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 Torah says a Jewish father had the right to marry off his daughter from her day of birth until what was considered the age of majority – “12 years, six months and a day.” Only if a daughter became widowed or divorced did a father lose the right to marry her to another man.
The multitude of mishnaic and Toseftim texts that discuss issues related to the marriage of female minors – including virginity, hymeneal and menstrual blood – indicate, Meacham argued, that “we must conclude that marriage of younger girls existed in the mishnaic and talmudic periods.”
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.
“Because a father was obligated, at least morally, to provide a daughter’s dowry [even beyond age 12]… it’s likely that in situations of marginal economics, the father would use the bride price to help dower his daughter,” Meacham said. This means that families not part of elite or rabbinic circles likely married off daughters before 13, and rabbinic discussion suggests that even some in the latter camp sometimes did.
Meacham said the problem has persisted, in some ways, in contemporary Israel, noting some ultra-Orthodox groups’ resistance several years ago to Israel changing its legal age of marriage from 17 to 18.
She closed with a question: “What do we do about an ancient legal practice that’s halachically binding but against civil law and all norms about child welfare?