Talmud pages

Kiddushin 41

Betrothal in absentia.

On today’s daf, we finish the first chapter of Tractate Kiddushin and jump right into chapter 2, which explores more issues related to betrothal, starting with an extended discussion of if and how one can use an agent in the process. The mishnah begins: 

A man can betroth by himself or by his agent. A woman can become betrothed by herself or by her agent. A man can betroth his daughter when she is a young woman, by himself or by his agent.

Seems pretty clear: Everyone involved in the process of betrothal can either show up and do it themselves, or send a designated agent to do it for them. 

But maybe it’s … too clear? The Gemara immediately asks why each statement needs two clauses, since obviously, if a person can use an agent in the process, then they can do it on their own! And since that’s obvious (at least to the rabbis of the Gemara), then why does the mishnah include extraneous information?

Rav Yosef says: There is a greater mitzvah by himself than by his agent. 

According to Rav Yosef, the mishnah begins by telling us that a man can affect his betrothal himself in order to tell us that this is actually the preferred route. It is better to perform this mitzvah yourself than to send someone else to do it on your behalf. 

The Gemara then offers examples of sages who did a mitzvah themselves rather than appoint someone else as their agent: 

Rav Safra would singe the head, and Rava would salt a turbot fish.

The medieval commentator Rashi explains that these are preparations for Shabbat. Where one might think that it would be beyond the dignity of a great rabbi to do his own cooking in honor of Shabbat, these two great sages made sure to be involved in the preparations of the family’s Shabbat meals rather than designate someone else to do it for them. 

In general, according to the rabbis, there is a value to doing a mitzvah yourself when possible. But the Talmud continues by noting that the issue is even more pressing when it comes to betrothal.

There are those who say: With regard to this, it also involves a prohibition, in accordance with that which Rav Yehuda says that Rav says.

Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: It is forbidden for a man to betroth a woman until he sees her, lest he see something repulsive in her, and she will become repugnant to him. And (that might lead him to violate what) the Merciful One says: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)

Interestingly, here Rav seems to contradict the mishnah by insisting that a man actually cannot betroth a woman through an agent at all. A marriage is supposed to include love and affection, and so a man must at least see the woman he is betrothing to make sure that those feelings are possible. 

The Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 35:1) and other early modern Jewish law codes split the difference, insisting that a man can use an agent to betroth a woman only if it is impossible to do so himself (because he lives too far away, for example). Just because it is possible to designate this task to an agent does not mean it is preferred, or a healthy start to a marriage.

Read all of Kiddushin 41 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 23rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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