This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Matches Made in Heaven*

I believe it was the sardonic 17th-century author Robert Burton who first coined the English adage that "matches are made in heaven." However the idea underlying that adage has enjoyed a much longer history in Jewish tradition.

The Talmud observed that forty days prior to conception, a divine voice is already declaring which mates are destined to be joined in conjugal life. This perception of a foreordained match is encapsulated in the Yiddish word "bashert."

The ancient Jewish sages were aware of the myth--familiar to many of us from Aristophanes' speech at Plato's Symposium--that men and women were originally a single androgynous being that was split into two, so that in seeking their ideal mates, they are really striving to reunite with the missing portions of their selves. This reciprocal aspect of a successful union was voiced in rather archaic terms by Ogden Nash when he mused "I believe a little incompatibility is the spice of life--particularly if he has income and she is pattable" (Feel free to switches the gender designations).

The preparation of a proper match is no easy matter, even for the Almighty. Rabbi Yohanan in the Talmud observed that the task ranks in its difficulty alongside the splitting of the Red Sea.

When a Roman matron asked Rabbi Yosé ben Halafta how God has been occupying himself since completing the creation of the universe (reflecting the widespread view among ancient philosophers that after setting the world in motion, the Creator withdrew from active involvement in the affairs of that world), the Jewish sage was quick to reply that God has his work cut out for him preparing suitable matches for his creatures.

The lady countered that this seemed a trivially simple task for an omnipotent deity, upon which Rabbi Yosé dared her to try her own hand at it. Taking up the challenge, the matron convened a mass wedding for the male and female slaves of her household.

However the honeymoons were cut short, since by the next day most of the newlyweds were bruised and bleeding. The matron was compelled to concede the wisdom of Rabbi Yosé's words!

The Talmudic traditions about destined matches came to be interpreted by Jewish thinkers in the light of the new theological ideas and social realities that arose in later generations.

Thus, the medieval mystics interpreted the matchmaking process from the perspective of their own distinctive doctrines. Some Kabbalists observed that a good shiddukh, like all other holy handiwork, is fashioned by means of permutations of the sacred letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This, explains Rabbenu Bahya bar Asher, is why the Torah decreed that a marriage can only be dissolved by means of a written document of divorce.

Other Kabbalists, including the author of the Zohar, depicted supernatural matchmaking in accordance with their belief in reincarnation: Thus, it sometimes happens that people's transgressions prevent them from finding their destined mate in their current lifetime, and the matter must be deferred to a subsequent existence.

The medieval Jewish philosophers were bothered by this implied suspension of free will. Maimonides addressed this weighty question in a responsum to Obadiah the Proselyte, insisting that the Rabbis' statements about preordained marriages should not be taken at face value, since they challenged the foundations of moral autonomy. Perhaps, Maimonides suggested, the Talmud meant only to say that God rewards or punishes people by yoking them to worthy or disagreeable mates.

Some ingenious twists on the belief in preordained matches are preserved in the Sefer Hasidim (The Book of the Pious), that remarkable collection of Jewish lore from twelfth-century Germany.

One passage in Sefer Hasidim tells of a bridegroom who was forced into an unwanted--but lucrative--union. In the course of the wedding ceremony he recited both the "Barukh dayyan ha-emet" blessing which is usually recited over a tragedy or bereavement, and "Barukh ha-tov veha-metiv," the blessing for good fortune! He justified his strange practice by citing the Talmudic traditions about the Almighty's role in the selection of his mate.

New heights of chutzpah are suggested in another passage from Sefer Hasidim, where an adulterer is said to have invoked the Talmudic traditions in order to justify his illicit liaison with a married woman: "If matches are made in Heaven," he deduced, "then it was God who made me do it!"

Needless to say, the Rabbi who discussed this argument was less than impressed by its cogency.

Notwithstanding such occasional misuses, the fundamental notion that God has a hand in the selection of a compatible union is hopefully to be regarded as an expression of the feelings of the couple, that an enduring marriage is such a remarkable achievement that it can hardly be credited to chance or human agency.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, February 20 1997, p. 16.