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Rav vs. Shmuel on Bashert: Moed Katan 18b

Is there such a thing as “bashert”? Are marriages preordained? Forty days before an embryo is even formed, a bat kol announces, girl A to B, house C to D, field E to F1. So does Rav Yehuda cite Rav, in Sotah 2a. This idea is contrasted to one expressed by Resh Lakish, that couples are Divinely matched based on level of righteousness. People have free will and might shift from righteous to wicked, so how could marriage be preordained from before birth? Similarly, Rabbi Yochanan says that matching couples is as difficult for Hashem as the splitting of the Reed Sea2. The implication is that this matching is a continuous process performed in real time, and that the difficulty is finding people who are a perfect fit, in terms of righteousness and personality. Also, if A is matched to B, he cannot be matched to C3. Again, that contrasts with predestination from before birth. The Talmudic Narrator resolves the contradiction, explaining that Rav refers to the first match, while Resh Lakish and/or Rabbi Yochanan refer to the second match.

This contrast also occurs in Sanhedrin 22a, between Rabbi Yochanan and Rav Yehuda citing Rav. Because Resh Lakish’s statement is a clearer/starker contrast—one could say that Hashem’s “difficulty” was at the embryonic stage—I suspect this was a transferred sugya from Sotah, where Resh Lakish appears. Again, the Talmudic Narrator harmonizes the positions by appealing to the concept of initial and subsequent matches. Alternatively, perhaps Chazal aren’t theologically monolithic, and Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, second-generation Israeli Amoraim, have a different view than Rav, first-generation Babylonian, regarding bashert.

In our sugya in Moed Katan 18b, Shmuel declares that a man may betroth a woman on Chol Hamoed, lest another man preempt and betroth her. Our Mishnah allowing writing betrothal documents on Chol Hamoed might support this, but the Talmud dismisses this support, suggesting it refers to documents stipulating the dowry. A brayta taught in Shmuel’s academy explicitly supports allowing betrothal on Chol Hamoed. We’ll also point to Tosefta Moed Katan, where betrothal (1:6) and writing betrothal documents (2:3) is a Tannaitic dispute between the Tanna Kamma and Rabbi Yehuda, whose concern is lest another man preempt and betroth her4. Thus, Shmuel channels Rabbi Yehuda’s position, and the Mishnah might indeed support Shmuel.

The Talmud contrasts Shmuel’s position with something Rav Yehuda cited from Shmuel, that every day a bat kol announces: girl A to B, field E to F5. How could anyone preempt a Divinely fated marriage? The Talmudic Narrator explains that another can preempt him by praying, triggering Divine Mercy, drawing the idea from an incident with Rava.

Tosafot ask why the Talmud in Moed Katan doesn’t provide the harmonization of Sotah and Sanhedrin, about first and second pairings. We might devise a way in which these ambiguous expressed resolutions are identical, with the second pairing resulting from Divine Mercy. Alternatively, Rav’s bat kol announces at the embryonic stage, reflecting predestination and better matching an initial match vs. subsequent match. In contrast, Shmuel’s bat kol announces each day, reflecting Divine “destination”/personal merit, better matching prayer adjusting that current Divine decision. Rav and Shmuel then have similar, yet different, views of bashert.

Furthermore, I’m not convinced that Shmuel said anything about bat kol and predestination. See the Munich 95 manuscript of Moed Katan, which first has “40 days before the embryo’s formation,” and Oxford 366, Vatican 108 and Vatican 134, which add Rav’s statement about 40 days. Rav Yehuda often cites Rav and often cites Shmuel, his teachers. I’ve seen plenty of variants in manuscripts, or Gemara vs. Rif/Rosh, where Rav Yehuda citing Rav is substituted with him citing Shmuel. Also, as we see from the Sotah and Sanhedrin parallels, the Talmud frames the contradiction even if statements are made by different Amoraim. I suspect that this was Rav’s statement, and the bat kol going out “each day” was a scribal error drawn from the common phraseology of bat kol (Avot 6:2; Taanit 24b; Berachot 17b; Chullin 86a). Rav and Shmuel might then have quite different views of bashert. If Shmuel doesn’t adopt predestination, this can account for his halachic position, instead of harmonizing via prayer. Recall that concern for preemption is a matter of Tannatic dispute, so there might be real theological difference.

Rambam (Shemonah Perakim) asserts that marriage cannot be preordained. One’s choice of spouse impacts his spiritual growth, and people have free will in yirat shamayim. Rav Yaakov Emden makes this work with the Gemara, with zivug rishon for the very young and zivug sheni when they’re old enough to apply their bechira. I’d suggest that Rambam sometimes argues with Chazal on theology, asserting that a Talmudic opinion was a minority position. Here, he could point to Shmuel and Rabbi Yehuda as support.

1. In context, בַּת פְּלוֹנִי is like בֵּית פְּלוֹנִי and שְׂדֵה פְלוֹנִי, indicating girl X rather than X’s daughter. Also, if divorces are preordained, they’d be “ploni alimony.”

2. How could either be “difficult” for Hashem? My father suggests the weak link is the need for human participation. Hashem didn’t split the Yam until Nachshon ben Aminadav took the literal leap of faith, wading in up to his neck. Shidduchim similarly require a human leap of faith/mesirat nefesh.

3. In computer science terms, it seems finding optimal matches is exponential. Gale and Shapely won a Nobel Prize for defining a “stable match,” where a match won’t break up because A prefers B more than his present spouse, and B prefers A more than her present spouse, and describing a linear-time algorithm for finding matches.

4. A variant of 1:6 has שֶׁמָּא יְקַדְּמֶנּוּ אַחֵר בְּרַחֲמִים, but that’s from the Gemara’s harmonization. Zohar 1:92a is similarly based.

5. Munich 95 adds house C to D; בית might be accidental duplication of בת.


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

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