Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make Me a Match
"Marriages are made in heaven," but who are these people making matches on earth, and why have they played a pivotal role in Jewish history?
The story is told that a Roman matron once asked Rabbi Yosi: "How has your God been occupying his time since He finished the creation of the world?"
"He has been busy pairing couples," answered the Rabbi.
She was astonished. "Is that His trade? Even I can do that job. As many man-servants and maid-servants as I have, I can pair."
"Perhaps it is a simple matter in your eyes," replied the Rabbi. "For God, it is as intricate as the Splitting of the Sea."
She promptly placed one thousand man-servants opposite one thousand maidservants and declared, "He will marry her, she will marry him," and so on.
The next morning, two thousand servants came to her door, beaten and bruised, complaining, "I do not want her, I do not want him!"
She sent for Rabbi Yosi, and conceded: "Rabbi, your Torah is true."
THE ULTIMATE MATCHMAKER
The Talmud explains: Matchmaking was a simple matter in her eyes because she, unlike God, could not understand the fundamental differences in the human character that militate against one stranger being successfully matched with another.
There is no doubt, the Talmudic Sages conclude, that God Himself had to be the first and ultimate matchmaker. Who else could blend two disparate personalities so that they cleave together "as one flesh"? Did he not arrange the union of Adam and Eve?
This conclusion was so irresistible, that the rabbis wrote it down no fewer than five times in Midrashic literature: "Marriages are made in Heaven."
This is not a romantic American cliche, but a serious statement of predestination. God determines which people will unite successfully. Does not the Talmud say: "Forty days before the birth of a child, a heavenly voice proclaims: ‘The daughter of so-and-so will be married to so-and-so?’"
Why is it necessary to go through the elaborate charade of selecting a suitable mate?
This raises a thorny question: If the selection of a mate is preordained, why is it necessary to go through the elaborate charade of selecting a suitable mate? And why do so many marriages fail?
Rabbi Akiva responds to a similar question of predestination by saying, "Everything is known to God, yet free will is given to man." God knows what we will do and how things will work out, but it is still up to us, to arrange our own lives. Only after all of the arrangements have been made can we say confidently that this is what God had originally ordained.
A HISTORY OF THE SHADCHAN
The tradition of the matchmaker or shadchan traces its human origins to the super-matchmaker of all time, Abraham's masterful servant Eliezer, who arranged no less a marriage than that of the patriarch Isaac to the matriarch Rebecca.
As the story is told in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 24:1-67) Abraham, having realized that the native Canaanite women were morally unsuitable, decides to search abroad for a suitable wife for his son Isaac. He sends Eliezer, under oath, to find the right bride for Isaac "from among the members of his family and the house of his father," which he had left behind when, at God's bidding, he had set out for Canaan. Eliezer believes he has found a suitable match in Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel, the nephew of Abraham; but she must first pass a test designed to determine the quality of her kindness and hospitality. Rebecca succeeds admirably in meeting all his expectations -- she is generous, extraordinarily hospitable, and selfless, kind to total strangers and even animals. Eliezer brings Rebecca to Isaac, who welcomes her into his home, and "he loved her."
The significance of the function of the shadchan in ancient times can be seen from the derivation of its root word shiduch, meaning "match." The Aramaic translation has it as sheket, "silence," and the term shiduch signifies tranquility or peacefulness. The connotation is that the shadchan pacifies parents who are anxious about their child's marital prospects. It also implies a sense of tranquil arrival for two people tired of the dreams, the frustrated expectations, and the long search for a loving spouse.
AN HONORABLE TRADITION
The classic shadchan has a long and honorable tradition in Jewish life. No huckster could become a unifier of human beings. He had to have deep personal integrity and balanced judgment to be entrusted with so vital a task as arranging a permanent union.
From the days of the Talmud and for centuries thereafter, it was the headmasters of the Higher Torah Academies who were customarily asked to recommend eligible students for marriage. The reason is obvious: in addition to possessing the necessary moral qualifications, these rabbis were also intimately acquainted both with the elite young scholars who were considered the prize grooms and the leading families of the community who supported the communal institutions.
The role of the shadchan reached its height in the darkest days of oppression.
The role of the shadchan reached its height in the darkest days of oppression and dispersion of the long Jewish exile in Europe. At a time when the survival of the people was in danger, and high standards of personal morality seemed threatened with extinction, this institution provided a stabilizing, fortifying and encouraging influence. This was especially true during the 13th and 14th centuries, after the Crusades had ravaged the Jewish people and scattered them over the entire continent. Communities had been splintered and isolated, and there was little communication between one group of Jews and another.
It was also at this time that the concept of romantic love was formally introduced to the world. The rabbis distrusted the romantic impulse as the basis for marriage, and felt that the shadchan lessened the chances of romantic dallying with a variety of people.
Although the estimation of beauty was the shadchan's stock in trade, he was encouraged not to arrange a union based exclusively on physical attributes. Instead, he based his choices on qualities of character, piety, intelligence and competence that would lend permanence to a marriage and encourage a high degree of moral stability in the community.
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, a new type of individual began to occupy the position of shadchan -- the paid professional. It is very likely that the shadchan began to be paid as the community became anxious about the contagion of romantic love and its potentially disastrous effects on Jewish society.
By the 15th century, scholars as great as Maharal earned their livelihoods as professional shadchanim. Questions and answers are recorded in medieval Rabbinic Responsa indicating how, how much, and when the shadchan is to be paid. If a match proved to be unhappy, he could be banned and his fee refused. If things went unusually well, he could reasonably claim twice the fee. Jewish law, therefore, established his fees, and Jewish ethics determined his integrity.
PRESERVER OF JEWISH VALUES
The Talmudic rabbis say about God, the first shadchan: "He pairs two people, even if He must ... bring them from one end of the world to the other."
In the same way, the shadchan traveled from city to city in an intricate network of cross-pollination, telling the father of a young man that a perfectly-suited young lady had been discovered 200 miles away. Considering that highway robbers made the medieval roads notoriously dangerous to travel without armed escort, and difficult as well as time consuming to navigate even at the best of times, there was virtually no way such families would have met without the shadchan's unique combination of courage, psychological acuity ad brokerage talents.
In fact, Jewish law recognized this aspect of the shadchan's function and stipulated that he was to be paid a higher fee when the bride and groom come from widely separated communities. In this way he literally interrelated whole communities and provinces.
At the same time, he performed an important subsidiary function by carrying news of Jewish affairs to widely separated Jewish communities. Although to us marriage and news-bringing may be ordinary events, in those days they served a vital function of encouraging small pockets of Jews not to despair: they were not alone, but part of the larger world of Jews, related to the big cities, the great scholars, and to Jerusalem itself.
The shadchan was familiar with the backgrounds of scores of families.
The shadchan was familiar with the backgrounds of scores of families, and he held the key to the successful marriages of their children. As a result, the community developed a greater concern than ever for the authenticity of family descent. A mixed marriage, the conversion of one of its members to another faith, or the birth of an illegitimate child would significantly diminish the opportunities for a good shiduch for every child of each family. Since the selection of a spouse was not left to a chance meeting, the rate of interfaith marriage was kept so low as to be insignificant.
Because the shadchan would not only match inner qualities but family pedigree and scholastic and economic achievements, families knew that their futures depended on their religious and moral reputations. This spurred families to achieve a better quality of Jewish life, resulting in a religious and moral stability that was the envy of surrounding peoples.
In these times, the ideal of well-to-do parents, was to have their daughter marry a Torah scholar of great potential. This only the shadchan could arrange, and be was often a genius at wedding scholarship to wealth. He thereby performed feats of genetic engineering, which assured the survival of the intelligentsia.
Interestingly, this process served society in another crucial way: because the scholar was able to reach the top of the social ladder, the poor learned that the fastest way out of poverty was intellectual achievement.
Similarly, the girl born to poverty had at least a reasonable hope of rising socially by bearing children whose scholarship would make them eligible to marry into wealthier families. Even the sisters, parents and children of a scholar were invested with his prestige. The rabbis said, "Take heed of the children of the poor, for from them will issue scholars of Torah."
DECLINE AND RE-EMERGENCE
Gradually, over the centuries, the societal need for the shadchan diminished. Communities were more stable, communication and travel became easier, and there was a greater concentration of Jews in the larger cities.
Also, many young people who were suddenly emancipated and imbued with the ideals of the romantic tradition sought to experience this romance personally. The traditional clients of the shadchan now felt demeaned merely by talking to him, since was a clear sign of their own inadequacies.
The image of the shadchan plunged from a heaven-sent messenger to nothing more than a flesh-trader.
The image of the shadchan evolved from a heaven-sent messenger doing God's will to nothing more than a flesh-trader. By the end of the 16th century, his activities were closely watched, and many commentaries and ethical tracts scorned his techniques. In 500 years, the shadchan declined from an exalted position to an object mockery and social anathema.
But there proved to be solid arguments for reviving the function of the shadchan. When people marry at an early age -- for example, age 21 and 22 for men, 18 and 19 for women -- their sober judgment at is age is at least questionable, and intellectual compatibility at school is frequently confused with abiding love.
In recent years, with the growth of an indigenous American Orthodoxy that finds the contemporary environment morally deficient, the shadchan has reemerged, dressed in the new garb of the university and the computer matching service.
Orthodox Jewish communities now avail themselves of many such modern marriage brokers who demonstrate none of the ridiculed qualities of their predecessors. These shadchanim are found largely in New York. Private enterpreneurs, they rarely advertise and are best discovered by personal recommendation.
It would not be surprising if the Jewish world, seeking desperately to preserve itself, fearful of the imminent collapse of the host culture and astonished by the growing divorce rate, would warmly welcome back, in a new guise, the old shadchan who traces his lineage, after all, to God Himself.