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Beit Midrash Series Other Great Leaders

That a Cohen May Not Marry a Divorcee

A few days later, a royal emissary of the Empress Maria Teresa appeared at the rabbi’s home. The surprised rabbi realized that the wealthy Jew had broken the convention by which Jews did not involve non-Jews in their inner disputes. He had no choice.
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There is a prohibitive commandment that forbids a Cohen from marrying a divorced woman, as it is written, "They shall not take a woman divorced from her husband" (Leviticus 21).

This was not just another one of the typical disputes between the Prague’s Maskilim ("enlightened") and the local rabbi, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, the "Nodah Biyhudah." Bitter arguments were constantly arising between the Maskilim, who sought some way to lighten the yoke of the Torah and its commandments while maintaining the sense that they were nonetheless Torah-observant Jews, and the illustrious rabbi, who stood constantly at the dam in order to stop up any leaks in the wall of Torah law.

However, this time there was something different in the air. The argument related to a matter that was especially personal to one of the city’s prominent and wealthy residents, and it was clear that he had no intention of being flexible in this case. His only son had become engaged to a prestigious and well-to-do woman with excellent character traits. The match had not been easy to arrange, and only became possible after much effort.

There was, however, one problem. The bride was a divorcee, and because the groom was a Cohen, Jewish law forbade them from marrying. The rabbi, of course, would by no means permit such a marriage, seeing as it violated Torah law, and all attempts to convince him to conduct the marriage were unsuccessful. After a long argument, the rich man got up, furious, and shouted at the rabbi, "You will see that despite your stubbornness you will have no choice but to conduct my son’s marriage!"

A few days later, a royal emissary of the Empress Maria Teresa appeared at the rabbi’s home. The surprised rabbi realized that the wealthy Jew had broken the convention by which Jews did not involve non-Jews in their inner disputes. He had requested that the empress force the old-fashioned rabbi to marry the couple.

The rabbi was left with no choice, and he told the messenger that he would certainly fulfill the request of the empress. The elation of the enlightened Jews could be heard from afar. Wedding preparations went into high gear. The Maskilim rejoiced at the fact that the rabbi had given in to their demands and their hearts overflowed with a sense of victory. There was not a single person who did not lend a hand in the many preparations.

The rabbi’s many disciples, on the other hand, were furious at the insolence of the wealthy Jew, both at his outright disregard for the Torah’s commandments and at the disrespect he showed the rabbi by forcing him to take part in this disgraceful act. However, the rabbi did not allow them to take any action. To the contrary, his indifference was so great that it appeared as if the matter did not relate to him at all.

A great crowd gathered for the occasion. News of the wedding in which the greatest Torah scholar of the generation would marry a Cohen and a divorcee spread, and many "enlightened" Jews in the area came to see the event with their own eyes. There was complete silence when the rabbi took out the ring and gave it to the groom. As customary, the rabbi led the groom word by word, "Behold, you are betrothed to me with this ring according to the law of…Empress Maria Teresa."

A whisper of shock passed through the crowd, and then the rabbi said, "What is everybody so surprised about? After all, according to the Law of Moses and Israel there is no possibility whatsoever for this couple to marry; rather, Maria Teresa is she who has given this couple the ability to marry. This being the case, they are married according to the law of Empress Maria Teresa, certainly not according to the Law of Moses and Israel.
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