Matchmaker (right) with a customer in front of “Elyoshkevitsh’s Fancy Goods,” Kaunas, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

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The institution of marriage in East European Jewish society remained largely traditional until the early twentieth century but also reflected broader transformations in general society. In the absence of civil marriage in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and later in tsarist Russia, marriage belonged to the competence of the rabbi, who supervised wedding ceremonies and adjudicated divorce according to Jewish law. In contrast, following the Polish Partitions, the Habsburg Empire maintained an ambiguous separation of church and state in matters of family law. While the new marriage edict (16 January 1783) mandated civil unions and a German exam for all married couples, it allowed clergy to regulate divorces based on their own confessional laws. In the case of Jews, the rabbinic court upheld the requirement of a formal get (writ of divorce) even in cases involving male converts to Christianity. Despite the extension of the Toleranzpatent to Galicia in 1789, the majority of Jews evaded civil marriages and maintained traditional religious ceremonies for many decades thereafter.

Marriage was understood as an (economic) alliance between families and was under strict parental control. In the premodern period, anyone who contracted a marriage without the knowledge of a father faced severe punishment. Matchmaking was facilitated by a shadkhn (marriage broker), who maintained a network of potential mates. As early as the sixteenth century, the matchmaking profession began losing its prestige as unscrupulous brokers began replacing respected scholars and rabbis. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, communal ordinances regulated the shadkhn’s fees depending on the geographic distance between parties, disputes involving multiple brokers, and broken engagements. In the nineteenth century, the devious shadkhn became a target of the Haskalah, which denounced his powers of exaggeration, the parasitical nature of the occupation, and treatment of marriage as a business transaction. With the rise of a new culture that valorized affective ties in the mid-nineteenth century, parents sought to cushion the shock of marrying a stranger by allowing limited courtship through letter writing and short chaperoned meetings. Increasingly, prospective brides and grooms began to temper, if not abrogate, the parentally arranged marriage. Self-made matches became more common, though not widespread, and some even resorted to personal advertisements in newspapers.

The criteria for choosing a spouse underwent a gradual transformation over the centuries. Traditionally, families had weighed four major factors: yikhes (lineage); male learning (Torah studies); family wealth; and a female’s commercial talents, ability to run a household, and personal morality. During the early modern period, families of distinguished lineage, learning, and wealth formed strong marital alliances in order to maintain hegemony over the communal and religious institutions that governed Jewish life. Although Jews still relied on traditional criteria for matchmaking, they also began weighing other considerations starting in the mid-nineteenth century. Medical warnings about genetic disorders made some families wary of close endogamous unions based on yikhes. In Russia, some sought matches with individuals who had a university degree, which promised residence outside the Pale of Settlement. Families also began paying more attention to an individual’s loyalty to Judaism in response to acculturation and assimilation, especially in urban centers.

A youthful marital age characterized Jewish marriages in Eastern Europe until the late nineteenth century. Child marriages—that is, of boys under 16 and girls under 13—were rare and limited to scholarly elites. The infamous episodes of nisu’e behalah (panic marriages) in 1827 and 1835, triggered by rumors of state plans to raise the minimum age of marriage, were exceptional. Nevertheless, there was strong criticism as early as the eighteenth century from both maskilim and non-Jewish society that Jews married off their children too early. For instance, Abraham Hirszowicz, who served King Stanisław Augustus, argued that early marriages resulted in separations, divorces, and abandonment because young couples depended on their parents for economic support without proper education or training in a profession. During the Four-Year Sejm (1788–1791), the deputation for Jewish reforms proposed that rabbis not allow Jews to marry until the couples had at least 2,000 zlotys in cash or a steady income. There was even an unsuccessful attempt at the Sejm of 1744 to adopt legislation restricting Jews from contracting a marriage until they were at least 30 years old (unless they paid an enormous fee) as a way to reduce their numbers. A minimum age requirement for Jewish marriages was set under Nicholas I in 1835 (16 for women and 18 for men).

In general, the majority of Jews married at a relatively youthful age (late teens) for several reasons: to allow young men to fulfill the commandment of procreation, to direct sexuality into legitimate channels, and to offset low life expectancy and high infant mortality rates. The latter decades of the nineteenth century witnessed a significant rise in the marital age, as in the general population. In 1867, for example, 43 percent of Jewish grooms and 60.8 percent of Jewish brides were under the age of 21 in the Russian Empire; by 1897, however, only 5.8 percent of grooms and 25 percent of brides were under 21. This rise in age at first marriage was due to campaigns against adolescent marriages by maskilim who were bitter about their lost youth; the Orthodox establishment’s acceptance of medical arguments about the harmful impact of early marriages on sexual health; the postponement of marriage by university students; and, finally, declining economic opportunities and growing impoverishment.

Marriage customs, especially the wedding ceremony, remained largely unchanged—even amid the transformations in matchmaking and criteria for selecting mates. Jewish folkways in Eastern Europe were highly heterogeneous, reflecting local customs, but they did share some basic features, rooted in centuries of tradition and reinforced by interregional marriages. Predictably, the prenuptial agreements, which included the nadn (dowry) and kest (the obligation of the bride or groom’s parents to support the new couple for a specified period), represented a continuous source of conflict. Pressure on the bride’s family to inflate dowries or to lengthen the period of kest to attract the best suitor encouraged misrepresentation and sometimes fraud—a common theme in maskilic autobiographies. To assist poor families, a special communal association, hakhnoses-kale, provided dowries to enable the marriage of “poor brides.” The prenuptial agreements and betrothal were formalized in tena’im, a written document that stipulated the precise terms of the marriage.

The ideal marriage was one in which sholem bayes (peace in the home) reigned supreme. While affect was not absent in traditional unions, Jews emulated a distinct transition toward the companionate marriage based on love and mutual respect in the nineteenth century. The Haskalah promoted not only emotional and intellectual compatibility but new bourgeois gender roles that would “productivize” men and remove women from the marketplace. Maskilim such as Yeḥezkel Kotik were especially critical of Hasidic husbands who left their impoverished wives and children to fend for themselves while they “led a happy, joyful life, eating and drinking their fill, dancing and singing in the company of their fellow Hasidim” and the rebbe. For the Misnagdim, the obligation to study Torah, which often led young scholars to distant yeshivas, also competed with marital and family duties.

Marriage could be dissolved only through death or a formal divorce. In the nineteenth century, Jews had one of the highest divorce rates in the Russian Empire. Although data on such rates in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth are not available, evidence in rabbinic and memoir literature suggests that relatively high rates of divorce antedated the Polish Partitions. The earliest data from Vilna reveals an astronomical rate of 841.8 divorces per 1,000 marriages in 1837. The most common reasons listed for marital dissolution in the metrical books were family finances (lack of a livelihood), mutual hatred, conflicts with stepchildren and in-laws, childlessness, illness (including insanity), a depraved lifestyle, domestic violence, and conversion. Divorce rates among Jews declined by the late nineteenth century due to economic, legal (i.e., problems of residence rights, alimony, and child support), and social impediments (i.e., growing social stigma) that prevented a formal divorce. To avoid such issues, some resorted to bigamy or abandonment, which created the plight of the ‘agunah—an anchored woman who was bound in marriage to a husband with whom she no longer lived but had not been formally released from the union.

In general, Jewish society encouraged remarriage after the death of a spouse or a divorce; however, there was a significant gender discrepancy in remarriage patterns. The 1897 census showed the number of widows (155,729) was several times that of widowers (44,969), which may have partly reflected different life expectancies, but divorced women (12,589) also outnumbered divorced men (3,975).

Jewish marital patterns in interwar Poland and Lithuania reveal several significant transformations. Between 1921 and 1931, it became increasingly common for Jews to marry in their thirties rather than in their late teens. For men, the principal reasons for postponing marriage were economic and cultural (with the lowest number of teenage marriages in the areas of former Prussian Germany). The percentage of unmarried Jews was exceedingly low compared to other segments of the population (i.e., in 1921, it was 1.6% of Jewish men in Warsaw and 1.1% of Jewish women, compared to 6.0% of Roman Catholic men and 10.1% of Roman Catholic women). In other words, the traditional pattern of universal marriage was still the norm, albeit at an older age. On the eve of the Holocaust, intermarriage rates remained extremely low in Poland and Lithuania while they rose in urban centers in the Soviet Union.

Marriage as an institution inevitably reflected the broader transformations that took place in Jewish society more generally. The inroads of modernity, as well as new political and socioeconomic realities, began to generate new expectations about marriage, significant demographic shifts in marital age, and challenges to normative gender relations. At the same time, many rituals and customs remained unchanged, reflecting the tenacity of religious and cultural traditions.

Suggested Reading

David Biale, “Eros and Enlightenment: Love against Marriage in the East European Jewish Enlightenment,” Polin 1 (1986): 49–67; Immanuel Etkes, “Marriage and Torah Study among the Lomdim in Lithuania in the Nineteenth Century,” in The Jewish Family: Metaphor and Memory, ed. David Kraemer, pp. 153–178 (New York, 1989); ChaeRan Freeze, Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia (Hanover, N.H., 2002); Jacob Goldberg, “Nisu’e ha-yehudim be-Polin ha-yeshanah be-da‘at ha-kahal shel tekufat ha-haskalah,” Gal-Ed 4–5 (1978): 25–34; Israel Halpern, “Nisu’e behalah be-Mizraḥ Eropah,” Tsiyon 27 (1962): 36–58; Jacob Katz, “Nisu’im ve-ḥaye ishut be-motsa’e yeme ha-benaim,” Tsiyon 10 (1944–1945): 22–54; Steven Lowenstein, “Ashkenazic Jewry and the European Marriage Pattern: A Preliminary Survey of Jewish Marriage Age,” Jewish History 8.1–2 (1994): 155–175; Shaul Stampfer, “Ha-Mashma‘ut ha-ḥevratit shel nisu’e-boser be-Mizraḥ Eropah,” in Kovets meḥkarim ‘al yehude Polin, ed. Ezra Mendelsohn and Chone Shmeruk (Jerusalem, 1987); Shaul Stampfer, “Remarriage among Jews and Christians in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe,” Jewish History 3.2 (Fall 1988): 85–114; Shaul Stampfer, “Marital Patterns in Interwar Poland,” in The Jews in Poland between Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman, Ezra Mendelsohn, Jehuda Reinharz, and Chone Shmeruk, pp. 173–197 (Hanover, N.H., 1989); Elimelech Westreich, “The Ban on Polygamy in Polish Rabbinic Thought,” Polin 10 (1997): 66–84.