“Are Marriages Made in Heaven?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we read of the death and burial of Sarah, and of Abraham’s concern in his old age about finding a proper mate for his beloved son, Isaac.

It is in parashat Chayei Sarah that Abraham instructs his Damascan servant, Eliezer, to return to Abraham’s homeland and to his kindred, to Aram Naharaim, to the city of Nahor, to take a wife for Isaac. In the city of Nahor, Eliezer encounters the beautiful Rebecca, who agrees to give him water and offers to water his camels as well. Having fulfilled the omen that would determine the proper mate, Eliezer was convinced that this was indeed the right woman for his master’s son.

After relating the details of his improbable encounter to Rebecca’s family, Eliezer asks whether Laban and Bethuel, Rebecca’s brother and father, will allow Rebecca to return to Canaan to marry Abraham’s son.

Scripture, in Genesis 24:50, relates, וַיַּעַן לָבָן וּבְתוּאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ, מֵהשׁם יָצָא הַדָּבָר, לֹא נוּכַל דַּבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ, רַע אוֹ טוֹב, Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, “The matter stemmed from the L-rd! We can say to you, neither bad nor good.” They then confirm that Eliezer may take Rebecca to Canaan to be a wife to his master’s son, as G-d has spoken.

This particular episode may very well be the original source of the popular expression, “a match made in heaven.”

There seems to be much support in Jewish tradition for the concept that matches are indeed made in heaven. In fact, the Talmud in Moed Katan 18b cites three verses, one each from the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, to confirm that marriages are the handiwork of the Al-mighty. The verse cited from the Torah is the just-cited verse of Genesis 24:50, where Laban and Bethuel say that the matter stems from the L-rd. The verse from the Prophets, found in Judges 14:4, regarding Samson’s choice of Delilah as his wife, states that Samson’s father and mother knew not that it [the match with Delilah] was of the L-rd. The verse cited in Proverbs 19:14 proclaims that, “House and riches are the inheritance of fathers, but the prudent wife is of the L-rd.”

Many additional traditional sources may be brought to support the claim that marriage is Divinely directed. The well-known Talmudic citation in Sotah 2a states that, forty days before the creation of a child, a heavenly voice issues forth and proclaims, “The daughter of so and so shall marry so and so.”

Rabbi Yaakov Filber, in his truly insightful writings on the weekly Torah portion, entitled Chemdat Yamim, deals extensively with the issue of marriages being preordained. Rabbi Filber asks, if indeed a heavenly voice proclaims that a particular man shall marry a particular woman, and that, as Laban and Bethuel said, “the matter stems from the L-rd,” then what was the point of Abraham warning Eliezer not to take a woman of Canaan for his son Isaac? After all, the match was already a fait accompli. And what do we make of Eliezer’s warning to Laban and Bethuel, that if they refuse to allow Rebecca to go back to Canaan with him, Genesis 24:49, “Tell me, and I will turn to the right or to the left and leave.”

In his comprehensive analysis of the issue, Rabbi Filber cites a host of alternate sources that seem to indicate that marriages are not made in heaven. After all, the rabbis in the Talmud, Baba Batra 109b, advise that a person should always try to associate (for marriage purposes) with good people. Moses ultimately married the daughter of Jethro (an idolatrous priest of Midian), and begot a rebellious grandson, Jonathan. On the other hand, Aaron married the daughter of the righteous Aminadav, and had a most worthy grandson by the name of Pinchas.

The Talmud, in Baba Batra 110a, also recommends that he who takes a wife should inquire about the character of the bride’s brother, to see what kind of children he will have. The Talmud, in Pesachim 49b, advises that a person should sell all that he owns in order to marry the daughter of a scholar. If one does not marry the daughter of a scholar, the rabbis proceed to list the most desirable families in descending order. 1. The daughter of the great men of the generation (the civil communal leaders). 2. The daughter of the heads of synagogues. 3. The charity treasurer’s daughter. 4. The daughter of an elementary school teacher. What is the point of these recommendations, if Heaven has already decreed who one should marry?

Interestingly, Rabbi Filber cites a Tosefta in Sotah 5, where Rabbi Meir warns that anyone who marries an improper woman violates five Torah violations: not being vengeful, not bearing a grudge, not hating your brother, loving your neighbor as thyself and the requirement to strive to live with your brother in peace. The rabbis even claim that one who marries an improper woman will most likely also violate the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, because he will eventually refrain from being with his wife. If Heaven has already decreed that he should marry this woman, how then can he be responsible for violating these Torah commandments? And if he does marry the right woman, then why does the Talmud suggest that such a person will be rewarded by being kissed by Elijah the Prophet, and that G-d will love him?

Rabbi Filber cites the Shee’bohlei Ha’leket (authored by Rabbi Tzidkiyahu ben Abraham 13c.), who carefully notes that the Talmud states that the voice from Heaven announces, but does not decree, that this woman shall marry this man. It is only a heavenly announcement, not a decree. The ultimate decision regarding whether to marry a particular woman or not, or whether to marry a particular man or not, is in the hands of the individual man or woman, the prospective bride and groom. Otherwise, there would be no free will.

Heaven did not prevent Rebecca from choosing her own soulmate, and heaven could not prevent Samson from marrying the mate of his choosing. Rabbi Filber argues that an announcement from Heaven does not compel a person to fulfill that pronouncement. The pronouncement merely indicates that the Al-mighty seeks to aid the person to find the proper mate. But the final decision is always in the hands of the individual.

Rabbi Filber cites Maimonides, who argues in his introduction to Avot, Sh’moneh Prakim chapter 8, that G-d cannot command one to perform a mitzvah.

The Ya’avetz, Rabbi Jacob Emden, explains Maimonides’ statement by clarifying that even a Divine decree is never permanent, and cannot override a person’s free will. Rather, a Divine decree is much like a suggestion, indicating that if that path is chosen, it will be propitious, and if not, it may result in suffering.

Citing a version of the rabbinic statement, in Moed Katan 18b, that every single day a voice goes out from Heaven and announces that this woman will marry that man, Rabbi Filber even suggests that a person’s status changes each day, confirming free will, and that matches are made according to each person’s status at that particular time.

In his analysis, Rabbi Filber concludes that one always has free will, and the ability to choose one’s own destiny is absolute.

May you be blessed.