The Shadchan Stories
Shadchan stories, facts, foibles, and of course … jokes.
Today’s subject: Shadchans, otherwise known as Matchmakers. After a few valiant tries on Jewish dating sites for people on Medicare, I turned my attention to the marvelous, complicated, ironic, issue of “marrying-by-matchmaker” or “shadchans.” With such a mind-boggling history, I got curious, researched, and now present you with some “Shadchan” stories, facts, foibles, and of course … jokes.
The role of the shadchan in ancient times can be seen in its root word shidduch (match) which signifies tranquility and peacefulness – mostly for the quaking parents who were worried that their kinder would be saddled with an “unworthy” or worse, wind up alone, knitting cat booties instead of sharing a brisket with a properly vetted mate.
GOD, THE PRIME MOVER BUT NOT SHAKER
We Jews know that God Himself is the ultimate shadchan. He created humankind – two radically different improbables, who could cleave “as one flesh.” After all, we first heard the sampler: “Marriages are made in heaven” in midrashic literature. Then there was the first “best” pairing: Adam and Eve.
In heaven, Adam and Eve asks the Almighty why this is so.
"Well," God replies, "Adam, you didn't have to hear about all the men Eve could have married, and Eve, you didn't have to hear about how well Adam's mother cooked."
This raises a thorny question. If God determines which two who among billions will make the journey, why all the legwork? And more, what about those couples who are not doing a dance of joy?
One answer came from Rabbi Akiva. "Everything is known to God, yet free will is given to man." God knows but We Jews must “do” the details.
Hands-down, it was Eliezar, Abraham’s ingenious servant (Genesis 24:1-67). It seems that Abraham wasn’t enamored of the moral virtue of Canaanite women as a match for his son, Isaac. He sent his liege, under oath, abroad to find a suitable wife from among the members of his extended family. Eliezar tested Rebecca, daughter of a nephew of Abraham. The charming Rebecca proved her kindness, selflessness, and generosity and the shidduch was made between Rebecca and Isaac. And “love” – they learned.
Excerpted from “Do You Love Me” – Fiddler on the Roof
(Tevye) My father and my mother said we'd learn to love each other; And now I'm asking, Golde
Do you love me?
(Golde) Do I love him? For twenty-five years I've lived with him; Fought him, starved with him;
Twenty-five years my bed is his; If that's not love, what is?
(Tevye) Then you love me?
(Golde) I suppose I do
(Tevye) And I suppose I love you too
THOSE WERE THE DAYS: THE NOBLE SHADCHAN
For centuries, the matchmaker, entrusted with such a critical mission, was the learned, the temperate, the insightful (and connections didn’t hurt). Scholars and rabbis performed this lofty craft, and also saw the families through to the formal arrangements. The standards were strict. While beauty was a plus, the shadchan looked at family background, character, morality, intellect, piety, family pedigree – and compatibility. A larger effect was to insure Jewish tradition prevailed during the dark days of dispersion and exile, especially after the Crusades during the 13th and 14th century.
GELTING THE SHADCHAN
The shadchan turned professional at the close of the Middle Ages when the kinder caught onto the idea of “romantic love” -- a potentially devastating trend, threatening to demolish Jewish values. Anxious parents now added kopek-incentive.
By the 15TH century, scholars such as the Maharil, became professional shadchanim. Medieval rabbinic literature laid out the gelting rules. It spelled out how much, and when the shadchan was to be paid. Fair it was. If a match was a disaster, his fee could be refused. On the other hand, if this was a “match made in heaven” he could claim twice the fee, proving once again, We Jews pay for value.
King of the Shadchans: Louis Rubin! As late as 1916, thousands of Jews still used professional shadchans (and some still do). The “deal” was generally 5% of the dowry plus a fee. One legendary matchmaker, Louis Rubin, in a 1938 interview in the New Yorker, claimed he’d arranged 7,000 marriages, never took less than $100 a case, and was cautious on the subject of photos of prospectives. “In most cases it’s just as well not to have them” unless, of course the subject was “unusually attractive,” he said.
-- King of the Shadchans!
Scholarship was desired in a male … and when mated with wealth, a perfect match! A shidduch with a scholar allowed a poor girl to climb the social ladder. Yet this produced an odd irony. The daughters of the rich allowed the brilliance of their husbands to endure. The works of a poor girl’s scholarly mate was lost to posterity.
FROM PIOUS TO YENTA!
Gradually, over the centuries, the societal need for the shadchan diminished. Young people would allow no one, not even parents, to suggest a choice of mate. Shadchans themselves changed. The learned realized income and status was often given to individuals with no real skill and bowed out. From a heaven-sent master doing God’s work, the new shadchans who replaced them (in the 16th century) had a murky reputation as charlatans. In 500 years, the shadchan went from exalted and admired to an object of mocking humor and scorn among many assimilated Jews. In the 20th century, “Yente” the matchmaker in “Fiddler on the Roof”, joined Dolly Levy in “Hello Dolly” who used a colorful bender of the truth.
“But this woman you brought me looks like she soon will be forty!” said the prospective bridegroom to the shadchan.
“Looks, looks. Don’t go by looks!”
“You said she was twenty-eight! Is that true?”
“Uh ... partly.”
THE RETURN OF THE SHADCHAN!
As we’ve seen, the shadchan has journeyed from holy, noble, and worthy, to farce, interloper, and yenta.
Today, in the find-a-mate jungle perpetrated by the digital age, the shadchan has been re-born by giant conglomerates promising us we will find “the perfect match” in the million-person mire. Just click on the site (with a valid credit card), to find your bashert! Sign up, and daily, a mega-puter becomes “God’s little helper,” spitting out a string of prospects. It also sends us messages and stats. “Hey, you’re doing great! You have 335 likes!” Or, “Try changing your profile.”
How are “they” doing? Never one to avoid research, I tried three. After filling out pages of forms, preferences, likes, hates, ratings, beliefs, standards (which included “smart and educated”), I received my 100% perfect matches: One was looking for aliens in Area 51, the other told me he got all A’s in fourth grade. God doesn’t “glitch” – computers do.
Eh … So what’s a mature Jewish person to do?
We’ve come a full circle. Going “custom” with a reliable “shadchan” is still the way, even if I live on matzah for a month. After all, even the Torah obliges us to pay for this excellent service which will bring us blessings and our true bashert. So singles, take heart …
According to Rabbi Michael Alony, a 22-year- old Jewish man left his home, and, with his Catholic girlfriend, traveled to Nepal to “find himself.” He received word his father died. Devastated, he visited the Western Wall in Israel. As is custom, he wrote a note to slip into a crack: “Dear Father, forgive me for causing you pain….” Another note fell to the ground: “Have no regrets. I love you” – signed by his father. He stayed in Jerusalem, and the couple parted ways. Four years passed, during which he studied at a Yeshiva. Time now, to find a wife, a matchmaker put him together with his old girlfriend! She too, had remained in Jerusalem, studied at a Yeshiva and converted. The two lovers reunited again under the wedding canopy!