Talmudic pages

Moed Katan 18

Matchmaker, matchmaker.

As we have seen, Moed Katan is primarily concerned with making sure that the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot are treated as special, while at the same time protecting those observing the holiday from measurable loss — financial and otherwise. The mishnah at the top of today’s daf illustrates this point by listing various documents that may be written on hol hamoed. These include documents for betrothing a bride, or kiddushei nashim

In the Gemara, Shmuel gives a reason for this allowance: 

It is permitted to betroth on the intermediate days of a festival, lest another betroth her first.

According to the Gemara, Shmuel allows betrothals on hol hamoed out of fear that someone else will sweep away the intended from the original suitor. The only problem is that teaching seems to be contradicted by another of Shmuel’s teachings. 

And did Shmuel say that perhaps another will come first? But didn’t Rav Yehuda say that Shmuel said: Every day a divine voice issues forth and says: The daughter of so-and-so (is destined to be the wife of) so-and-so? 

In other words, marriages are preordained by God. This idea is found elsewhere throughout rabbinic text. In Tractate Sotah (2a), which we’ll read in the Daf Yomi cycle a little over a year from now, we find this astonishing statement: 

Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: Forty days before an embryo is formed a divine voice issues forth and says: The daughter of so-and-so is (destined to marry) so-and-so.

In the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 68:4), we find the story of a Roman matron who asks Rabbi Yosei, In how many days did God create the world?” 

“In six,” he answered. 

“And since then,” she asked, “what has God been doing?” 

“Matching couples for marriage,” responded Rabbi Yosei. 

The story continues humorously, with the Roman matron declaring that she can do so easily by pairing up her servants, but then finds success elusive: “Her estate resembled a battlefield. One slave had his head bashed in, another had lost an eye, while a third hobbled because of a broken leg. No one seemed to want his or her assigned mate. Quickly, she summoned Rabbi Yosei and acknowledged: ‘Your God is unique, and your Torah is true, pleasing and praiseworthy. You spoke wisely.’”

As charming as these stories are, the idea that God predetermines who will marry whom raises an important theological question: Namely, what about free will? Don’t people have the ability to choose their partner? And if so, wouldn’t Shmuel’s first statement — that it’s possible if a person delays, their intended might get tired of waiting and choose a different mate — be more accurate? 

The Gemara resolves the contradiction in a creative way.

Rather, Shmuel’s statement should be understood as follows: Perhaps another will betroth her first by means of praying for divine mercy. 

In other words, Shmuel is worried that the rival may petition God to cancel the heavenly decree, and therefore the first suitor needs to hurry and conclude the betrothal before the rival has a chance to pray for their own success. The Gemara continues with a number of biblical prooftexts illustrating that God is the one who makes matches, even if the couple and others are unaware that God’s hand is pulling the strings. 

The colloquial name for soulmate in the Jewish lexicon is bashert, a Yiddish word meaning “destiny.” Is it destiny if we choose our own mate, or if — in the words of Fiddler on the Roof — the matchmaker finds the perfect match? Is God still working behind the scenes to put couples together even if we don’t have the benefit of hearing the divine voice ourselves? Can our prayers upend God’s plan when we have our heart set on a person whom we believe to be our soulmate? 

We may never know the answer to these questions, but at least we know that if the opportunity arises, we can get engaged on hol hamoed.

Read all of Moed Katan 18 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 30th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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