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By Talmudic law, Jewish Men Purchase Brides as They Would a Slave or a Piece of Real Estate

Sure, the woman consents, but the ‘specter of ownership’ hangs over the relationship. Plus: If you’re buying a woman, what is she actually worth in hard currency?

Adam Kirsch
March 29, 2016
Christine Long via Flickr
'Arcadia Ubinia de Batriz at marriage,' undated.Christine Long via Flickr
Christine Long via Flickr
'Arcadia Ubinia de Batriz at marriage,' undated.Christine Long via Flickr

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Betrothal, or kiddushin, is the topic of the Talmudic tractate that Daf Yomi readers began two weeks ago. Marriage, under Jewish law, is a two-step process: First the groom must “acquire” the bride through kiddushin, then he marries her by means of a contract or ketubah. Earlier, in Tractate Ketubot, we saw that Jewish marriage is, among other things, a financial arrangement, in which the bride and groom have certain obligations to one another. For instance, a husband must support his wife with food and clothing, while a wife must turn over any money she finds or earns to her husband. There are further financial arrangements having to do with divorce and widowhood; in these cases, too, a woman has rights, which are spelled out in her marriage contract, to a monetary settlement and/or ongoing support. Marriage and divorce, in other words, are mutual agreements. While men and women are not equal under Jewish law (most notably, only a husband can initiate divorce), they are both bound by a contract into which they enter voluntarily.

When it comes to betrothal, however, things seem to be rather different. Jewish law considers betrothal a kind of acquisition—that is, a purchase; a man can purchase a bride in much the same way that he purchases a slave or a piece of real estate. This principle was driven home in last week’s Daf Yomi reading, in which the rabbis pivoted from discussing betrothal to discussing the purchase and emancipation of slaves. “A Hebrew slave can be acquired through money or through a document,” says the mishna in Kiddushin 14b. This is a deliberate echo of the opening mishna in Kiddushin 2a: “A woman is acquired in three ways … through money, through a document, and through sexual intercourse.”

This is not to say that marriage is a kind of slavery. Crucially, a woman cannot be betrothed without her consent. (Legally, at any rate; in practice, there are many ways of pressuring a woman, or for that matter a man, to get married whether they want to or not.) But since a man does purchase his wife with money, the specter of ownership necessarily hangs over the relationship. That is surely one reason why the Gemara is so concerned to define exactly what “acquiring” means in this context. If a man acquires a wife with money, is the money actually her price? Or is it more of a symbolic offering, meant to publicly establish the woman’s value?

These are the ethical questions that underlie the Talmud’s debates about a minimum bride price. According to Beit Shammai, the groom must pay the bride’s father at least one dinar, a silver coin; according to Beit Hillel, the price can be as low as one peruta, a much smaller denomination. In Kiddushin 11a, we learn Beit Shammai’s reasoning: “A woman is particular about herself and will not agree to be betrothed with less than one dinar.” In other words, paying a decent amount for a bride is a sign of respect.

But respect, in the Talmud, is always linked to social standing. In an earlier tractate, we saw that the fine a rapist must pay his victim’s family depends on her social status: The more aristocratic she is, the more compensation she deserves. Abaye invokes a similar logic when it comes to betrothal. If an ordinary woman demands one dinar, Abaye asks, what about “Rabbi Yannai’s daughters, who are particular about themselves?” This Yannai was either a wealthy amora or, depending on what commentary you follow, actually a king—the Hasmonean king known in Greek as Alexander Jannaeus, who ruled Judea in the first century BCE. Either way, his daughters were part of the elite and used to special treatment. Wouldn’t it make sense that “they will not agree to be betrothed with less than a vessel full of dinars”? Offering a single dinar to Yannai’s daughter would be like offering a penny to an ordinary woman—a sign of disrespect. If so, then just as a betrothal with a penny is invalid normally, so a betrothal with a dinar should be invalid in the case of Yannai’s daughters. The bride price should not be fixed, but on a sliding scale.

Here the Gemara responds by introducing a major qualification of the rule about the minimum bride price. A minimum price is not required, Rabbi Zeira explains, in a case where “she reached out her hand and accepted.” In other words, a woman has the right to waive the one-peruta minimum, if she chooses to do so. But if this is true, then effectively the bride price is always up for negotiation, and it doesn’t make sense to talk about a minimum. Why, then, does the law establish it? Zeira offers two hypothetical cases where it might be useful: “where he betrothed her at night,” and the woman couldn’t see how much money the man was giving her; or “where she appointed an agent,” and it was up to the agent to decide what price to accept. In these cases, the one-peruta minimum applies, since the woman is not being consulted about what price she is willing to accept.

We also saw last week that, to enforce this minimum, the rabbis established rules about using items of value for betrothal instead of cash. If a suitor claimed that an item was worth a certain amount of money, the item had to be appraised to make sure he wasn’t lying or overestimating. But here, too, the Gemara goes on to significantly weaken its own rule. In Kiddushin 12a, Shmuel gives suitors a big loophole: “If a man betrothed a woman with a date, she is betrothed even if a kor of dates is worth one dinar.” A kor is a very large amount, equal to approximately 50 gallons; it follows that a single date would be worth less than a peruta, and so it would not be valuable enough to use for betrothal. Why does Shmuel allow it? Because, he reasons, “we are concerned that perhaps it is worth one peruta in Media,” the country we now know as Iran. In other words, in calculating the value of an item for purposes of betrothal, we can assume that it is worth a great deal more than face value, because it might possibly be worth that much in some distant place. This is tantamount to allowing the suitor to make up the value of his gift, which is another way of abolishing the minimum bride price.

The Gemara goes on to consider another wrinkle. Can a man effectively blackmail a woman by stealing her property and then using it to betroth her? The Talmud gives an example: “There was a certain woman who was selling belts. A certain man came and snatched a belt from her. She said to him: Give it to me. He said to her: If I give it to you will you be betrothed to me? She took it and was silent.” In this case, does silence equal consent? Or was the woman simply taking back her own property, no strings attached?

Here the rabbis disagree. According to Rav Nachman, “She could say: Yes, I took it, but I took my property.” In other words, since the belt was really hers to begin with, the man can’t use it to betroth her. But Rava disagrees, citing a baraita to the effect that a woman can be betrothed even with stolen property. This is true, Nachman grants, but only if the woman had previously agreed to the betrothal. In that context, her silence can be taken to imply consent; but if the man is a stranger, and she had no thought of marrying him, he can’t blackmail her into it by holding her property hostage. Context makes all the difference.

Before turning to the laws of slavery, which will take up many pages to come, the Talmud considers another question of marriage law, one that seems so obvious it might not even occur to us that it is a question. The mishna assumes that a woman whose husband dies is free to remarry. But where, the rabbis ask, does this assumption come from? How do we know that a woman is permitted to remarry after her husband dies, rather than remaining faithful to his memory forever?

The Gemara first answers that it is obvious, “based on logical reasoning.” Since it was the existence of her husband that “renders the woman forbidden” to other men, once that existence ends, so does the prohibition. Yet there is an easy retort to this: Even after she is widowed, a woman remains prohibited to certain of her husband’s relatives, such as his father. So, it is possible for sexual prohibitions to outlast the life of a spouse. After several more rounds of back and forth, the Gemara resolves the issue by quoting a verse in Deuteronomy that “juxtaposes death to divorce.” Just as divorce renders a woman available to marry any other man—indeed, as we saw in Tractate Gittin, this is the essence of a valid divorce—so the death of a husband does the same. Even when it comes to the seemingly obvious, the rabbis are determined to find a basis for Jewish law in the biblical text.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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