Is the Hebrew Bible Single-Minded on Singlehood?

The pressure observant young Jews feel to marry comes straight from the Bible. But is there biblical wiggle room?

The reason Genesis 2:18 gives for the divine decision to create Eve is that “[i]t’s not good for the man to be alone.” God decides that Adam needs a “helper opposite him.” Although the Hebrew word “Adam” refers to the first man, it also suggests all men. Thus was born a stigma against singleness.

“In that text, we understand that a human without a mate is frowned upon. The Torah seems to prioritize marriage,” says Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi from Detroit.

While most of the rabbis Miller knows understand that it is acceptable for a single woman or man who wants to raise a child on her or his own to do so, he says dishonor still surrounds singlehood.

“Marriage is a basic building block of biblical Judaism.”

“Singles over a certain age are often frustrated and annoyed when community members try to set them up on dates, but that desire comes from a noble place,” he says. “In our society, we couple up and find a mate. Those who remain single are often unhappy and lonely, although they try to make the best of their situation. I firmly believe that we have the responsibility to help singles find someone special to share a relationship with.”

Eliyahu Fink, the rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center (Orthodox) in Los Angeles, sees the biblical view on relationships as stronger than just seeming to prioritize marriage. “Some of the most dramatic stories in Genesis are about the patriarchs finding their wives. Marriage is a basic building block of biblical Judaism,” he says. “It makes sense — the Bible was written at a time that being single wasn’t an option.”

Singlehood, in fact, “is so anachronistic to the Bible that we can’t build an opinion about being single from the Bible other than to say it was likely never even considered,” he says. And, Fink notes, many commandments (“Mitzvot”) can only be fulfilled after marriage; the 12th century Spanish philosopher, physician, and rabbi Maimonides codifies a Talmudic ruling that men should marry by age 20 as religious law.

“The Bible was written at a time that being single wasn’t an option.”

“A man had to justify waiting for marriage beyond the age of 20 with preoccupation with studying Torah or learning a trade,” Fink says. “Marriage was different until very recently. It was more utilitarian than romantic. However, the rabbis of the Talmud did have a very progressive view of love which required that the bride and groom knew each other well enough to feel mutual love. This always seems anachronistic, but the rabbis were ahead of their time in this respect.”

Orthodox Judaism prioritizes traditional values, so great importance is placed on marriage and building a family, according to Fink. “We prohibit intimacy without marriage, so we deprive adults of meaningful relationships absent marriage,” he says. “It’s very hard to be a single Orthodox Jewish adult older than 26.”

Orthodox communities tend to be organized around holidays and rituals, which are meant to be performed as a family. Given the nostalgic feelings that are tied to one’s childhood, it can be “awkward” to be single in a world of families, Fink says. “There is a stigma attached to it, and people view such people with sympathy. They are not outcasts or lepers. But they do feel uncomfortable and are talked about.”

In the Modern Orthodox world, there are some communities of singles where there is no stigma, according to Fink. But there is a perception outside of those Upper West Side communities that they are a cautionary tale rather than evidence of a paradigm shift. Fink says he works hard to advocate for Jewish communities to view singles as singles, rather than as damaged or necessarily en route to becoming married.

“Marriage will always be central to Orthodox Judaism, and this works in our favor most of the time,” he says. “There is a balance between advocating a particular way of life and judging those who are not living that life favorably.”

Beyond Adam and Eve, other biblical episodes also suggest that more balance is needed.

Moses’ older siblings Miriam and Aaron, as Numbers 12:1 tells it, spoke about him “concerning the Cushite wife that he had taken.” This slanderous conversation earns both gossipers God’s wrath, and Miriam contracts leprosy. Spiritually contaminated, she needs to leave the Israelite camp for seven days.

As they often did, rabbinic commentators filled in gaps where the biblical text is wanting for detail. Rashi, the 11th century French rabbi, wondered what exactly did Miriam and Aaron say. While some see racism in the siblings’ condemnation of Moses’ wife — who may have been black — Rashi, quoting predecessors, identifies the sin as criticizing Moses for separating from Zipporah.

Rashi quotes a Rabbi Nathan says, who interprets this way: “Miriam was at Zipporah’s side when Moses was informed, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp’ (Numbers 11:27). Hearing this, Zipporah said, ‘Woe to their wives if they are called upon to prophesy, for they will separate from their wives just as my husband left me.’”

Rashi thus pieces together the chronology. Miriam hears that her seemingly holier-than-thou brother left his wife for another mistress — God. She tells Aaron, which results in her leprous ejection from the camp. In his rebuke of Miriam and Aaron, God informs them that he had commanded Moses to divorce Zipporah, writes Rashi, so we have here at least one instance of biblical-mandated singlehood.

This seems at first blush to contradict another text related to Adam (Hebrew for “man”) and Eve Genesis 2:24 observes, “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings [literally “sticks”] to his wife, and they shall be a single flesh.” Is Moses the newly-minted bachelor, then, only half a flesh in the eyes of Genesis?

It’s hard to imagine that is the case for the man about whom Deuteronomy 34:10 notes, “And no other prophet rose in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face to face.” Perhaps Facebook was onto a spiritual truth when it identified an “it’s complicated” zone in between singlehood and relationships.

Image: “A Jewish Wedding,” Jozef Israels, 1903.

Menachem Wecker
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  • BM

    The problem with the OT is the mythical nature of said book starting with the myths of Adam, Eve, Abraham and Moses. Added details available upon request.
    Wecker’s entire commentary is dependent on these figures being real. Maybe he should stick to the contemporary issues of Judaism especially marriages outside the faith and loss of members.

    • Menachem Wecker

      I’m confused. The whole point of the piece is to come from a biblical perspective, and the commentary has nothing to do with the figures being real. Marriage outside of the faith and loss of members are both important topics, but those are different articles.

  • WmarkW

    In Torah times, girls married at puberty and went from living in her father’s house to her husband’s.
    The concept of unmarried women simply didn’t exist.