Q. I really want to get married and start a family, but I'm struggling financially and feel it would be irresponsible. When should I make the jump?
A. Jewish tradition definitely encourages a person to take prudent steps to provide for an adequate income before getting married. Maimonides writes: “It is the way of people of judgment to establish a trade which will support him first; and afterwards to obtain a dwelling; and then marry a wife. As it says [in the Torah], 'And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and has yet to redeem it? . . . And who is the man who has betrothed a wife and has yet to marry her?' (Deuteronomy 20:6, 7).”1
However, this guidance needs to be taken in context. Three critical observations are called for.
LIVELIHOOD FIRST -- A RECOMMENDATION, NOT A MITZVAH
First of all, Maimonides does not say that a person should delay marriage until he has a profession; he only writes that a person should concern himself with finding a livelihood before he gets married. Indeed, elsewhere in his Code, Maimonides writes that a person should strive to get married and start a family at a young age -- by the age of 20. 2 (Though nowadays childhood and adolescence are longer and many people are not emotionally ready for the responsibilities of marriage at this age.) He adds that a person may put off marriage in order to devote himself to Torah study, but doesn't mention any exemption for poverty.
A MODEST LIVELIHOOD IS ENOUGH
What Jewish tradition would consider a “respectable” income for a newly married couple is far below what people today consider “financial independence.” A husband is obligated to support his wife, but this obligation is according to his means. A cramped apartment, enough to eat and a small allowance for expenses are sufficient for a married couple. 3 A husband and wife living in domestic harmony in these straitened circumstances will be far happier than single people living in luxury.
MARRIAGE BRINGS A BLESSING TO A PERSON'S LIVELIHOOD
Most importantly, Jewish tradition teaches that starting a family has a special ability to bring Divine blessing to a person's livelihood. The Torah repeatedly emphasizes that all of our material benefits, even though they are produced in a natural way through our efforts, are ultimately the result of God's providence. We don't “produce” output; rather, our efforts create a kind of receptacle that enables us to appropriate His blessings -- just as a fisherman doesn't produce fish, but without a net will be unable to gather them. “Perhaps you say in your heart, my might and the strength of my hand provided me with all this wealth. Remember the Lord your God, for it is He Who gives you the power to create wealth” (Deut. 8:17-18).
When a couple gets married, this blessing is augmented. Of course effort is still required to obtain a livelihood, but this effort is likely to be crowned with greater success, according to the needs of the growing family. “Rabbi Chelbo said, A man should always be careful to honor his wife, for blessing is found in his house only because of his wife, as it is said, 'He helped Abram for her sake' (Genesis 12:16.) And this is what Rava said to the residents of Machuza: Honor your wives so that you may become enriched.”4
It's certainly appropriate for a single person to take prudent steps to acquire a livelihood that will allow him to raise a family in a dignified way and leave adequate time for Torah study. And it may be necessary to put off marriage for a short time in order to acquire means to make a suitable match. But “financial independence” is certainly not a prerequisite for starting a family. Once a person has enough emotional maturity to accept family responsibilities, usually in the early twenties, and the financial ability to provide for basic needs, he or she should start looking for a life partner who will help him or her focus on the important things in life: love, companionship, family, and carrying out God's will. This approach will lead to fulfillment and will ultimately contribute to livelihood as well.
SOURCES: (1) Mishneh Torah Laws of Deot 5:11. (2) Mishneh Torah Laws of Ishut 15:2. (3) Ibid 12:10. (4) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 59a.
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