Jewish tradition varies widely in practice and purpose of courtship. In some communities it is common to marry quite young. However, many in the Jewish community are partnering and having children later life for a variety of reasons, and may take longer to date and find a partner. In Jewish tradition, I think of Rivkah and Yitzhak as the best example of love. Rivkah sees Yitzhak and literally falls off her camel in love with him.
Interestingly, the varieties of paths to partnership are as varied as the communities that Jews live in. Our community has always been influenced by the cycles of the other communities around us and the timelines for marriage have reflected that. There is no one right path or a right amount of time to date. In the end, Judaism recognizes that if two people are to truly become one, then it may take some time.
The lists for a partner’s attributes are easily just as varied. Values vary from person to person. Some want children – others do not. Some want stability of location – others would like to travel the world. Some want wealth – that is less important to others. There is no right or wrong answer. However, since Valentine’s Day is coming up, in the spirit of living in multiple civilizations I am happy to tell you what made my list and the Jewish values behind them:
A sweet soul – a yiddishe neshamah
Jewish - MOT
Wanted children – be fruitful and multiply
Caring - hesed
Wanted pets – taking care of the world around us
Attractive – heyn be’eneyha
Happy - simhah
Compassionate – rahamim
Ethical – mishpat
I am fortunate to say that I have been partnered for almost 7 years now. What I learned while dating Jen was that what mattered most was what my heart wanted. I was reminded of a teaching from the Talmud that reminds us: Lo ish belo ishah ve lo sheneyhem belo shehinah. Translated this verse means: No one person should be without a partner – and neither of them without God’s presence. In the end, we are not alone in our journey. Something is always left to the magic of the world around us.
However you get there, I wish you luck and joy in your journey. And may you find happiness under the huppah and a life of satisfaction with the person you partner with.
I often wish that there was a more up-to-date articulation of a Jewish dating ethic. There is no definitive Jewish answer to either of these questions, though among various sub-communities within the Jewish community one may find very strong opinions and traditions. The very notion of “dating” has different connotations in different communities. There are those who will only date when they are “of marriageable age” and will only date for the expressed purpose of finding a spouse. Others find much value in “casual” dating even if marriage is far from their mind. Though this modern idea of dating is not to be found in traditional Jewish sources, I do not think that this idea of dating is necessarily a bad thing. There is much that one can gain and learn about him/herself from “casual” dating, and about the traits one will ultimately look for in a spouse. I would draw the line on casual dating if there is no possibility of eventually marrying the other person. Thus any relationship that is forbidden by Halachah (Jewish law) should never be allowed even in a casual context.
The general rule is that one should date for as long as is necessary to decide that he/she is ready for marriage. The Halachah (Jewish law) rules that a man is not allowed to marry a woman without first seeing her, so that he can be sure that she is attractive to him. Similarly, a woman must agree before marriage can take place. Though addressing a very different social reality than ours, the principle remains true: according to Jewish law one is not allowed to marry someone without making sure they are compatible. I would extend the requirement of physical attraction to include all the character traits one looks for in a spouse – do they have similar values; similar goals and expectations of marriage and building a family; with this person as a mate will you be able to support yourselves and live a lifestyle that is comfortable and reasonable, etc. In our day and age it is also important to allow time to determine – to the best of one’s ability – if a potential mate is mentally and emotionally stable. There is no set amount of time that it takes to answer these questions for oneself, and thus there is no timeframe or official Jewish position on how long one should date.
There is, however, a preference that people not drag their feet and once they know that have found “the one” that they get married as soon as possible. This stems from enormous value that Judaism places on family and family life. Furthermore, Halachah prohibits pre-marital sex and any intimate contact between unmarried couples. For those who adhere to these laws, a prolonged period of dating can be difficult. Even couples who are more lax in these areas of Halachah still understand the high priority that Judaism places on marriage and family. Though not always healthy, there is often pressure from family, friends and community to get married.
To be sure, within very traditional communities – where there is limited interaction among the sexes—there may be regimented time frames and scripts for dating. The notion of arranged marriages or of working with a shadchan (matchmaker) still does exist, though usually not in the simplified way that we see it depicted in pop culture.
As far as the attributes one should look for in a spouse, the most important thing is to determine if the person is a good match for you. Things to consider include: do you share the same core values (such as commitment to social justice and charity, family, education); find the person attractive; are you able to work out your differences in a healthy and productive manner; do have fun together and enjoy each other’s company? To this important list, I would add from a Jewish perspective it is important that you see eye-to-eye on your involvement and commitment to the Jewish community, and your respective levels of religious observance. It is important to discuss your values and aspirations of Jewish education for yourselves and your children, and to determine if a potential spouse will help your own religious and spiritual growth.
When it comes to how long one should date before marriage (and perhaps, engagement), the quantity of time together is important, but the quality of time together may even be more important.Therefore, rather than discussing prescriptions for the length of time of dating, the tradition offers wisdom about the quality of that time together
The key Jewish concept to dating comes from the Talmud (Kiddushin 41a), when it advises that there should be consent before marriage.We must therefore ask: to what and to whom are we consenting?
The What:We are consenting to marriage itself.For Judaism, marriage is the foundational building block of family and society.Marriage perpetuates the family and humanity.In this way, marriage is the fulfillment of the first commandment: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28).
But marriage is so much more than that, isn’t it?Marriage is companionship and partnership.Our spouse is our loving friend – re’im ahuvim – with whom we share the most intimate parts of our life – our secrets, our flaws, our humor, our dreams, our sufferings, and the genuine gift of our personal truth.Life undoubtedly deals both the heights of joy and ecstasy as well as the pits of pain and loss.The Torah teaches, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), because the Torah understands that when we share these experiences and moments with a loving friend – someone who reflects you back to yourself – we are both able to grow more and cope better with anything we might encounter.
Our spouse is supposed to be an ezer k’negdo, a help that faces us and make us better and whole.
The Whom: The qualities you should look for are those of someone with whom you can consent to this partnership – someone who is a loving friend.A loving friend is someone whose personality and traits compliment yours. That is to say, he or she should affirm the best things about you and also help you to remember and strive to be the best version of yourself that you are.
Such a person must be 1) someone you trust; 2) someone who you respect and respects you; 3) someone you feel safe with; and 4) someone who values your spirit, spirituality, and your Judaism.
Judaism’s approach to marriage is one of fidelity, trust, and friendship.And for Judaism, love in marriage is something that grows and grows.In dating and marriage, we accept that we are incomplete, our souls are meant to cling to the soul of another in order to learn together, to confront life together, and to share in the holy task of making ourselves and the world a little better than how we found it.
Dating is a delicate and mysterious dance, wherein we must take enough time to be true to what it is we are seeing in ourselves and the other, and not waiting so long so that we don’t begin the most holy endeavor of the human experience.
If I knew the secret to dating, marriage and love, I would bottle it and sell it. Such would be the invention of the millenia! But, aslas, we are bound to what we have seen, what we have read, what we have dreamt and our own experience. Having said that, let me offer some perspective.
In some communities, there is a shadchan, a matchmaker, who allegedly has the expertise to match a man and a woman. Interestingly, these matches often work because the shadchan is aware of the families that both man and woman come from, the physical attributes of each partner and usually had an attuned instict as to what worked.
I doubt that most Jews today would agree to a shadchan.
So how do you know how long to date before marriage if there is no one to tell you what to do?
The biblical book Shir HaShirim exalts in the love between a man and a woman (although the Targum and Sages reinterpreted it to be a love poem between God and Israel) but there is only longing and physical attraction and love. There is no mention of how long the young people dated! But one thing is clear that can give a hint: the feeling of love that was as palpable and real as anything you could imagine is when you know you have found your bershert - you soul mate.
That, I suppose, is the way to know that you have found the right person and that that person completes your soul. And the truth is that each person has a bershert and an ezer kenegdo - a perfect match. In fact, our Sages teach us that after God created the world, God has busy getting the perfect couples to meet and marry.
So what should you look for in a perfect person? No one can answer that but you. And looking in a book for an answer about the perfect spouse is a waste of money. Read your heart. Listen to your values. Keep you eyes open. You will find love and love will find you. Never give up hope that your bershert is out there. It is.
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