Jewish Marriage and Family in the Ancient World

Jewish law guided marriage, divorce, and child-rearing in the ancient world.

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The ultimate purpose of marriage was to carry out the com­mandment to procreate. The tannaim disagreed about the limits of this commandment, but the amoraim decided in favor of the Hillelite view that two children, one boy and one girl, satisfied the requirement for the man. This commandment, curiously, was not seen as obligatory on women.

Several halakhic [legal] and aggadic [narrative] passages are designed to inculcate an approach to the raising of children and their training in the commandments. Many of the beautiful stories preserved in the aggadah may have been intended for children, a role these tales still play in contemporary Jewish life. [Aggadah refers to sections in the Talmud and midrash that do not constitute Jewish law (halakhah), including, for example, stories, popular anecdotes and biblical expositions.]

To the amoraim, the concept of marriage was one of comple­tion. Through marriage each partner was to be fulfilled. Among the rabbis themselves, polygamy was virtually unknown. In­deed, the economic conditions of the times, including the process of urbanization, which was marked in this period, led increas­ingly toward monogamy.

Various talmudic and midrashic passages lead us to believe that the family unit was the basic context in which the continuity of Judaism was ensured. For example, the father is obligated to teach his son Torah; he can employ others to do this for him, but the responsibility remains his nonetheless. The mother was expected to teach her daughter about the laws of kashrut [concerning dietary laws]and the observance of family purity [involving abstinence from sexual intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period and related practices].

Children could expect to grow up in close proximity to grandparents and other members of the extended family, and to maintain permanent and harmonious relationships with their brothers and sisters. The family was the center from which all other aspects of community and peoplehood emanated.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.