May 19, 2024
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Do Husbands Own Their Wives?

A common misconception about Judaism is that in the wedding, a husband acquires his wife and subsequently owns her. This is generally an idea accepted by people with significant Jewish education, and for a good reason. The first Mishnah in Kiddushin states that a woman is acquired by her husband in any of three ways. Clearly, it would seem, a woman is her husband’s property. However, this is incorrect and a number of prominent authorities—in contexts far from polemics and apologetics—disprove this theory.

The Netziv, R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (d. 1893), wrote a responsum on this subject to a rabbi who had concluded that husbands do, in fact, own their wives (Meishiv Davar 4:35). The Netziv emphatically denies this status. He points to two sources that might imply an ownership relationship and explains them differently.

I. Ownership

The Torah (Deut. 22:13) describes marriage as a man taking a woman (ki yikach ish ishah). The language of taking seems to imply acquisition and ownership.

Only a kohen may eat from the terumah portion of food, which other Jews give to kohanim. The Torah (Lev. 22:11) states that anyone owned by or born to a kohen may also eat from that food. The Sages infer that a kohen‘s wife may eat terumah from the ownership clause (kinyan kaspo), implying that a kohen owns his wife.

II. Independence

However, the Netziv proves that a man does not own his wife like he owns slaves with a somewhat complex deduction. The Sages decreed that a woman’s wages belong to her husband unless they reach a contrary arrangement, and in exchange a husband is obligated to support his wife (Kesubos 58b). They enacted this to simplify household finances and protect marital harmony. However, because family situations vary, the Sages provided women an opt-out ability. Women can declare themselves financially independent, thereby keeping their own wages and freeing their husbands from the obligation to support them.

The Netziv argues that this rabbinic enactment would be unnecessary and the opt-out ability impossible if a husband owns his wife. A slave’s earnings also belong to his master but that is a function of ownership, not a rabbinic enactment. The fact that a wife’s earnings do not automatically flow to her husband prove that she is independent, not owned by her husband. A woman’s status is in direct contrast to a slave, who is truly owned by his master.

III. Exclusivity

However, the Netziv believes that a husband owns a specific right to his wife. To explain this, let me take a brief detour that the Netziv does not explain. There are two stages to a Jewish wedding—betrothal (Eirusin or Kiddushin) and marriage (Nissu’in). The first stage is establishing a unique relationship between the man and woman, so that no other man may marry her. A betrothed woman must receive a get to remarry but is not yet allowed to live with her husband. The second stage is when husband and wife live together as a married couple.

The Netziv explains that the wedding includes a husband acquiring the exclusive rights to sleep with his wife. Before then, no man is allowed to sleep with her. After that point, she is allowed to sleep with him but no other man (absent a divorce). This is an acquisition but not of the woman in totality, who remains independent, just in the rights to marital relations. In theory, a woman should also acquire such rights in her husband but, by strict Torah law, she cannot because a man is allowed to have multiple wives (later forbidden by rabbinic fiat). Instead, the Netziv points out, a man is biblically obligated to sleep with his wife (Ex. 21:10), a mitzvah called onah.

This is a highly unromantic view of a marriage. It describes the underlying mechanics, the theory of a wedding and not the emotions. A marriage is a joining of two individuals into a union. Exactly how that union is accomplished legally, the technical workings of the marriage, is beside the point.

IV. Acquiring

A debate ensues among later authorities about which part of the wedding consists of a husband acquiring this right. R. Yitzchak Rabinowitz (d. 1919), also known as R. Itzeleh Ponovizher, argues that the Eirusin is the mechanical part of the wedding (Me-Chiddushei Ha-Gryy”r,Kiddushin, no. 1). At that point, a wife is forbidden to all other men even though the couple is only betrothed and not fully married. This would also explain the Mishnah’s language of three methods of acquisition in describing Eirusin—at that point, the husband acquires the sole right to be with the wife.

However, R. Yoav Weingarten (d. 1922) argues that Nissu’in, which historically was performed up to a year after the husband gave the wedding ring to his wife, is the point at which the husband acquires these rights. He points out that the Torah states it almost explicitly. In the context of exempting a recently married man from military service, the Torah (Deut. 20:7) says, “Who is the man who betrothed a woman but did not take her?” Apparently, taking her, the acquisition, is only a function of the second stage of a wedding.

Regardless of which of these two is correct, all three of the above scholars argue that a woman is not the property of her husband. She is a free and independent individual. However, by marrying, she gives up her right to potentially sleep with other men. In practice, a man also gives up that right but only according to rabbinic law, and therefore through a different mechanism.

By Rabbi Gil Student

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