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Shalom Bayit: The Paradigm of the Peaceful Jewish Marriage
By Rabbi Yona Reiss

According to Jewish tradition, marriage is a sacred institution. The strength of the marital bond is vital to the preservation of the Jewish community. The idea of Shalom Bayit – ensuring that the marital home is characterized by a peaceful and happy relationship between a wife and husband—is an important theme in our religion.

In my capacity as Director of the Beth Din of America, the rabbinical court affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America, it is often my task to deal with issues of Shalom Bayit from the other end of the spectrum—when couples are encountering marital difficulties and come to the Beth Din for a Get and/or the adjudication of their divorce. This essay will review some of the Jewish legal and homiletic sources dealing with the topic of Shalom Bayit, with an additional focus on end of marriage issues.

The Primary Significance of Shalom Bayit

Jewish law sources emphasize the significance of Shalom Bayit by noting how certain other laws are suspended in order to preserve harmony between husband and wife. For example, the Talmud notes that the Torah permits the holy name of G-d to be erased in water [in the course of the Sotah ritual] in order to restore peace to the relationship between husband and wife (Chulin 141a; Nedarim 66b). Even a public vow that can normally not be nullified is capable of nullification if necessary in order to preserve harmony between spouses (Rema, Yoreh Deah 228:21).

When Sarah found told that she and her husband Abraham would be blessed by G-d with a son, Sarah expressed surprise that Abraham would be able to have a child at his advanced age. However, in relaying Sarah's sentiments to Abraham, G-d omitted this portion of her response. From this episode the rabbis derive that there are times when one can even alter the substance of a person's words in order to ensure Shalom Bayit (see Yevamot 65b; Vayikra Rabba 9:9).

Along similar lines, Rabbi Israel Isserlein (1390-1460, Germany) ruled that certain rabbinic-ethical notions are superseded by the need for a blissful marriage. Thus, it is better to enter into a marriage of bliss with a woman who cannot bear children despite non-fulfillment of the rabbinic-ethical notion that even a man who has children from a prior marriage should strive to marry a woman who can bear more children (“V'laerev al tanach yadecha”) rather than enter into a marriage of strife with a woman capable of bearing children (Terumat Hadeshen 1:263).

Creating and Maintaining the Ideal Relationship

At the time of a wedding, we extend to couples our wish that they merit to build a “bayit ne'eman be'yisrael”. The Metsudot Dovid (Melachim 1, 11:38) interprets bayit ne'eman to mean a lasting, enduring home. The hallmark of a Jewish marriage is one characterized by peace and permanence.

Maintaining a home of marital bliss does not come without effort. It is important for couples to make sure that they find favor in each other's eyes prior to marriage so that it will be easier for them to fulfill the dictate of “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” which manifests itself in its most intense form in the context of the marital relationship (see Kiddushin 41a). Once a couple is married, the strength of that bond is maintained only through each spouse giving unselfishly to the other, rather than viewing marriage as a vehicle for receiving pleasure from the other (Rabbi Eliyohu Dessler, Michtav Me'Eliyahu 1:38).

The idea of giving to one's spouse means addressing a spouse's particular needs, and working together with one's spouse to frame each spouse's respective roles and responsibilities in a manner that will maximize their ability to build a harmonious home together. It is important to remember that the definition of a happy home does not consist of a monolithic model. Different spouses have different needs, and certain roles can be completely reversed from one household to another. The yardstick for Shalom Bayit is determined by each individual Bayit; “How Goodly are Thy Tents, O' Jacob” (Bamidbar 24:5) instructs us that individual households prosper by remaining self-sufficient units of harmonious matrimony (see Rashi ad loc).

It is natural that spouses will have disagreements and differences, but Jewish tradition believes that the marital bond can be strengthened through working through those differences together, in a spirit of mutual respect and affection. In this vein, it is noteworthy that one of the key sources for Shalom Bayit in rabbinic literature is the Torah's account of a Sotah—a woman accused by her husband of marital infidelity. One of the key components of the Sotah ritual, as the rabbis explain, is to demonstrate the wife's innocence to her suspicious husband and thus save and strengthen the imperiled marriage (see Sotah 26a).

Competent, professionally trained marriage counselors can be immensely helpful in guiding a couple towards repairing problems in a marriage. As in any venture in life, spouses are encouraged to do their homework in choosing a marriage counselor who is competent and appropriate for them.

Remembering Priorities

It is important not to fall prey to the danger of forfeiting Shalom Bayit in the very process of pursuing the ideal of a blissful Jewish home. The story is told that one Friday night the Chafetz Chaim visited the home of a man who berated his wife for not remembering to cover the challot before the recitation of Kiddush, causing her to leave the table in tears. The Chofetz Chaim, in addressing this uncomfortable situation, was able to use his wisdom to give the intemperate husband a sense of perspective. Drawing from Jewish law sources, he pointed out to the man that one reason that we cover the challot is to shield the challot from the “embarrassment” of not receiving the first brocha of the meal. Accordingly, asked the Chafetz Chaim, how could Kiddush be recited when the man's own wife had been embarrassed? The man immediately understood the error of his ways and begged his wife for forgiveness. The importance of sensitive communications in the frantic frenzy of Shabbat preparations is an obvious application of this principle.

The Talmudic passages dealing with grounds for divorce may actually provide an additional source for helping individuals maintain the proper perspective for a successful marriage. The Talmud records opinions that include as grounds for a husband to divorce his wife that she “burnt the stew” or, alternatively, that “he found another woman whom he considers more attractive.” (Gittin 90a). In a thoughtful essay in his book “Pirkei Ahava” (pages 41-42), Rabbi Shlomo Aviner explains that these opinions are meant to provide instructions as to the proper attitudes that one should bring into marriage. There is something lacking in one's attitude towards the marriage, and therefore lacking in the marriage itself, when a husband considers his dinner or any other domestic matter to be of greater importance than his wife; finally, the act of comparing one's spouse to another person creates a marital atmosphere antithetical to the Torah attitude of “Beshert” that requires parties to view their spouses as their Divinely designated counterparts in life (see Sotah 2a and Moed Katan 18b).

Divorce

When a husband divorces his wife from his first marriage, the holy altar sheds tears (Gittin 90b). Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 14:98) explains based on the Mekhilta on Parshas Yitro, that the purpose of the altar is to create peace between the Jewish nation and G-d, which includes as well all other relationships on this earth, including the harmony of husbands and wives. When the essential bond of peace between husband and wife has been broken, the altar has special reason to cry because its mission on this earth has been thwarted.

Thus, while Jewish law does allow for “no-fault” divorce when both parties agree to divorce, an uncontested divorce initiated by a husband (and only reluctantly agreed upon by his spouse) based upon incompatibilities alone is discouraged, at least in the context of a first marriage (see Pitchei Teshuva, Even Haezer 119:3).

If it is clear to a Bet Din (rabbinic court) that the marriage cannot be saved, then it is incumbent upon each party to cooperate with respect to a Get (at the request of the other party). See Rabbi Chaim Pelagi, Chaim Ve'Shalom 2:112; Rov Ovadiah Yosef, Yabia Omer 3:18(13); Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 4:15(2). The same considerations that dictate trying to save a viable marriage dictate that a marriage no longer viable be disbanded with the giving of a Get in order to enable the parties to enter into a viable marriage once again (see Piskei Din Rabbanim 7:111, s.v “Maskanot”). It is no coincidence that the Talmudic tractate relating to divorce (Gittin) immediately precedes the Talmudic tractate relating to marriage (Kiddushin).

The Harsh Realities of Divorce

“Kashin HaGerushin” – divorce is really, really difficult (Sanhedrin 22a). We live in a society where divorce is treated almost casually, with a divorce rate in this country frequently estimated as afflicting approximately 50% of all marriages. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the rate of divorce has risen dramatically within our own communities. The fact that divorce is so plentiful, however, does not increase its allure. Divorces are lengthy, expensive, emotionally draining, and ultimately lonely.

The hardship of divorce is most pointedly evident in cases where there are children. Divorce both affects the children and ensures that the divorcing spouses will remain connected to each other whether they like it or not.

According to studies, children of divorce are more likely to suffer from depression, substance abuse, conduct disorders and to become divorced themselves. (see Robert Emery, The Truth About Children and Divorce (2004) at page 64.) While Emery argues that the effects on children can be controlled if the divorce is conducted in a healthy fashion (pages 67-68), the fact is that circumstances do not always allow for the optimal administration of a divorce, at least from the children's perspective.

Accordingly, Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, in their book, What About the Kids? Raising the Kids Before, During and After Divorce (2003) come to the conclusion that children are generally better off when parents remain in an unhappy marriage so long as the parents are able to perform their parenting tasks effectively (pages 130-131). Of course, as Emery astutely notes, there are cases where children's problems result in large part from the unhappy dynamic between the parents. In addition, there are cases such as domestic abuse, where no consideration can compete against the urgency of immediate divorce. However, as a general matter, the effects on children as well as on one's parenting relationship with their children, are considerations that must realistically play a role in a couple's decision of how hard and long to work on a difficult marriage, and whether and when to terminate a marriage that appears to be no longer viable.

Preventing Agunah Situations

As noted, one of the key components of the Jewish marital relationship is mutual respect. If Shalom Bayit is not possible, then as has been remarked, there should be “Shalom Get” – a peaceful resolution of the Get issue together with the divorce (in this respect it should also be noted that divorce mediation may be a preferable alternative to acrimonious divorce litigation). The private squabbles between divorcing spouses should never lead to a party refusing to grant or receive a Get when the marriage is clearly over. While it is a great mitzvah to save a marriage that can remain viable, it is a transgression to prolong a marriage against the other party's will when they clearly have concluded that the marriage is repugnant to them. See Rabbeinu Yona quoted in Shita Mekubetzet, Ketubot 64a; Rema, Yoreh Deah 228:20. It takes two people to make a marriage work; a marriage of only one willing participant is not a marriage, and it is inappropriate to hold another person hostage.

Shalom Bayit also includes creating an atmosphere of peace with security, where spouses feel protected that their partners have made a commitment not to use the Get as a weapon against them if the marriage does not work out. This sense of security can be achieved through parties signing an appropriate pre-nuptial agreement that protects against such a possibility, such as the Beth Din of America pre-nuptial agreement (available at http://ocweb.org/ ) that requires appearance before the Beth Din if there is a dispute concerning the Get issue, and creates a presumptive obligation for a husband to pay a specified amount of support each day following separation until a Get is given.

Promoting Viable Marriages

As Director of the Beth Din of America, which oversees the administration of over 300 divorce cases a year, I find these issues to have particular relevance. Our community would benefit from greater pre-marital education concerning both the process of finding one's spouse and the process of making a marriage work. We are told that without marriage, there can be no Shalom (Yevamot 62b). The attainment of Shalom Bayit, a blissful and permanent Jewish home, does not come without work, but Lefum Tz'ara Agra (Avot 5:23) – the happiness of the end product is commensurate to the amount of effort expended. Realistic expectations, recognition of personal responsibility and an understanding of the contours of true Shalom Bayit according to the Jewish tradition, will serve to maximize the happiness of the marital abode and ensure the preservation of both the concept and reality of bayit ne'eman be'yisrael.