Early on in today’s daf (Yevamot 107a), in seeking to provide a rationale for Beit Shammai’s position who asserts – in contrast to Beit Hillel – that once an orphan minor has married then ‘mi’un’ (refusal of that marriage) is not possible, the Gemara invokes the phrase לפי שאין תנאי בנשואין – ‘because nissuiun (marriage) cannot be conditional’.
Significantly, this phrase of אין תנאי בנשואין is often quoted unconditionally. However, as the Noda B’Yehuda (Mahadura Kama, Even HaEzer 54) explains – as noted by the Chatam Sofer in his commentary on our daf – while we do rule that a marriage cannot be conditional to the benefit of the man, halacha – in fact – makes it clear that marriage can be conditional if it is to the benefit of a woman. Of course, the precise details of when and how a marriage can be conditional demand more space than I can give here. Nevertheless, and this is an especially pertinent point when addressing the risk of a woman becoming an agunah in whatever circumstance, it is essential that when we read rabbinic phrases such as אין תנאי בנשואין that we understand what they are saying, what they are not, and where and when they do and do not apply.
However, beyond the halachic use of the phrase אין תנאי בנשואין in terms of the legal conditions established at the point of marriage, I would also like to also reflect on a broader understanding of this phrase in terms of behaviours within a marriage. And though there most certainly needs to be a list of non-negotiables in terms of appropriate behaviour in a marriage, this also needs to be coupled with an understanding that the love and commitment that we should wish to foster in a marriage should be unconditional.
For some people what I have just said may sound contradictory – in terms of the idea that marriages require clear boundaries in terms of respect, loyalty and the dignified treatment of the other, and at the same time, that the love and commitment that we should wish to foster in a marriage should be unconditional. In fact, I think that one of the reasons why there is a decline in marriage in the modern period is precisely because many people think that these two notions are unattainable together.
Yet it is precisely because marriage isn’t easy which makes it – and so many other things that aren’t easy either – so special when those boundaries are respected and when that love is unconditional. As Rabbi Sacks explains: ‘Marriage is the most personal and intimate of all forms of human association, and the deepest matrix of faith. We can face any future without fear if we know we will not face it alone. There is no redemption of solitude deeper than to share a life with someone we love and trust, who we know will never desert us, who lifts us when we fall and believes in us even when we fail’ (The Home We Build Together p. 213).