon (to limit the possibility that either side would withdraw) did not have to be forfeited when a young lady rejected the groom selected by her parents, since this was a rare and unexpected occurrence (ones). In Rashba’s words, “Jewish girls are modest, and do not go over the line by choosing their husbands without their fathers’ consent.”

Similarly, a grandfather was released by Rashba from forfeiting the bond that he had pledged in Estella when his granddaughter refused to marry the groom that he had selected, since “he could not have foreseen the possibility of his granddaughter’s refusal, because all girls, with rare exception, abide by the wishes of their parents and relatives.” Rashba characterizes the (grand) daughter’s refusal as an “unexpected occurrence of the highest order” (ein lekha ones gadol mi-zeh). Although Yom Tov Assis is undoubtedly correct in his finding, based on archival evidence, that a greater number of daughters disagreed with their parents’ choice than Rashba’s various responsa suggest, parents (and grandparents, or other immediate relatives) are the only ones involved in seeking a mate for their child, as confirmed by the near total absence of references to shadkhanim in medieval Spanish rabbinic literature.

Moreover, there is an additional dimension of rabbinic thought in each region that supports these distinctions regarding shadkhanim and the parental role. The leading Spanish authorities during the 13th century, Ramban (d. 1270), Rashba, and Ritva (Yom Tov ben Abraham ibn Ishvili, d. c. 1325), justified the large payments to which medical doctors were entitled (where the patient agreed to make such a payment) in accordance with a Talmudic discussion (Yevamot 106) about making good on inflated payments promised in exchange for relief from acute physical circumstances. Nahmanides comments that a doctor is paid as much as he was promised since when healing the patient, “he sells his wisdom which is worth quite a lot,” as opposed to one who provides a patient with medications but does not devise any therapeutic plan, who receives compensation only for the price of those medications.

Not surprisingly, these Spanish rabbinic authorities do not refer to shadkhanim in this context, or to diviners. Ashkenazic talmudists and halakhists, on the other hand, link the high payment of doctors directly to the exorbitant payments that were given to shadkhanim and magical diviners as noted above.

In sum, Spanish rabbinic authorities considered medical treatment to be a highly developed science or skill, while finding marriage partners or lost objects was not. Parents were fully capable of securing marriage partners for their children. Ashkenazic rabbinic authorities believed that effectively arranging for marriage partners (like seeking cures and finding lost objects) could be enhanced by turning to someone with unique skills that included a great deal of personal rapport and perhaps even a measure of magical arts.


Avraham Grossman has proposed other reasons that might explain the dichotomy between Sepharad and Ashkenaz regarding the use of shadkhanim. The emphasis on impeccable lineage (yiḥus) throughout Germany and northern France meant that the stature and economic viability of a family were greatly valued. Matchmakers were able to verify these criteria in the family of the proposed mate, and to locate suitable partners in places near and far whose families possessed these traits. Grossman also suggests that the young ages at which many marriages took place (in particular with brides who were below the age of 12), and the fact that “for the most part, parents did not consult their children at all but rather suggested matches for them based on their own considerations of what was best,” meant that one set of parents might turn to a matchmaker to assess the suitability of the match before moving forward.

However, if matchmakers were particularly necessary (and effective) in overseeing marriages that involved younger couples, we would expect to find matchmakers operating in Spain as well, where evidence for the marriage of girls under the age of 12 is quite extensive (as Grossman had also noted), extending back to the geonic period. Moreover, as Elisheva Baumgarten has argued, the incidence of girls below the age of 12 getting married within medieval Ashkenaz during the 13th century appears to have been much more limited than Grossman and others have imagined. Baumgarten supports her claim about such limitations in northern France with a passage in a Tosafot gloss to Tractate Kidushin, and a ruling of Rabbenu Perets that will be discussed presently (both of which, as she noted, were associated with the tosafist academy at Evreux), in addition to arguing for the absence of such marriages in Germany based on two responsa by Meir of Rothenburg, one of which (regarding the marriage of R. Meir’s own daughter) will be discussed below. In light of its important implications, the history of this rabbinic allowance and societal practice needs to be carefully examined.

The Tosafot gloss to BT Kidushin 41a is the best-known rabbinic text about child marriage in northern Europe. The amora Rav ruled that one should not marry off his daughter until she reaches the age of 12 (even though a father is permitted to do so earlier according to Torah law), since, as the tosafist commentator explains, she might not have agreed to this choice were she of age. The commentator then adds: “But nowadays we are accustomed to marrying off our daughters even under the age of 12 (ketanot), because each and every day, the weight of the exile overcomes us. If someone currently has the funds to provide a dowry for his daughter, he may not have enough money later, which will cause his daughter [not to be married and] to remain an ‘agunah forever.”

Grossman cites a similar justification recorded in the anonymous Sefer Kol bo, from Perets ben Elijah of Corbeil (d. 1297) in the name of RʺM, whom Grossman identifies as Rabbenu Perets’s senior colleague, Meir of Rothenburg: “This ruling [of Rav] was applicable in their day, when many Jews lived in one place. But nowadays when we are small in number, we regularly permit the marriage even of a ketanah, lest [when she becomes of age] another will marry her first.” Both of these justifications refer to the diminished position of Jews within medieval society. The Tosafot passage seeks mainly to protect brides, while the ruling of Rabbenu Perets is more concerned with the disappointment of the potential groom. Nonetheless, there is quite a bit of common ground between them.

The Tosafot to Kidushin were produced (in large measure) in the tosafist study hall at Evreux, which was headed by the brothers Moses, Samuel, and Isaac ben Shne’ur during the second quarter of the 13th century. All three are mentioned in these Tosafot, as is the student of Isaac who apparently edited them. Moreover, the precise section of the Tosafot Kidushin passage under discussion is named, in a gloss to the published text of the Sefer Mordekhai to Kidushin (at sec. 505), as Tosafot Shitah, a textual title or appellation that applies, as far as I can tell, exclusively to Tosafot Evreux or to Tosafot Rabbenu Perets. A more muted form of this allowance is found in Abraham ben Ephraim’s Kitsur semag (composed c. 1265), in the name of his teacher, Tuvyah of Vienne, along with a less nuanced version of the reasoning enunciated by the tosafist commentator from Evreux. An unremarked 12th-century justification for the marriage of ketanot is found in Sefer Mordekhai in the name of Elijah ben Judah of Paris, an older contemporary of Rabbenu Tam (d. 1171).

Elijah’s name, however, is not mentioned by Tosafot Evreux or in the passage by Rabbenu Perets just discussed, even as the reason that he provided accords precisely with the one given by Rabbenu Perets. Thirteenth-century northern French tosafists were apparently unaware of this earlier justification. Moreover, Rabbenu Tam’s leading student and successor in the late 12th century, RʺI of Dampierre, explicitly disapproved of such marriages in most cases; only when the father of a ketanah had died could she be married before the age of 12. In all other instances, RʺI held that the ruling of Rav was to be followed, and her father was required to wait until she turned 12 so that she could fully acquiesce to the marriage.

Three 12th-century tosafist discussions involving Rabbenu Tam touch upon the marriage of minor girls. Rabbenu Tam questioned an interpretation of Rashi (to BT Ketubot 57b), that the passage at hand can be understood only according to the view of Rav. There is no indication here, however, that Rabbenu Tam thought that Rav’s ruling should be not followed in practice. In a case that came before him, Rabbenu Tam’s student, Menaḥem ben Perets of Joigny, maintained that a mother and brother could not marry off a young daughter while her father was traveling far away from home, since it is possible that the father had already betrothed her in another locale. Rabbenu Tam argues that if R. Menaḥem’s concern was well founded, the subsequent marriage of all daughters at any age would be problematic. Rabbenu Tam’s formulation does not suggest that ketanot were typically married off by their fathers, only that there were many instances of men who traveled and subsequently died while away from home, leaving young daughters behind. The sum of the evidence indicates that while justification for the marriage of ketanot was initially proposed in northern France during the 12th century, the phenomenon did not become entrenched in any region until somewhat later. And given the narrow scope of the tosafists who offered justifications during the 13th century, it is difficult to argue that this practice was widespread in northern France even then.

Moreover, even if one were to assume more substantive activity in northern France already during the 12th century, which was then expanded further during the 13th century, nothing of this marriage practice involving minor girls can be found in any German tosafist sources, and German rabbinic figures are hardly mentioned even in theoretical discussions about marrying a ketanah. A passage by Avigdor ben Elijah Katz of Vienna— who was likely born in northern France and lived for a good deal of the 13th century, studying mainly in Germany with Simḥah of Speyer and teaching there and in Italy before becoming the rabbinic leader of Vienna— demonstrates that the silence in German lands was not coincidental.

In his commentary to the Torah, which includes many halakhic rulings, R. Avigdor writes (on Gen. 24:51, in which Rebecca’s family tells Abraham’s servant Eli‘ezer to take Rebecca and return to Israel so that she could become the wife of Isaac): “[She was sent] even though she was still a ketanah. This is the basis for the practice in northern France to marry their daughters off when they are minors, for purposes of modesty.” R. Avigdor, who was aware of Jewish practices throughout northern Europe, asserts that marrying minor girls was done only in northern France. This was pointedly not the case in Germany, even though shadkhanim were visibly active there from the days of Simḥah of Speyer and throughout the 13th century, no less than in northern France. It would seem, then, that the need to oversee the marriage of young girls (ketanot) cannot explain the use of shadkhanim as Grossman had posited.

Indeed, the single documented, straightforward case of the betrothal of a minor girl from late 13th-century Germany reflects the hesitation of German rabbinic figures to allow the marriage of minor girls, while requiring the bride’s full acquiescence at any age. Meir of Rothenburg writes that when he married off his daughter who was a minor, he “instructed her to accept her kidushin (betrothal) only if she so desired.” Maharam explains that although it is prohibited for a father to betroth his minor daughter in accordance with the view of Rav, it is permitted to have her accept the kidushin for herself. This is precisely what he did in the marriage of his daughter, making certain that she firmly agreed to the betrothal and that she controlled it. Such an approach fully honors the halakhic theory behind Rav’s position— Albeit not the practice that he had advocated— and is supported by the analysis of an earlier 13th-century German tosafist as well.


Another significant difference in attitudes toward marriage between Ashkenaz and Sepharad is evident regarding the cancellation of a marriage commitment (known as bitul shidukhin). In Spain, the termination of a shidukh was not seen as cause for undue regret or embarrassment. This is enunciated most clearly in an early responsum which, as Avraham Grossman has suggested, was likely composed by Joseph ibn Avitur (c. 1000): “In this era, there is no embarrassment or blemish [for a terminated shidukh], for it is customary that several men speak to Jewish daughters about marriage, but they only marry the one who is meant for them (she-‘olot be-goralan). For the matching of a woman to a man is surely a heavenly undertaking. The man who had been trying to marry this woman [but failed], what can he do— this was not the one intended for him (lo’ haytah be-goralo). As the rabbis said, ‘A person does not touch what has been set aside for another.’ ” The larger halakhic context of this passage is that a groom who does not betroth the woman with whom he had a marriage commitment does not have to pay any penalty.

Indeed, the notion that the cancellation of a marriage commitment should not be met with deep concern had already been expressed in a more understated way by Sa‘adia Gaon, in a situation where it was unclear as to which daughter the groom had intended to offer marriage: “The first offer by Simeon is to be ignored and no explanation need be provided; for if he had wished to back out of a marriage commitment [in any case], he may do so.” The implication is that guaranteeing the establishment of a match is ultimately beyond the control of either the bride or the groom. As such, the dissolution of a match (before the wedding) is considered an acceptable reality rather than a negative occurrence. To be sure, Sephardic rabbinic authorities may have been seeking to cultivate behavior that was not naturally inherent within the larger societal group, but the rabbinic values are clear— this is a matter of fate (goral), which is within the divine purview.

A passage in Sefer ha-Shetarot by Judah ben Barzilai of Barcelona (c. 1100) notes that a financial condition was commonly imposed on the families of the bride and groom to dissuade either side from backing out, and funds or bills of indebtedness were often placed in escrow for this purpose. This was, however, a monetary arrangement with no other ramifications, as was the shtar pesikta, a document that was signed by the parties to ensure that the wedding would not be postponed and that the various financial commitments would be executed. These sanctions were not treated as fines for improper interpersonal behavior, nor were they imposed in every locale. The purely monetary nature of these arrangements in the Sephardic world emerges quite clearly from a formulation of Maimonides in Mishneh Torah about economic commitments.

This approach to the payment of fines for breaking a shidukh, and the related question of whether there is any embarrassment (boshet), is roundly contradicted by a series of tosafists in both northern France and Germany. Simcha Emanuel has conclusively demonstrated that in northern France, the fine for breaking a shidukh was supplemented by a strong communal ban (ḥerem). Ashkenazic sources further assert that the fine represents payment for inflicting personal damages and embarrassment (characterized as pegam and boshet, respectively), and is not merely compensation for wedding costs or other payments that might have been lost. By consistently referring to these payments as demei boshet (payment for embarrassment), Ashkenazic sources indicate that a canceled wedding commitment is a form of real damage that must be made good according to Talmudic law. In the view of Ashkenazic halakhists, a potential mate who has been rejected experiences palpable feelings of shame (as does the larger family) and must be compensated for this damage.

A passage by Samson of Sens describes the handing over of pledges at the time that a shidukh was agreed upon, in order to bind the two families to carry out the wedding and to support the young couple. R. Samson insists, however, that the fine that results from withdrawing from this arrangement (which the security pledges also helped to cover) is not simply an effective means of ensuring that these commitments be honored. Rather, it was meant to redress the embarrassment experienced by one father (or groom or family) if the other backed out. R. Samson compares this to the hiring of a tutor, which is accompanied by a formal commitment that the tutor will be fined if he quits and there is no appropriate replacement, since this disruption causes the student to suffer. Elsewhere, Isaac Or Zarua‘ makes the same point about establishing binding marriage agreements: “Even if there is not a full monetary obligation (kinyan) that binds the two wedding parties, the potential fine is accepted by both sides since the one who reneges embarrasses his friend; [avoiding] this embarrassment is what causes both parties to accept these terms.”

Joseph Ibn Avitur and other Sephardic rabbinic scholars sought to establish that there was no cause for boshet in the breakup of an agreed upon shidukh. The fines associated with canceling shidukhin in Spanish Jewish society were purely monetary, and were not ubiquitous in any event. The overwhelming opinion in Ashkenaz, however, was that the cancellation of a marriage commitment was a source of palpable embarrassment and suffering. These feelings were substantial enough to provide an iron-clad means of obligation (kinyan) for imposing the fines found throughout Germany, as well as the impetus for the additional ḥerem that was in vogue in northern France, which considered the cancellation an affront to the community as a whole. These penalties were imposed, at least in part, because it was not easy for a young man or woman to find another mate after this kind of traumatic breakup, which was therefore seen as causing them real damage. As Meir of Rothenburg put it, “If one backs out on the shidukhim, his fellow acquires all of the funds put aside for that purpose since he was embarrassed by the other, and will not be able to easily find as fitting a match moving forward, as would have been the case had this not occurred.”


A significant conceptual distinction concerning the nature of Jewish marriage appears to underlie the series of halakhic and procedural differences between Ashkenaz and Sepharad presented here. All agree that the shidukh enterprise is a partnership or an amalgam between the people who were most closely involved with it— the bride and groom, the parents and grandparents, perhaps even siblings— and the Almighty. Spanish rabbinic authorities, going back to the Muslim period and to at least several Geonim in the east as well, maintained that the divine role in bringing husband and wife together was the predominant factor in determining the existence of a marriage. The task of the parents and grandparents was to arrange the marriage within the earthly realm, of which they were quite capable. However, it was ultimately the divine agency that allowed the marriage to move forward.

Since the parents and family were charged with this responsibility, even the couple themselves had little input. Thus, it was expected that a daughter would always agree to the choice of her father (or grandfather). This also serves to explain why Solomon ibn Adret, as Avraham Grossman has pointed out, remained steadfast in his view that a father could force his minor daughter to marry the man of his choosing, despite the fact that the trend in Christian Europe, from the 12th century onward, was to give the couple themselves more choice and a greater say in the matter. For the Sephardic rabbinic conception, the determination of whether a betrothal and wedding would come to fruition was made and directed within the divine realm, with the parents serving as emissaries. Thus, if a commitment to marry was broken, there was no cause for regret or embarrassment. This was a matter of the heavenly goral (fate) of the bride and groom.

Ashkenazic rabbinic authorities, on the other hand, in both northern France and Germany, believed that the driving force behind marriage consisted of the will and efforts of the bride and groom, along with those of others (parents and family members, as well as matchmakers) who acted on their behalf. The Almighty obviously played a crucial if inscrutable role in this process, but it was up to the human participants to expend whatever efforts and means available to bring about a marriage that was appropriate in their view. The cancellation of a marriage commitment was seen as a source of deep disappointment and embarrassment, and was to be avoided at almost any cost.

Since the bride and groom were the key actors on their own behalf, the bride had to agree explicitly to her kidushin (and even in the not altogether common case that she was still a ketanah) in accordance with the position of Rav, which was accepted as normative by an impressive array of tosafists. Although Sefer ḥasidim advised fathers to marry off their children at a relatively young age so that they would accept the choice of a mate presented to them, it also strongly supported the concept of a marriage entered into on the basis of love or at least on the desire of the couple to marry one another. And, as has been noted, Sefer ḥasidim was among the many Ashkenazic works that approved of the use of shadkhanim as facilitators to help achieve that goal.

An unnoticed halakhic statement by Rabbenu Tam may also reflect these values. An engaged woman (a meshudekhet), whose wedding party had already been invited to the impending marriage ceremony (ḥupah), suffered the loss of her brother. Rabbenu Tam allowed her to marry within the initial 30-day mourning period since if the groom could not marry this woman, he would marry no other and his obligation to procreate would remain unfulfilled. Indeed, Rabbenu Tam asserts that even if this couple were not yet formally committed to each other, he would have allowed them to marry in this situation “since she wants only him, and he wants only her.” Because the groom was committed to this woman and would not marry another, Rabbenu Tam was prepared to allow the couple to be married at this time under any condition.

The two disparate conceptions in medieval Ashkenaz and Sepharad on the nature of Jewish marriage can be detected within the Talmudic corpus, and are manifest in other exegetical contexts as well. As noted above, Avigdor Katz of Vienna commented that northern French Jews derived support from the betrothal of Rebecca for allowing a ketanah to be married. At the same time, however, Samuel ben Kalonymus he-ḥasid of Speyer, father of Judah he-ḥasid, maintained, on the basis of a series of midrashic passages (as did several tosafist Torah commentaries), that Rebecca was actually 14 when she married Isaac, an interpretation consonant with the practice throughout Germany of not typically allowing ketanot to be married.

Rashi, while accepting the standard approach of the Seder ‘olam that Rebecca was 3 years old when she was betrothed to Isaac, nonetheless stresses that Rebecca’s family made it a point to ask her if she wanted to marry Isaac. Indeed, Rashi asserts that this action demonstrates that a woman can be married only with her consent (mi-da‘atah), which suggested to others that his approach is fully aligned with the Talmudic view of Rav, that a father should not marry off his daughter as long as she is a ketanah. Even in this unique situation, it was necessary for Rebecca to acquiesce and to represent herself (as in the case of Maharam and his daughter noted above). Similarly, while Rashbam understands Genesis 24:50 (“from the Almighty the result has emerged”) to mean that it is difficult to extrapolate from Rebecca because there was an explicit divine intervention that chose her for Isaac, he explains that Rebecca was nonetheless asked if she wanted to return with Eli‘ezer to marry Isaac (Gen. 24:58–59) because this was the common practice (derekh erets) for all marriage proposals.

On the other hand, Baḥya ben Asher, a student of Ibn Adret in Spain in the early 14th century, interprets Genesis 24:50 to mean that this is the way that all matches are made; they emerge from the divine realm and are determined there. Baḥya adduces a series of Talmudic and midrashic passages to show that the bride and groom, and even their parents, have little to do with initiating or determining who their mate will be. All is in the hands of Heaven, and they can only deal with what comes their way.

In a similar vein, Ashkenazic sources interpreted the Talmudic concept of shema yekadmenu aḥer be-raḥamim (BT Mo‘ed Katan 18b), “lest another, through the power of his prayers, precede [the intended groom] in marrying this woman,” to mean that through prayer, an individual can subvert the heavenly process that designates a woman to be the marriage partner of a particular man. According to the commentary to Mo‘ed Katan attributed to a student of Yeḥiel of Paris, this tactic is effective even with regard to a first marriage, where it surely seems that the heavenly determination, rather than any human action, should be the controlling factor, an approach found also in a Tosafot gloss to Sanhedrin.68. For these Ashkenazic interpreters, intense efforts undertaken by the suitor can be highly effective.

Spanish commentators, on the other hand, understandably had a difficult time squaring this Talmudic passage with their conception of marriage, since individuals should have no ability to interfere with the heavenly match of others, which is their “religious fate” (goral). How is it possible, then, for one man to take away another’s chosen match through prayer? Ritva interprets this passage to mean that only on the basis of improved actions over the long term can a person aspire to a “better” match from Heaven; increasing one’s merits over time can cause the original heavenly decree to be redirected. The raḥamim of which the Talmud speaks does not connote prayer (as it often does) for Ritva, since there is no immediate way for a person to redirect a shidukh, an understanding that accords with the larger Sephardic mindset.

With regard to marriage, the Spanish rabbinic posture confidently rendered unto the Almighty what was his, and charted the human response accordingly. This is not the only instance in which Ashkenazic and Sephardic authorities (and societies) expressed such differences about individual choice in the face of divine will, suggesting that these differences regarding marital choice and matchmaking reflect more than diverse interpretations of the underlying Talmudic and biblical texts.

There were significant intellectual linkages between Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities during the medieval period, and each cultural area also developed in the context of the majority culture in which it was embedded. However, some differences in social practice between the two regions cannot be attributed to transmission or adaptation or to differing majority contexts, but rather were due to features internal to the development of halakhah and religious values in these areas. This study has shown that the choice of marriage partner is one such example.


Adapted with permission from “Rabbinic Conceptions of Marriage and Matchmaking in Christian Europe,” in Elisheva Baumgarten, Ruth Mazo Karras, and Katelyn Mesler, eds., Entangled Histories: Knowledge, Authority, and Jewish Culture in the 13th Century.

Ephraim Kanarfogel is the E. Billi Ivry University Professor of Jewish History, Literature and Law at Yeshiva University. He is the author of four books, most recently The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz.

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