June 21, 2024
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Fathers-in-Law

There is a deep lesson in the fact that there is no English equivalent of the word mechutanim. Mechutanim are the parents of your son- or daughter-in-law (mechutan is the male part of the mechutanim). When your child marries, you gain not only a son or daughter but also a set of corresponding parents who become your mechutanim, as the two families join together. I believe that the lack of an English equivalent reflects the difference between the Jewish view of marriage and Western society’s vision of a couple starting out new, leaving behind the past. To Jews, marriage is a joining of families. To Western society in general, marriage is a joining of two individuals into a couple. However, mechutanim is not a biblical word. Nor does it appear in the Talmud. I do not believe it existed in the time of Rashi and Rambam. The first I have seen of the term is in the 16th century, in an Egyptian responsum of the Radbaz, as we shall see shortly. The word seems to have gained usage sometime between the years 1200 and 1500 (Rambam died in 1204 and Radbaz was born roughly in 1480).

A significant discussion of mechutanim revolves around the roles of witnesses and judges. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 28b) says: “The father of the groom and the father of the bride can testify about each other. They are considered to each other only like a lid on a barrel.” Note that the Talmud does not have a term for mechutanim and instead uses the lengthy terms of “father of the groom, avi chatan” and “father of the bride,” avi kallah.” When explaining these terms, Rashi describes Reuven’s son who marries Shimon’s daughter, without invoking the term mechutanim. The Gemara says that mechutanim are not joined into a single unit, like different parts of a utensil, but rather like a lid to a pot. They are related but not connected. Therefore, they can serve as witnesses for each other. If they literally became close family, they would not be allowed to testify about each other.

Judging a Mechutan

There is a general rule that for someone for whom you cannot testify, you also cannot serve as a judge on a case involving him. However, there are exceptions to this rule. A gloss to the Mordechai (Sanhedrin, end of no. 721) quotes a responsum of an unnamed gaon who rules that even though mechutanim can serve as witnesses for each other, they cannot serve as judges. Even if one mechutan serves in a formally appointed position as judge, a litigant against the judge’s mechutan can invalidate the judge for this case because of their relationship.

Rav Yosef Kolon (Maharik; 15th cen., Italy; Responsa, no. 21) addresses the issue of a rabbi serving as a judge on a case in which his mechutan is one of the litigants. Maharik quotes Rambam’s Mishna commentary to Niddah (6:5). The Mishna (Niddah 6:5) says that there are some people who may testify about each other but may not serve as judges for each other. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 29a) says that one exception the Mishna has in mind is someone blind in one eye. Rambam asks why the Mishna does not also have in mind two people who love or hate each other, who also may testify but may not judge each other. Rambam explains that the Mishna omits these exceptions because these strong feelings of affection or the opposite often change quickly. Maharik notes that Rambam does not ask why the Mishna does not have mechutanim in mind. It must be, argues Maharik, that mechutanim are not an exception. Rather, they both may testify and may judge each other. (Neither Rashi, Rambam nor Maharik use the term mechutanim.)

Significantly, Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema; 16th cen., Poland; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 33:6) rules like the Gaon that mechutanim should not serve as judges for each other. However, taking into account Maharik’s leniency, after the fact (bedieved) such a judgment would be valid. However, there is more to say on the subject. Rav Meir (Maharam) Lublin (17th cen., Poland; Responsa, no. 63) was asked by someone who found Maharik’s deduction from Rambam’s commentary to be quite weak. Maharam Lublin defends Maharik’s deduction but concludes that his own opinion is that a mechutan is just like someone who loves you. Is there any greater friend than a mechutan?

Not All Mechutanim Love Each Other

Earlier, Rav David Ben Zimra (Radbaz, 16th cen., Egypt; Responsa 1:631), a contemporary of Rema, was asked about this subject. He deduces that a mechutan can serve as a judge from Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, not his Mishna commentary. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Eidus 13:11) says that mechutanim (without using that term) may testify about each other. When Rambam (ibid., 16:6) lists all the exceptions to the rule that someone who may testify may also judge, he does not include mechutanim in the list of exceptions. This deduction is much stronger than Maharik’s deduction from Rambam’s Mishna commentary, which Radbaz quotes as well.

Radbaz also makes the following important point: “I have already seen many mechutanim who hate each other.” Just because your children marry does not mean that you become automatic best friends. Some mechutanim maintain very warm and close relationships, as I do with my mechutanim. Others are not best friends. Therefore, we cannot automatically disqualify mechutanim. If they are close friends then they fall under the general disqualification of a friend serving as a judge. If they hate each other, they fall under that category. And if they are somewhere in between, they are qualified to judge each other. There is no need for a special category of mechutanim.

In practice, there are many different opinions with a variety of nuances. Pitchei Teshuvah (Choshen Mishpat 7:15) provides a lengthy summary of later views. However, the very fact that such a conversation exists points to the important nature of the mechutanim relationship in the Jewish community.


Rabbi Gil Student is editor of www.TorahMusings.com.

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