Money and Marriage II – sIs it ethical to marry for money?

Q. I’m a working woman with a good income, but it is important to me to find a husband with good earning power who will be able to provide financial security. Is this a valid consideration? I don’t want to be seen as a “gold-digger.”

A. The topic of marriage and money is an ancient and highly nuanced one. We touched on thisĀ in a previous column which talked about the importance of having at least a minimal basis for supporting a family.

The basic approach of Jewish law and tradition is that wealth and earnings are valid considerations in choosing a spouse, but the dominant considerations should be character and compatibility.

One important source relating to marrying for money is the following Talmudic passage: “Rabbah bar Rav Addah said, anyone who marries a woman for the sake of money is liable to have unworthy children.” (1)

The most intuitive connection is as follows: the most important consideration should be the wife’s ability to be a caring mother; if money dominates this consideration then the children’s upbringing is likely to suffer. The Iyun Yaakov commentary refers us to another passage that teaches that poor parents are often the most attached to their children, since they have “no other joy” in life.(2)

The legal authorities, however, concluded that even this warning only applies if the woman is otherwise unsuited. Thus the authoritative Rav Moshe Isserles writes on the Shulchan Arukh: “Anyone who marries an unfit woman because of money is liable to have unworthy children. But otherwise, if she is not unfit for him but he marries her because of money, it is permissible.” (3) But he then goes on to say that it is not a good idea to make too big an issue out of money: “Whatever his in-laws can give him he should accept good naturedly, and then he will be successful”.

We find in another place that money can be an important consideration in choosing a spouse. The Mishnah states that if the man betroths a woman on the condition that he is rich, and it turns out that he is poor, the betrothal is nullified. Yet the Mishnah goes on to say that the opposite is also true: if he betroths a woman on the condition that he is poor and turns out to be rich, the betrothal is likewise invalid. (4)

Here also there seems to be a hint that what is most important is not wealth per se, but rather essential compatibility. One thing that can contribute to marital harmony is when the two spouses have similar characteristics, and this includes similar socio-economic level. Indeed, in another place our Sages specifically recommend that a man should not marry a wife above his class. (5)

In another place, our Sages teach that for a disadvantaged woman, having a husband of means can be particularly important. (6)

We can summarize our approach as follows:

Economics are an important part of marriage. Jewish law establishes that a husband is obligated to support his wife at a level she is accustomed to (7), and that a wife is likewise obligated to contribute to the economic success of the household through household production or equivalent outside income. (8) However, the main consideration should always be personal characteristics and degree of suitability.

Ultimately, money itself has importance for these reasons. We perceive a person with a good job as diligent and conscientious, and we feel that someone with a similar income will probably have similar tastes and expectations and thus be compatible.

At the same time, overemphasis on financial security and compatibility can often be an obstacle to the more important things in a marriage. As the citation from the Iyun Yaakov teaches us, very often someone who lacks money is better able to appreciate the more important things in life. And as Rav Moshe Isserles states, once a couple have decided to marry they shouldn’t let money considerations stand in the way.

So a person should never be ashamed that money considerations are important in a prospective spouse, but at the same time these considerations should never be paramount but should always be subordinate to character and compatibility.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 70a. (2) Babylonian Talmud Moed Katan 24b and Rashi’s commentary (3) Shulchan Arukh Even Haezer 2:1 (4) Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 48b (5) Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 63a. (6) Babylonian Talmud Taanit 31a (7) Shulchan Arukh Even Haezer 70:1,3 (8) Shulchan Arukh Even Haezer 80

A. It’s saddening to me to encounter this question, because I view it partially as an extension of society’s current obsession with health and body image. Obviously it is healthier to eat in moderation, but overeating is a relatively harmless indulgence and certainly not “unethical”. Some of our greatest sages were fat, and the Talmud relates that Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon had such large stomachs that when they met, a team of oxen could pass between them without touching them. And our commentators point out that the Talmud mentions these and other anatomical extremes of our great Rabbis specifically so as not to shame other people who have these characteristics! (1)

It is true that we should be sensitive not to overindulge in the actual presence of those who are deprived. In earlier times, it was even customary to give the waiter a little bit of each delicacy he serves so as not to deprive him. (2) So great is the importance of this principle that Jewish law tells us that whenever possible we should not even eat in the presence of a dead person. (3) There are also other restrictions which our Sages placed on us, even in private, in actual times of famine and shortage. (4)

But that doesn’t mean that anytime there are deprived individuals anywhere it is forbidden for us to enjoy the pleasures of life. We need to exercise appropriate concern for the needy, and in any case excessive indulgence is counterproductive, but there is nothing “unethical” about eating more than is needed for sustaining life! Judaism advocates moderation, not abstinence, and most overweight people are not living a life of conspicuous excess.

It is certainly praiseworthy to eat in moderation, and the Talmud tells us that ideally we should eat and drink only to two-thirds of fullness. (5) But I wonder about a society where people ask if it is unethical to engage in excess of eating, which is in itself a constructive activity, but no one asks if it is unethical to engage in excess of television watching or other activities that endanger our spiritual health much more than overeating endangers our physical health.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 84a and Tosafot commentary (2) Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 169:1. (3) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 341:1 (4) Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 240:12. (5) Babylonian Talmud Gittin 70a.

FOLLOW-UP: Girth vs. Worth. Yes, Judaism believes in cultivating health and well-being, but the most important kind of health is the spiritual kind.