by R. Eliezer Melamed
At What Age are Men Obligated to Marry?
Although young Jewish males become obligated to fulfill all the mitzvot at the age of 13, our Sages said that a man should get married at the age of 18, but no later than 20. There are two main reasons for this:
A. Torah Study
Before marrying, a young man must learn the fundamentals of Torah in order to shape his worldview and know how to live according to halakha. As our Sages said:
At five years (the age is reached for the study of) the Scripture; at ten (for the study of) the Mishna; at thirteen (for the fulfillment of) the mitzvot; at fifteen (for the study of) the Talmud; at eighteen for marriage. (Mishna Avot 5:21)
Our Sages also said that Torah study should precede marriage, for if one gets married first, the burden of making a living is liable to prevent him from studying Torah appropriately (Kiddushin 29b). This was also codified in the Shulchan Aruch:
A man should first learn Torah and then marry, for if he marries first, it will be impossible for him to engage in Torah study, because the millstone (the burden of making a living) will be on his neck. (Y.D., 246:2)
During the time in which young men studied the fundamentals of Torah, they spent part of the day working in order to build a house and save money to purchase the tools to make a living. From the order of the verses in the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:5-7):
“Is there any man among you who has built a new house…planted a vineyard…betrothed a woman and has not married her”, our Sages learned:
The Torah has thus taught a rule of conduct: that a man should build a house, plant a vineyard and then marry a wife. (Sotah 44a)
And Rambam wrote:
The way of sensible men is that first, one should establish an occupation by which he can support himself. Then, he should purchase a house to live in and then, marry a wife…in contrast, a fool begins by marrying a wife. Then, if he can find the means, he purchases a house. Finally, towards the end of his life, he will search about for a trade or support himself from charity. (Hilchot De’ot 5:11)
Therefore, the Sages postponed the age of marriage for men till eighteen years of age, warning that in any case, they should not postpone getting married beyond the age of twenty.
The Prohibition of Postponing Marriage
Our Sages said: “Until the age of twenty, the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and waits. When will he take a wife? As soon as one attains twenty and has not married, He exclaims, ‘Blasted be his bones!’” (Kiddushin 29b) – an expression of condemnation for failing to perform the mitzvah of pru u’revuru (“be fruitful and multiply”).
Similarly, Rambam wrote: “The mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying is incumbent on the husband and not on his wife… If he reaches twenty and has not married, he is considered to have transgressed and negated the observance of this positive commandment” (Hilchot Ishut 15:2).
Other authorities, such as S’mag, Rosh, Rabbeinu Yerucham, and Tur Shulchan Aruch (E.H. 1:3) have also written likewise.
Regarding the verse: “A time to give birth, and a time to die,” our Sages also said: “From the moment a man is born, the Holy One, blessed be He waits for him until the age of twenty to marry a woman. If he reaches the age of twenty but has not married, He says to him: The time for you to give birth to a child has arrived, but you did not want to, it is nothing more for you than the time to die” (Kohelet Rabbah 3:3).
Additionally, our Sages said: “If a man reaches the age of twenty, but has not married – his entire life is in thoughts of sin” – because as long as getting married is not far off, he knows his passion is reserved for his future wife; but once bachelorhood continues beyond the appropriate time of marriage, and his passions cannot find their proper outlet – he becomes used to having sinful thoughts, and is unable to escape them all his life.
How Then Did Some People Get Married Earlier?
There were some young people who received help from their parents or were extremely talented, and were able to marry at an earlier age, and this was praiseworthy. As Rabbi Chisda commented about himself, that his superiority over his colleagues was not thanks to his talents or righteousness, but because he was privileged to get married at the age of sixteen, and consequently was able to learn Torah in purity, without the yetzer ha’ra (evil inclination) taunting him. And had he married at the age of fourteen he would have been so protected from the yetzer ha’ra, he could have fearlessly provoked the Satan without worrying about sinning (Kiddushin 29b).
In Pressing Situations Marriage Was Permitted Until Twenty-four
The gedolei ha’poskim (eminent Jewish law arbiters) wrote that although according to the strict law of the Gemara, it is forbidden to postpone marriage beyond the age of twenty, to study Torah, or in pressing times of edicts and financial hardships, marriage may be postponed until the age of twenty-four. For we have seen in the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) that when sons neglect to fulfill the mitzvah of marrying, parents must encourage and spur them on to get married. Some authorities say the parents should do this until the age of twenty-two; others say until twenty-four. The reason for setting this specific age limit is that until then they can be persuaded, and they still possess the flexibility, openness and desire required for marriage.
Based on this, Rabbi Shlomo Luria gave the following ruling with regards to someone wishing to continue studying Torah diligently: “The final age for all who want to be lenient and not marry, should not be over twenty-four years of age” (Yam Shel Shlomo, Kiddushin 1:57). If this is the case for Torah study, all the more should marriage not be postponed beyond the age of twenty-four for the sake of secular needs. Likewise, Chida wrote: “In any case, it seems that one should not postpone [marriage] for external reasons beyond the age of twenty-four” (Birkei Yosef, E.H. 1:9).
Reasons For Postponing Marriage Nowadays
In recent generations life has become more complex and more time is required to prepare for it. In the past, learning Tanach and mussar (ethics) on a simple level and halakha and its reasons was sufficient to facilitate establishing a Jewish home. It was enough to work with one’s father for a few hours a day until the age of eighteen, in order to acquire the professional capability to work and make a living, and even save a little money for his wedding and build a house – which consisted of one room only.
But today, in order to deal with the challenges facing us, a lot more Torah must be learned. To do this, most young people need to learn in a yeshiva framework for at least a year after the age of eighteen – and usually, even more time. And today, an additional sacred duty rests on the shoulders of young men – serving in the army and defending the people and the land – and achieving this mitzvah also causes postponement of marriage. Also, acquiring a profession which suits one’s talents usually involves prolonged academic studies, and are done after serving in the army. Likewise, the houses we live in today are more expensive because they are larger and equipped with water and electricity, and in order to purchase one, one must work for a number of years.
If marriage is postponed until after a person finishes learning all the fundamentals of Torah, completes studies for a suitable profession, and buys a house – most young people would have to get married after the age of thirty. Such a postponement is impossible according to halakha, because although the environment in which we live has become more complex, complicated, and challenging – the emotional and physical nature of man has not changed, and the appropriate age for him to get married remains between the ages of eighteen and twenty. Therefore, the length of time for a possible postponement is until the age of twenty-four, and not beyond.
Those Who Insist On Marrying Earlier
And then there are some people who adamantly claim we should not take into consideration the difficulties and challenges that modern life presents us, but continue requiring all young men to get married before the age of twenty. However, their statements run contrary to the Torah instruction of acting with derech eretz (a desired mode of behavior) (Sotah 44a; Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 5:11). And by doing so, they decree upon their followers a life of poverty, and prevent them from taking part in the development of the world using the talents God endowed them. Such people also usually tend to deny the Torah mitzvah of serving in the army to defend the people and the country.
Those Who Claim Marriage Can Be Postponed Until All Preparations Are Completed, As In The Days Of Yore
On the other hand, some people claim that a man should postpone getting married until after completing his studies and begins earning a decent living even if it takes several years, as is customary today among young individuals living in economically and scientifically developed countries. Their statements also run contrary to halakha, which sets a limit to postponing marriage. We have also found that young people who postponed getting married have great difficulty afterwards finding their partners, and several of them remain single for many years because the appropriate time emotionally and physically for marriage is around the age of twenty. And as time passes, young people’s enthusiasm decreases, and it is more difficult for them to make an everlasting covenant of marriage. This is one of the reasons for the disintegration of the institution of family in countries where young people postpone the age of marriage.
In Our Present Situation, Marriage Can Be Postponed From The Outset Until the Age Of Twenty-Four
The complex situation in which we live can be considered a sha’at ha’dachak (pressing situation). On the one hand, young people must be given a few more years so they can base themselves in Torah and shape their worldview, and have sufficient time to take their first steps towards acquiring a profession. On the other hand, one cannot go beyond the emotionally and physically appropriate time of marriage, so as not to lose the enthusiasm and joyful youth suitable for building a relationship in its early stages.
Moreover, the mitzvot of marriage and procreation requires man to express himself fully and completely. As our Sages said, “any man who has no wife is not a proper man (Yevamot 63a), and lives without joy, without blessing, without goodness, without Torah, without a [protecting] wall, and without peace” (Yevamot 62b). There is a limit to how many years a man can continue living in such incomplete circumstances. Additionally, we have learned that delaying marriage beyond necessity causes a person’s yetzer (inclination) to overcome him, to the point where he cannot escape sinful thoughts all his life (Kiddushin 29b).
Consequently, the general instruction should be not to postpone marriage beyond the age of twenty-four. And one who can get married earlier without significantly harming his Torah study, serving in the army, and preparations for acquiring a profession suitable to his talents – will be blessed. In exceptional situations, like studying an extremely demanding profession such as medicine, if there is no other option, one is permitted to postpone marriage beyond the age of twenty-four, provided his yetzer does not overcome him (see Beit Shmuel 1:5, in the opinion of Rambam).