It's Not Quite That Simple

For the week ending 24 May 2014 / 24 Iyyar 5774

Marrying Off Chidren

by Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Greenblatt
Library Library Library

Lavan is not one of Judaism’s favorite characters, to say the least. Brother to Rivka and father of Leah and Rachel, he was an archetypal hater of Israel, charged by our Sages of being even worse that Pharaoh. Pharaoh, you see, “only”wanted to kill all Jewish males, whereas Lavan wanted all Jews wiped out.

But he had a (kind of) redeeming trait. He was fiercely protective of his family. When his sister Rivka came into the house wearing jewelry given to her by a man next to the well, he was the first to dash outside to meet this man. Remember the famous story of how he tricked Yaakov into marrying Leah, his older daughter, before Rachel, the younger? What was his justification? “It’s not the done thing is our area for the younger to marry before the older!” This shows real sensitivity to the feelings of Leah, albeit at great cost to poor Yaakov, who was hoodwinked into another seven years of hard labor! But from the point of view of dedication to family, we try to emulate Lavan.

It seems reasonable and sensitive to marry off children in order of age, to avoid jealousy. The Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of Jewish Law, rules that “...regarding the celebration of a feast or a wedding, we use the criterion of age to determine primacy.” (Yoreh De’ah 244:18) One of our foremost halachic authorities, the Bach, Rabbi Sirkis (1561-1640), explains that when arranging weddings for children one should not marry off the younger child first.

But, as with virtually all things in Judaism, it’s not quite that simple.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), the most preeminent halachic decisor of the last generation, understood the Shuchan Aruch’s words quite differently. (Iggrot Moshe, Even Ha’ezer II:1) He understood that there is no prohibition at all for a younger child to marry before an older one. According to Rabbi Feinstein the idea that a man should have to delay marrying and having children simply because his older brother has not yet found a bride is, if you’ll pardon the pun, inconceivable. After all, G-d commands every man to marry and have children. (Note that this reasoning cannot be applied to a woman because women are not commanded to have children — but that’s a column for another time.) The Shulchan Aruch is only talking about a case when both children are engaged to be married and the question is only which one should be married first. In such a case, the elder sibling gets to go first. Actually, the words of the Shulchan Aruch do suggest this interpretation: “...regarding the celebration of a feast or a wedding, we use the criterion of age to determine primacy.” It makes sense to say that it is only decisions regarding the celebrations which are at stake here.

To return to Lavan, he was extreme in his zealous concern for his family’s “best interests” at the expense of everything else. Lying, cheating and scheming were no problem. Another famous Biblical figure, Lot, famously tried to protect his guests (secretly angels) from being sodomized by the people of, well, Sodom, by offering the assailants his two virgin daughters. “Let me bring them out to you,” he offers, “and do what you like with them”. Not exactly father of the year. Lot valued his responsibility to his guests greatly and took this to such an extreme that he neglected his duty to his daughters, which so obviously should have taken precedence.

It is all too easy to be over-simplistic. Lavan valued family above everything. Lot valued his obligations to his guests above everything. But life is more complicated that that. It is all too easy to take one extreme viewpoint and refuse to temper your views for anyone or anything. But it is not emet — it is not truth. Emet comes from balancing things. Many things may be good in and of themselves, but it takes much learning to be able to discern what is really emet in any given case.

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