Saturday, November 21, 2015

Early marriage in Talmudic times?

Marrying off young girls occurred among Jewish families in the mishnaic and talmudic periods.

Tirzah Meacham, associate professor of near and Middle Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto, made the point Nov. 10 at a conference titled “The Jewish Family,” sponsored by the Jewish Law Association, U of T’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies and York University’s Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies. It was held at U of T and attended by several dozen people.

Meacham’s was among the handful of presentations by academics from around North America who gathered to discuss intersections between Jewish and civil law, including gender relations, marriage and divorce.

Meacham, whose research includes talmudic and rabbinic literature, and Judaism and feminism, discussed conflicts between Halachah and civil law on the age of marriage.

She countered an argument made by Bar-Ilan University professor Adiel Schremer, who claimed that in Jewish Palestine of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, girls married well into their teens, while in surrounding cultures, such as Babylonia, they married around age 13.

Meacham said Schremer’s study relied on tombstone inscriptions found in Rome, Hellenistic Egypt and Palestine, which noted a woman’s marital age. This evidence is problematic, Meacham argued, because graves of middle and lower class Jews were likely marked with less detail, limiting the “sample size” to wealthy families.


She said the typical age of betrothal, if not marriage, was probably before 12-1/2. After that age, a father lost the authority to annul his daughter’s vows and the legal right to her handiwork or profits she brought to the household, including the bride price.

More on Schremer's work is here.

Very early marriage (in the early teens) was not unusual in antiquity in general, in no small part because the average lifespan was considerably shorter than ours. As I have remarked repeatedly, the world of the ancients was a very different world from ours. That said, it should be clarified that betrothal was legally equivalent to marriage, but did not involve consummation, which was to occur only after the marriage.