I recently met a woman who is 72 years old and who is working tirelessly at a labor intensive job. And when I asked why, she explained that she’d been married to a gambler whose gambling behaviour cost her marriage, and whose debts cost her home. Consequently, she is now working hard so that when she does retire she will have some savings to support herself.
This woman truly inspired me with her upbeat attitude. At the same time, it led to me to consider the extent to which a spouse may sometimes be expected to financially ‘bail out’ their husband or wife.
This question is relevant to today’s daf (Nazir 24a) which discusses the question of whether a husband is obligated to pay for sacrifices that his wife owed from commitments she made prior to their marriage. Though it is important to note that he wouldn’t be obligated to pay for other pre-marriage debts, our commentaries explain that the husband should be willing to pay for these sacrifices because he would not want his wife to lack the atonement that is understood to come with the bringing of a sacrifice.
All this relates to pre-marriage debts. However, is one obligated to pay for the debts accrued by one’s spouse’s during marriage if, for example, they stem from investments they made while growing their business? This question is addressed by the Rema in his gloss to the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 96:6) who states that in the case of debts accrued by a wife, a husband is not obliged to pay these off. However, the Shach (note 9) disagrees, and among the things he writes is that it is absurd to think that a couple could sit and eat together with the knowledge that one is burdened with debt and the other could help.
What I hope is clear from the above is that there are debts that a spouse accrues which are not their husband or wife’s problem – and this is all the more the case in terms of debts accrued by wreckless decision-making. At the same time, loving someone includes helping them with the problems that are weighing them down.
Given all this, while a husband or wife may not be obligated to financially bail out their spouse, I am moved by the sentiments expressed by the Shach that love involves helping another even when you are not obliged to help because being in a marriage is about being there for each other – in good times, and tougher times too.