July 30, 2022

Ketubot 16

In general, I am averse to making generalizations about any groups of people, and I am particularly averse to making generalizations when comparing the temperaments of men and women. At the same time, this does not negate the fact that some generalizations do contain kernels of truth.
In this case, I’d like to share a creative reading of the son of Rav Yosef Chaim (1835-1909), otherwise known as the Ben Ish Chai (as found in his ‘Ben Yehoyada’ commentary) on an oft-quoted rabbinic saying relating to marriage which is referenced at the end of today’s daf (Ketubot 16b). Undoubtedly, there will be some of you who agree with the corollary of his reading relating to the different expectations of men and women. But even if you do not, I hope that you enjoy the creative method that he employs to give a further layer of meaning to a simple Hebrew word.
The Gemara quotes a beraita which asks: כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה? – ‘How do we dance before the bride [at her wedding]?’, and though it is implied from this question that wedding guests should celebrate and dance with a bride and groom on their wedding day, it then proceeds to discuss the choice of words that wedding guests might say to a groom about his bride on their wedding day. What this implies is that while the word מרקד is generally understood to refer to dance, it may also have a further meaning.
This point is raised by the Ben Ish Chai who notes that the process of sifting flour is referred to as הרקדת הקמח, literally ‘the dancing of the flour’, because the flour jumps up and down – in a manner of dancing – during the process of sifting. In fact, it is in this spirit that one of the 39 melachot which are prohibited on Shabbat is מרקד – sifting. Having explained this, the Ben Ish Chai reinterprets the phrase כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה to mean ‘how do we sift/filter our words when we are at a wedding?’ which fits much better with the subsequent discussion on Ketubot 17a about the choice of words that wedding guests might say to a groom about his bride on their wedding day.
But then the Ben Ish Chai asks a deceptively simple question: given that we are meant to bring joy to both the bride and groom on their wedding day, why does the Gemara not also ask כיצד מרקדין לפני החתן? – ‘How do we ‘dance’ before the groom [at his wedding]?’, and though I think that there are a few responses that could be offered in answer to this question, the Ben Ish Chai then quotes an insight from his son, Rabbi Yaakov, which I think may speak to some people.
He explains that when a woman is looking to marry, notwithstanding the fact that she rightly wants to find someone who is kind, sensitive and an overall mensch, she recognizes that all men have their imperfections which can’t be totally sifted out of them. In contrast, when a man is looking to marry, he is looking for not just the perfect wife, but – in real terms – a wife who is perfect.
Before reverting back to our Gemara, and notwithstanding my previously stated aversion to making generalizations about men and women, it is important to note that if you hear a kernel of truth in this insight then you understand how this demand for perfection can put an absurd amount of pressure on women when dating men, and that while every partner in a marriage should see the other as their perfect spouse, a perfect marriage is ultimately ‘two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other’.
Having said all this, Rabbi Yaakov explains that the reason why the Gemara doesn’t ask כיצד מרקדין לפני החתן is because every bride knows that all men have their imperfections, whereas it does ask כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה because every groom looks for a bride who is perfect, and this now helps us understand the upcoming debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai in Ketubot 17a which ultimately is about whether it is up to others, or up to the couple themselves, to discover their imperfections.
In conclusion, while we may have expected the question of כיצד מרקדין to discuss the art of dancing at a wedding, it actually teaches us about the art of filtering our words at all times and especially at simchas, and how we should all think very carefully about what we say – especially when speaking about others.
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