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Monday, February 12, 2018

Matchmaker, Matchmaker — BT Sanhedrin 22a (part 3) — #96

R. Alexandri said, “For a man whose wife dies the world is darkened, as it says, The light in his tent darkens and his lamp fails him (Job 18:6).” R. Yose bar Chanina said, “His steps will be shortened, as it says, The steps of his strength will be shortened (Job 18:7).” R. Abahu said, “His advice fails, as it says, His own advice will cast him down (Job 18:7).”
Rabbah bar bar Chanah said in the name of R. Yochanan, “It is as difficult to make a match [for marriage] as the splitting of the Reed Sea, as it is said, אֱלֹהִים מוֹשִׁיב יְחִידִים בַּיְתָה מוֹצִיא אֲסִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת God restores the lonely (or: singles) to their homes, sets free the imprisoned, safe and sound (Psalm 68:7).” Do not read “אֲסִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת / sets free the imprisoned” but rather “כּאֲסִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת as if [God] sets free the imprisoned.” Do not read “בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת / safe and sound” but rather “בכי ושירות / crying and singing.”
Is this really so? Didn’t Rav Yehudah say in the name of Rav, “Forty days before the formation of an embryo, a heavenly voice announces: ‘The daughter of this one [is intended to marry] this one’?”
There is not difficulty (i.e., no contradiction between the claim of Rabbah bar bar Chanah and the claim of Rav Yehudah). This [the claim of Rav Yehudah] concerns first marriage and this [the claim of Rabbah bar bar Chanah] concerns second marriages.

In 1611, Johannes Kepler, the astronomer who formulated the laws of planetary motion, found  himself widowed, with children, and in need of a wife. He drew up a list of eleven women and set out to interview them all, but not one passed muster. His experience inspired him to ask, “Was it Divine Providence or my own moral guilt which, for two years or longer, tore me in so many different directions and made me consider the possibility of such different unions?”

The secret of a good marriage is forgiving your partner for marrying you in the first place.
—Sacha Guitry

In a world in which one’s family chooses one’s spouse, is it more or less difficult to achieve a good and lasting marriage? One might argue that those whose partners are assigned to them have different expectations of the marital relationship, perhaps lower emotional and romantic expectations. In the world of the Rabbis, parents contracted matches for their children, but this did not prevent people from hoping for a deeply loving and satisfying relationship. Realists to the core, the Rabbis comment on just how difficult it is to achieve this goal.

The mishnah that introduces the discussion above did not concern marriage (see TMT-94), but rather the dignity of the king. The Rabbis jump immediately to the relationship between David and Avishag and from there, the heartbreak of the dissolution of a marriage through divorce or the death of a wife: above, three sages weigh in the trauma of losing a spouse: depression (his world “darkens”), physical deterioration (“the steps of his strength will be shortened”), loss of a good advisor (his source of advice fails him). Acknowledging the momentousness of the loss inspires the realization of just how remarkable a good marriage is, so much so that they attribute it to God’s intervention. But more: Rabbah bar bar Chanah  tells us that even for God, making a good match takes extraordinary effort, comparable to the parting of the Reed Sea, among the most impressive miracles recounted in the Torah. The Rabbis support this claim not by referencing Exodus 14-15, which tells the story of the splitting of the Reed Sea, but rather based on the sound of the words in a verse from Psalm 68 to make the connection between the story of God’s awesome might and intervention and God’s role in making matches. 

Rav Yehudah, however, has a tradition that God designates people to marry one another before they are even born, which undermines the claim that matchmaking is difficult. How are the competing and conflicting claims to be reconciled? By assigning them to two different situations: Making first matches—when people are young, flexible, enthusiastic, and romantic—is an easy task. Making second marriage—when people are older and more set in their ways—is far more of a feat.


  1. Do you agree that finding a compatible mate is easier the first time one marries than the second time, or do you see it the other way around? Why?
  2. Given that few young people in the ancient world chose their own spouse, and they therefore had to abide by their parents’ choice, is there an advantage to claiming that God had a hand in  making the match and, even more, put enormous effort into insuring the right match?
This mathematician’s efforts at making a match rivaled—or perhaps exceeded?—God’s! 
This guy hacked OkCupid.
  1. In the 1960s, mathematician Martin Gardner famously published a matching algorithm that came to be known as the “The Marriage Problem” (for matching) or the “The Secretary Problem” (for hiring), but more properly called “The Optimal Stopping Theory” (see Remember Kepler’s conundrum? The algorithm says that if you have n candidates to consider, you should interview 36.8% of them (for those who like math, the precise number is 1/e) without accepting any of them, and then choose the very next candidate whose qualities exceed all the applicants interviewed thus far. (NB: The theoryWhile the theory is couched in terms of heterosexual matchings, it is equally applicable to homosexual matchings.) How much trust would be required to follow this algorithm? How is it different from trusting a matchmaker?

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