Sunday, September 30, 2007

Has Anyone Read a Kesubah Lately?

There are groups in Klal Yisroel who believe that the best way for a new couple to start out married life is with the husband sitting and learning. The figure tossed around is the first five years. Okay, so who is supposed to keep that couple from starving to death during that time period? Answer: the girl's parents.

Why? Why should the girl's parents be the ones to provide this support? Read the kesubah. In it a man promises to provide for the woman he is marrying. I listen at every chasoneh I go to and it is basically the same kesubah being read aloud at every one of them. How did we get from the man making a promise to his new wife to his in laws supporting them both?

Yes, in Europe there were also some couples who were being supported. But the support system was waaaay different then the one we have today. The European idea was "halten a yingle of cost(kest)." The couple got married and then moved into the girl's house and lived with the family. If they were lucky they got their own room; if not, a room was divided to give the couple a separate sleeping area. "Cost" was for a year or two, not five years. The boys were expected to have a way to make parnoseh. An "illui" might get some support while learning, but it was expected that he would become a Rav or a melamed and then take over supporting his own family. And if a girl's family just couldn't afford the expense and the boy's family could? The boy's family paid.

I once commented to my students that they must hate their sisters. The boys were shocked and said so. I "reasonably" pointed out that if they were looking for girls with "money" behind them then so would the boys who were going to date their sisters. Did their parents have the kind of money to spend on their sisters that they were asking for from someone else?

There is an old Yiddish saying that applies here as well: "Es ist nisht du kein meeseh techter ba rache tates"--there are no ugly daughters with rich fathers. Is the amount of money that a girl's parents have really the best basis on which to get married? And if the money dries up, what then?

Back in the "dark ages" when I was still single, a newly married young woman came to complain to my mother. She and her husband both came from well off homes. Her husband was not sitting and learning but was beginning law school, and they were being supported by both sets of parents. They had a beautiful apartment that was being fully furnished by the parents, something that was unusual at that time. What was the wife's complaint? Her mother had taken her shopping for fixtures for the apartment and the mother had vetoed the young woman's choice for a chandelier and had purchased what she wanted. My mother reasonably pointed out that since the mother was paying for the chandelier she believed she had a right to decide what was appropriate. I vowed then and there that I would never put myself in the position of being married but not being married--"real" married people got to make the decisions about what they purchased and what they didn't purchase. Anything else was just "playing house."

And are all those being supported any more grateful then the young wife in this story? Far too many aren't. A year ago I found myself giving mussar to one of my classes. A student in that class came in and announced that he had a "mazel tov" coming--he and his wife had just become parents for the first time. Had he stopped there I would have said nothing but "mazel tov." The young husband continued however. He was complaining that he and his wife "had had to move in with his in laws" when his wife came home from the hospital. He was wrinkling his nose when he said it. Now it happens that I knew that his in laws were supporting this couple. And I also happened to know that the mother of the young wife had taken off from work to care for her daughter and her new grandson. And I saw red.

The English saying that applies is about "biting the hand that feeds you." How dare this young man complain. He owed the very bread he ate to his in laws. He also owed the car he was driving and the apartment he was living in to these people. And was he the one staying up all night with a newborn? Nope. What he owed his in laws was to "kiss their feet."

But hey, what can you expect from someone who has been taught to expect that others will do for him?

My husband and I are friends with a couple, both of whom are above retirement age. They, however, can't retire. If they do, 4 couples are going to be in deep trouble. Fifteen years ago when they started out the whole support thing and when some of us commented that they were going to be in it for the long haul they pooh-poohed us. Now they can't see how to extricate themselves. And yes, in addition there is an elderly parent that needs to be cared for.

It is one thing to help out your children here and there--it is quite another to be the sole support. My personal opinion, and feel free to disagree if you would like, is that the present generation of 20-year-olds is the last generation for quite some time that will have this "support for five year" privelege. Why? They will not be able to afford to do for their children what their working parents did for them, and what their grandparents did for them. There just plain will not be the money available.

Just as an aside, and to lighten the mood a bit, I had a student many years ago who had worked out with her choson that she would support them until she had three children. At that point he would have to go out to work. Her parents simply could not support them. The boy agreed. Slightly less than one year after they were married she had triplets. End of support. The husband walked around shell shocked for months. And yes, he thought it wasn't "fair." Tough.

This story also reminds me of a totally different option that young married kollel couples have; they can decide to support themselves. The wife may be the sole support or the husband may also have some part time income. Either way, they would be living on whatever they earned. If kollel is so important to them, let them invest "themselves."

As I started out, has anyone read their kesubah lately? In American law swearing falsely in a legal document is perjury. What should we call it when a young man publicly swears to support his wife fully well knowing that he expects his in laws to do the supporting?


Anonymous said...

Love the triplets story.

I have a personal offer to any learning guy: you support me through graduate school on your minimum wage job and be a stay at home dad afterwards, and I'll support you forever.

It doesn't go over very well with anyone. They mutter about the first years being key, etc etc. I don't buy it. Ever hear of a mid-life crisis? People can change when they're older than 20.

And it's not like a guy can't learn while earning a few bucks. Koveya itim, anyone? It worked for past generations.

ProfK said...


If you are serious about the stay at home dad, there are a few--just a few--guys who are perfectly willing to stay home and raise the kids. We have one here in our neighborhood. They have to have a special personality though to withstand the ribbing they are going to get from the other guys. Most guys couldn't do it.

I'm going to say something here that will probably catch me some flack from someone but here goes anyway. The first years are key? Key to what? Yeshivas encourage their boys to get married young because they want them safe from the "sexual revolution" in the outside world. Then, as soon as they are married, they don't want them spending too much time with their wives. I wish they would make up their minds.

What is key in the first years of marriage is getting to really know each other and setting out goals for the years to come. The first years are when you work hard to establish yourselves as a couple. Are the yeshivas really trying to say that keeping a boy in yeshiva all day and all night six days a week is good for creating the basis for a sound marriage? Frankly, I can't figure out how so many young kollel couples have so many kids in the first years of their marriages--they are almost never in the same place at the same time.

And yes, you are right. There is koveah itim. And it worked really well and is still working well for the men my husband's age. A husband who sets aside regular learning time every day and who holds down a responsible full time job. And a husband whom the tzedaka organizations and the shules and the yeshivas know to contact when they are looking for money, because they sure can't get any from the guys who are unemployed and still learning.