This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Marriages of Convenience*

"Married Jewish male seeks company of Jewish single female for purposes of short-term marriage."

According to a report that appears in two places in the Talmud, the equivalent of the above personal advertisement was published by two distinguished third-century Babylonian rabbis, Rav and Rav Nahman, in the course of their travels.

The former, when journeying to Dardashir, and the latter when going to Shekhansib, would announce: "Who will be my wife for the day?" in order to arrange for temporary marriages that would be in force only for the duration of their sojourns.

From discussions that are preserved in the Talmud itself, we can sense that the ancient scholars and editors were not entirely comfortable with the conduct ascribed to these great sages. A serious concern was that the offspring of such unions, unaware of the identities of their absentee fathers, might inadvertently end up wedding their half-siblings.

In response to such potential problems, the Talmud was prepared to modify some of the details or implications in the accounts of Rav and Rav Nahman: One-day marriages were only permitted to prominent celebrities--i.e., rabbis--because we can presume that their children will proudly mention the identities of their distinguished fathers.

The Tamud even allowed for the possibility that the "marriages" in question were limited to platonic companionship, but did not involve physical contact. According to this view, the mere availability of a consort was enough to satisfy the emotional needs of the traveler, since "a person who has bread in his basket cannot be compared to one who has no bread in his basket."

This was still not enough to reassure the later commentators. Medieval moralists found it inappropriate that religious leaders, who should have been models of otherworldly spirituality, could not survive a few days on the road without attending to the pleasures of the flesh.

Modern scholars appear more concerned that the behaviour of the ancient rabbis might reflect poorly on the moral standards of Judaism.

Furthermore, the scenario of hiring a woman for a temporary liaison-- even if the relationship was sanctified with the full apparatus of a religious ceremony, marriage contract and eventual divorce--struck the commentators as disturbingly similar to more sordid types of sexual solicitation.

The sheer diversity of their explanations testifies to their desperate determination to justify the conduct of the talmudic rabbis.

There were some who argued (basing themselves on Rashi's innocuous use of the plural when referring to the "days" of the rabbis' sojourns) that the Talmud was not speaking of casual one-time encounters, but rather of arrangements where the rabbis would be returning to the towns with some frequency, and therefore wanted to maintain permanent domiciles.

After all, travel in those days, even for relatively short distances, was a prolonged affair that could easily keep a person away from home for months at a time.

The maintaining of families in multiple localities is still quite common today in polygamous cultures. I recall, for example, an Arab bookshop that I used to frequent in East Jerusalem, whose owner kept additional branches in Amman and Cairo, each of which was reputedly administered by a different wife.

Some commentators proposed that the rabbis' main objective in contracting short-term marriages was to give public affirmation to the centrality of that noble institution. According to this interpretation, many Jews in the remote frontiers of Babylonian settlement were not bothering with the formalities of halakhic weddings; and therefore the rabbis staged weddings for themselves with the explicit purpose of demonstrating to the yokels how indispensable a legal marriage is, even for an ostensibly temporary union.

A more elaborate rationalization for the temporary marriages was based on a story that is recounted elsewhere in the Talmud,(A.Z. 76b) about two Jews who were entertained by King Shapur of Persia. According to a tradition preserved by Rashi, the monarch honoured his guests by offering them women for the night.

Given the existence of such customs, it has been suggested that Rav and Rav Nahman arranged fictitious marriages for themselves in order to provide themselves with convenient excuses, should they be subjected to an embarrassing offer of that kind; as if to say: Sorry, Your Excellency, I would gladly accept your generosity, but my wife is in town with me.

Evidently, there is some historical truth to the premise that temporary marriages were a conventional feature of Persian culture in Babylonia.

Subsequent to the talmudic era, the institution of temporary marriage, known as mut'a, had a notoriously controversial history among Muslims. The Arabic term comes from a root meaning "pleasure," and might delicately be translated as "marriage of convenience."

An ambiguous verse in the Qur'an was understood to sanction mut'a, provided that the woman is provided with a respectable dowry. Though mainstream (Sunni) Islam withdrew its official approval of the practice by the ninth century, it is still accepted by the Shi'ites, who introduced, many Persian elements into the Muslim religion. In fact, the issue of mut'a marriage is arguably the most persistent and definitive dispute between the two sects.

Echoes of this controversy can be discerned in Jewish writings emanating from Islamic lands. For example, Sa'adia Ga'on's Arabic translation of the Bible employs a cognate of mut'a to render the Hebrew qedeshah (Deuteronomy 23:18), usually translated as "harlot."

While discussing adultery his Arabic commentary on the Decalogue, Sa'adia explicitly designates mut'a marriage as a form of illicit relationship, though of relatively minor severity.

Sa'adia proceeds to characterize Judah's liaison with Tamar as an instance of a mut'a arrangement, though it was legitimized by a marriage contract, legal witnesses and a formal betrothal.

When compared to the conventional reading of the story, in which Tamar disguises herself as a roadside pick-up, Sa'adia's interpretation has the advantage of giving a slightly more respectable status to the tryst, which produced the dynasty of King David and the Messiah.

A similar interpretation had been proposed by the ninth-century Karaite scholar Daniel al-Kumisi, who distinguished between two modes of qedeshah. The first of these consists of merely hiring a woman for a fixed period of time, without any commitments or contractual obligations. "This is what they do in India, and they regard it as marriage."

The second type of qedeshah relationship is a temporary marriage that is regulated by law. This is the relationship that Judah had with Tamar, and it might have been deemed acceptable in the days before the giving of the Torah.

"This is what the Muslims do sometimes," writes al-Kumisi, "and they call them 'marriages of convenience' [mut'a]."

By classifying temporary marriages as illicit relationships that are subject to the Torah's disapproval, Sa'adia may also have been trying to discourage Jews who would otherwise have been tempted to adopt the gentile society's tolerance of the institution (especially it it seemed to be practiced by rabbis in the Talmud).

The Muslim version of the temporary marriage could be terminated without a formal divorce. The Jewish religious leaders were undoubtedly concerned that, if Jews would start emulating the Islamic model, they might also dispense with the need for a get, and thereby allow the women to remarry into unions that were adulterous according to Jewish law, and whose offspring would be stigmatized with the grave consequences of illegitimacy.

If their intention was to eradicate temporary marriages among Jews, then they succeeded fully; so much so that the Talmud's stories of Rav and Rav Nahman strike us now as bizarre and incomprehensible incidents from a far-off past.

Indeed, the conceptual chasm that separates us from those ancient practices illustrates some of the complex changes that marriage has undergone over the ages. Attitudes towards marriage have been affected by numerous factors, including not only religious teachings, but also changing moral sensibilities about family and sexuality, receptiveness to foreign cultures; not to mention the advances in transportation that speed the traveler's return home.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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