Go Down a Level and Marry
I recently had an extended conversation with a group of TABC graduates about choosing a marriage partner. One alumnus cited an astounding Gemara (Yevamot 63a) that shockingly advises “go down a level and marry a woman.” Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. Nahit Darga) explains, “Do not marry a woman who is on a higher level than you, lest she may find you unacceptable.”
The talmid was very surprised to find the Gemara advising us to lower our standards when seeking a mate! He noted how much we emphasized in our TABC shiurim on Sefer Melachim the critical importance of choosing a proper mate. He recalled how we learned that Shlomo Hamelech, Achav, and Yehoram ben Yehoshafat married women (Bat Paroh, Izevel, and Atalia, respectively) who led to their husbands’ spiritual downfall. Accordingly, why does the Gemara encourage lowering standards for marriage partners?!
Marta Bat Beitus
I answered that the Gemara wants us to choose a high-quality spouse. However, it also wants us to have realistic expectations. Chazal wish us to avoid the uncompromising attitude of Marta Bat Beitus, unforgettably described by the Gemara (Gittin 56a) as a prime example of maintaining too high of a standard.
The Gemara relates that during an acute food shortage in Yerushalayim immediately preceding the Churban, one of the richest women in the city was named Marta, daughter of Beitus. Following her usual behavior pattern, she sent her servant to purchase some of the most refined flour. The servant went out and, though he searched high and low, could not find a crumb, so he reported to his mistress. He told her that there was no refined flour, but there was white flour. She then sent him to bring her some white flour. By the time he went, the white flour had sold out. He told her that there was no white flour, but there was dark flour. She sent him to bring her some dark flour. By the time he went, the dark flour had sold out. He told her that there was no dark flour, but there was barley flour. She sent him to bring her some barley flour. By the time he went, the barley flour had also sold out. In desperation, without even putting on her shoes, she went out to see if she could find anything to eat. She stepped in some dung and died of shock.
Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai’s High but Reasonable Standards
In sharp contrast with Marta bat Beitus, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai, at the brink of the Churban, sets a paradigm for good decision-making (Gittin 56b). Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai forges a path of high but realistic standards. When the Roman Emperor Vespasian grants Rabban Yochanan a wish, the latter asks that the Romans guarantee the safety of the scholars of Yavneh, where the new Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court) would be located.
Some are critical of Ben Zakai for not asking for the preservation of Jerusalem and the Beit Hamikdash and that the Jewish people should be given a “second chance” to prove their loyalty to Rome.
But the Talmud, in defense of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, explains his thinking, namely that events had gone too far for such a request to be honored.
Rabban Yochanan, the Gemara explains, sought a “hatzalah purta,” a sensible accomplishment, for if he were to attempt extraordinary attainment, he risks ending up with nothing. Rabban Yochanan teaches that sometimes we are better off choosing a very significant gain instead of betting more to pursue an unrealistic achievement.
Rabban Yochanan did not ask for something marginal or trivial. His was a big ask—for the Romans to facilitate the survival of the Jews by establishing a new center of Torah study in Yavneh. Ben Zakkai sought a significant gain but not an unrealistic advance. The contrast between Marta bat Beitus and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai is why the Gemara advises reducing a level when seeking a spouse. The Gemara does not recommend marrying just anyone or abandoning all standards. Instead, it merely wishes for us to reduce one level. In other words, I told the TABC graduates that the Gemara directs us to adjust from an impracticable goal to a more realistic one.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov famously teaches that “kol haolam kulo gesher tzar me’od,” that a central part of life involves striking delicate balances. Those choosing a spouse must find the narrow path where high standards are pursued but not too high of a bar. Rabbi Nachman concludes, “V’ha’ikar lo l’fached klal,” it is crucial to remain calm and trust that Hashem will help us achieve the appropriate equilibrium in our quest.
May Hashem grant all those seeking a spouse the wisdom to make healthy choices that will lead to a lifetime of happiness!
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.