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At What Age Should One Marry in Our Times

Torah studies and acquiring a profession take longer, so how does this affect the obligation to get married by a certain age? What about postponing having a family after marriage?


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed


Replies to Last Week’s Column

Last week I commented on the slanderous accusations hurled at "the rabbis", who, it was claimed, in an attempt to promote their social agenda, allegedly invented an issur (prohibition) lacking any halakhic foundation against postponing marriage and pregnancy.

In order to refute this malicious slander against our rabbis, I quoted many sources showing that indeed our Chachamim (Sages) instructed that the mitzvah of puru u’revuru (procreation) requires a man to marry by the age of twenty, and no later than the age of twenty-four. The mitzvah is so crucial and binding that in principle Beit Din (the rabbinic court) is required to coerce one to marry, but in practice, it does not do so in order to avoid quarrels (Shulchan Aruch and Rama, E.H. 1:3).

If halakha requires one to get married in order to procreate, it goes without saying that it is forbidden for married couples to postpone the fulfillment of the mitzvah of puru u’revuru by preventing pregnancy. However, when there is a special problem, sometimes there is a heter (halakhic permission) to postpone the mitzvah. In order to clarify the halakha [in each case], rabbis are asked – it is not in order to strengthen the control of the "rabbinical establishment" over the lives of men and women, as some have falsely accused.

Last week’s column received numerous responses – some were in favor of its contents, others disagreed, and some were antagonistic.

Must One Compromise in Order to Marry on Time?

Some people asked: How can a young man be ordered to marry by a certain age? It depends on whether he finds a suitable partner!

Answer: Indeed, a man cannot be required to marry a woman he does not like. And another question arose: What should one do if he meets a young woman who really wants to marry him, and he finds her acceptable, but thinks he can find a more suitable partner. If he has already reached the age of twenty, is he permitted to wait longer in order to find a more suitable partner? I answered that although he had reached the required marriage age, he was not obligated to marry someone who he did not feel sure was suitable for him (see, Yafeh Le’Lev. Section 4, E.H. 1:13).

Determining a required age of marriage is designed to direct a person to the appropriate period in life to fulfill the mitzvah of marriage and procreation, for which the entire world was created.

Concerning the Question of Fulfilling this Halakha Today

We still have to deal with a major problem concerning this issue. Seemingly, after reaching the age of thirteen a young Jewish man becomes obligated in all the mitzvoth, nevertheless, our Sages said that a young man is obligated to marry at the age of eighteen, and not later than twenty. The reason is that before this time, he must prepare himself for the huge challenge of raising a family, specifically in two areas: first, learning the foundations of the Torah (Mishnah Avot 5:21; Kiddushin 29b; Y. D.246:3), and second – parnasa (earning a living). During the years in which the young men learned the fundamentals of Torah, they spent part of the day helping their father work, and in the process, learned the trade from which they were able to make a living, build a house, and save money to acquire means for a livelihood (Sotah 44a; Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 5:11).

Judging by this we are in an awkward position, because in recent times the world has changed drastically; life has become more complex, and preparations for the responsibility of starting a family take longer. In the past, a simple understanding of Tanach, mussar (morality), halakha and its reasoning was sufficient to start a Jewish home. It was enough to work with one’s father a few hours a day until the age of eighteen to acquire the professional knowhow to make a living, and even save some money for a wedding and building a house, which usually consisted of just one room.

But today, in order to cope with the challenges facing a person, one needs to learn much more Torah. To do so, the majority of young men must learn in a yeshiva framework for at least a year after the age of eighteen, and usually longer.

Another sacred duty rests upon young men – the task of protecting the Nation and the Land while serving in the army and the fulfillment of this mitzvah also causes them to postpone marriage. Similarly, obtaining a profession that suits one’s talents usually requires several years of academic studies, and follows military service. Perhaps gifted students who have the ability to become scientists should postpone getting married until after obtaining a doctoral degree, so they can advance in their profession for the benefit of their family, nation, and the entire world.

In addition, even the houses we are accustomed to live in are more expensive, because they are larger and equipped with water and electricity, and in order to purchase one, a person must work for several years.

The Dilemma and Conclusion

If marriage had to be put off until a person finished learning all the foundations of Torah, completed his academic studies, and purchased a home, the majority of young people would have to postpone their marriage until the age of thirty or forty.

Such a delay is impossible in practical terms, because even though the environment we live in has become more complex, complicated and challenging, man’s mental and physical nature has not changed, and the fitting time for him to get married is at an early age. As the years go by, a person loses a part of the vibrancy that is so crucial for the initial stages of marriage. Beyond this, there’s a limit to how long a person can force himself to live his life as half a person, without the true love that gives rise to life.

Therefore, taking into account the overall considerations and a comprehensive view of reality, on the one hand, it is necessary to delay the marriage age for a few years. On the other hand, it is crucial to limit this postponement. Indeed, we find in the words of Chazal that until the age of twenty-four a young man is still adaptable, and therefore our Sages instructed parents to make sure their children get married by this age (see, Kiddushin 30a, and the commentators).

We also find that some of the eminent poskim (Jewish law arbiters) instructed that even those who had to delay marriage, not postpone it beyond the age of twenty-four (Maharshal, Chida, and others).

Consequently, we can conclude that today halakha requires one to marry by the age twenty-four, and in pressing situations, and under certain conditions, one may delay marriage beyond that time.

Arguments against Postponing Marriage Age

Nevertheless, there are those who do not accept this decision. Some of them insist on claiming that we shouldn’t take into consideration the difficulties and challenges that modern life presents us, rather, we should continue demanding all young men get married before the age of twenty, as they did in previous generations.

We must reject their opinion, for we have already learned that our Sages instructed postponing marriage due to the needs of derech eretz, namely, so young men would be able to prepare themselves to support their families (Sotah 44a). Those who obligate young men to get married before the age of twenty decree a life of poverty on the majority of their followers, and prevent them from participating in yishuv olam (development of the world) using the talents with which God endowed them. In addition, many of them tend to deny the great Torah mitzvah of serving in the army to protect our People and its Land.

Those who Claim the Law is Void

Others argue that today, there should be no set age for marriage. They claim the age set by our Sages applied to a time when young men could study the fundamentals of the Torah, learn a profession, and build a house by the age of eighteen. Therefore, today as well, a person can postpone marriage until he has completed all of his preparations in Torah study, acquired a respectable profession, and purchased an average-sized apartment. There is apparently no prohibition to marry before completing this long process, but in contrast, there is also no obligation to get married beforehand. Consequently, the halakha concerning the age of marriage has disappeared from the world.

This position, however, is also unacceptable, because the principle that our Sages determined is that it is impossible to postpone the age of marriage indefinitely. And as Rosh (Rabbenu Asher) wrote in regards to the reason our Sages determined an age for the fulfillment of the Torah mitzvah: "It cannot possibly be that one be negligent in fulfilling the mitzvah of puru u’revuru all his life"(Kiddushin 1:42). Thus, the mitzvah does have a limit, that is until after the necessary preparations have been completed prior to marriage.

As the years pass, so does the proper time for joining in marriage, because the appropriate time emotionally for marriage is around the age of twenty, and the more time passes, the more one’s enthusiasm decreases, and it becomes harder to connect in the everlasting covenant of marriage. Therefore, young people who postpone getting married have difficulty finding their spouse, and many of them remain single for several, extremely long years. This is one of the main reasons for the disintegration of the family unit in the West. One might say that just as it is hard for twenty-five year old men to undergo basic training in a combat unit suited for eighteen-year-olds, so too is it difficult for twenty-five year olds to find their partners.

Maintaining the Principles and Objectives

We live in a changing world, and some of the guidance that was appropriate for previous generations, is less appropriate today. However, the principles have remained the same, just as man’s basic nature has not changed. Our job, therefore, is to refine the values and principles set by the Torah and clarified by our Sages, in accordance with the circumstances of our generation.

The principles are that the mitzvoth of marriage and procreation are among the most important commandments, as our Sages said: "But was not the world only made to be populated, as it says ‘He created it not a waste, He formed it to be inhabited" (Mishnah Gittin 41b).

Another principle is that this mitzvah has a limit, and it cannot be postponed indefinitely. Man’s biological and emotional nature also requires this.

Another principle is that a person should prepare responsibly prior to getting married.

And another important principle is that a person should participate in yishuv olam; just as our forefathers dug wells and established marketplaces in the past, so too, one should engage today in the development of industry, science, economy and society.

Therefore, it is possible to determine as halakha that until the age of twenty-four, which was the age until which one could defer getting married in a pressing situation in the past, is the age until which a person can postpone getting married l’chatchila (from the outset) today. However, if one is able to get married earlier without harming the important principles previously mentioned, may he be blessed.

This is not an easy challenge. In order to fulfill this joyful and wonderful mitzvah, young men should hasten to acquire a profession. To do this, they also should not prolong the years of study in yeshiva beyond what is necessary.

In many cases a husband can share the burden of making a living with his beloved and loving wife in order to complete his studies for a profession. Also, it is a mitzvah for parents and society to assist in providing optimal conditions for the building of young families.

With God’s help, I will deal with this issue in the future.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.
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