Answer: It really depends on how great the difference is. If one person is a Torah observant Jew and the other is not, then the answer is that they should definitely not marry each other. There are too many fundamental differences to be a good match. For the observant partner, there will be constant obstacles to doing all the mitzvos involved in building a Jewish home and spiritual growth will be difficult if not impossible.

In addition, children growing up in such a home will be very confused. Since one of our main purposes in marriage is to raise children on the path of Torah, marrying someone who will be sending out a conflicting message or maybe even putting up obstacles in the children’s path defeats the purpose.

Even for the non-religious partner, it is not a good idea. Having to accommodate all the limitations that come with Torah life will quickly become a burden. Altogether, this is a recipe for unhappiness.

As a matter of fact, even when both partners are religious, there can be room for concern, since there are bound to be differences in their levels. One might be ahead of the other in certain areas, but behind in other areas. For example, you might be stricter with the laws of Shabbos and kashrus, while your spouse might be far more careful with mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro (mitzvos governing how people treat each other), such as loshon hora (gossip) and chessed (helping others).

But, is that enough of a reason not to marry each other? Not necessarily. The exact level of each partner does not have to be an issue; to the contrary, as long as you are both open and focused on growing, you can learn and grow a lot from each other. In fact, this is the perfect paradigm of what a spouse was created for. At the very beginning of creation, Adam was the only human created. G-d then declared that it would be better for him to have a wife, who will be an ezer k’negdo (a helper opposite him). One explanation of this phrase is that the wife is there to be an “opposite,” which means to challenge the husband when he is heading in the wrong direction (and vice versa). Hence, successful marriages are often made of two people who complement and balance each other out, with each one having different pros and cons, thereby helping each other grow.

However, this is only true if the differences between you are not that immense. If the gap between you is very big (for example, the man wants to join a yeshivah-type community, and the woman doesn’t foresee ever wanting to cover her hair), then this gap may simply be too great to bridge, which will bring too much struggle in your married life together. You’ll either be in constant conflict or you’ll be giving up on your vision of what your married life will be.

One additional point: This whole discussion is in regard to potential marriage partners. However, if a couple is already married and one becomes a ba’al teshuvah while the other remains uninterested, the equation is different. As long as both partners are Jewish, preserving the marriage – especially one that has been happy – is a high priority. We know of countless situations in which one partner resisted for a long time, but eventually changed his or her perspective. This doesn’t happen through fighting or forcing the spouse to follow. It only happens by example; when the baal teshuva seems happy and fulfilled, and the changes in his or her life are clearly enhancing the marriage and the home, the other partner will often follow suit.

In summary: The main question to consider when deciding whether someone’s religious level is right for you is whether or not this is someone with whom you can grow and raise the kind of family you envision for yourself. If your answer is “no,” then you are on the wrong track. If your answer is “yes,” then you have the makings of a happy, productive marriage.

Question: Since we are taught that shidduchim are bashert (pre-ordained by Hashem), how much practical effort am I required to make? Won’t Hashem make sure that the spouse He’s chosen for me comes into my life one way or another? Why should I bother working so hard, researching and networking for a potential shidduch?

Answer: It is important to understand the basic system of how the world runs. Although Hashem is running the world, we do not always see His guiding Hands openly. Often, He is “pulling the strings” from behind the scenes. Therefore, the fact that something is bashert does not mean that it’s guaranteed to come to us without any effort on our part. In fact, our rabbis teach us that every year on Rosh Hashanah it is decided how much money each person will make that year. A person might be destined to become rich, but that does not mean that he can now go on sabbatical and count on the money just dropping into his lap. He still has to make a normal effort to earn money and then Hashem will make his efforts successful.

The same applies to every endeavor in life. This means that we have to make normal efforts to accomplish our goals, almost as if Hashem were out of the picture. For a shidduch, a person has to go through the process, and in the course of that effort, Hashem will place in front of the person the individual He has chosen. It’s still up to both parties to see clearly enough to recognize their bashert. This is what the idea of bashert means in shidduchim and in everything else.

At the same time, as we do our part, we have to realize that our success comes from Hashem. Ultimately, He will decide whether or not we will obtain the things we are seeking. Most important of all, we have to trust that whatever result Hashem hands us is what is best for us. That means that if a shidduch you wanted falls through, you are able to process the disappointment with the understanding that it wasn’t meant for you, it wouldn’t have ultimately been good for you, and something better is waiting in the wings.

One positive way of acting on our understanding of bashert is by keeping an open mind regarding our “wish list” for a shidduch. If you have too many prerequisites to a marriage partner, and insist that the person has to be a certain height, weight, hair-color, personality, profession and so forth, and you refuse to meet people who don’t fit the bill, then you might be refusing to meet the person Hashem has chosen for you. While there are certain criteria that you can and should insist on, remember that you are not “designing” your future spouse; you are searching for the spouse Hashem has already chosen for you.

Question: Why does it seem that in shidduchim, the girls are always a few years younger than the boys? Do a few months or even a few years really make a difference?

Answer:  Although there is a general preference for the boy to be older than the girl, it’s by no means a requirement. The preference probably comes from that fact that generally, girls mature more quickly than men do. We see this clearly from a halachic viewpoint: A boy does not reach halachic maturity – bar mitzvah – until the age of 13, whereas a girl celebrates this milestone, at the age of 12. This is because females reach maturity at a younger age and are therefore perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and a household from a younger age. All they might be lacking is experience, but if a girl has had a lot of responsibilities at home, such as taking care of her younger siblings, then she’ll have plenty of experience as well.

Because girls reach maturity earlier than boys do, a marriage between a boy and girl who are the same age may not be ideal. The girl may be much more mature than the boy. In a healthy marriage, it is proper for a wife to be able to look up to her husband, and feel that she can rely on him. However, if he is the same age and not as mature, she might end up feeling as if he is her younger brother rather than her husband. A year can make a big difference in a boy, especially if he has is still trying to develop the character traits and skills that will make him a good husband.

Again this is just in general, but it is not an ironclad rule. Additionally, this is usually only the case for younger couples. By the time people reach their mid-twenties, most of these differences fade away. At this point, maturity is more a function of the individual’s personality than his or her age. Therefore, the “age gap” becomes far less important and it can be very worthwhile to consider a shidduch in which the boy and girl are close in age, or even in which the girl is older. In fact, many rabbis will permit a girl, in certain circumstances, to initially lie about her age, because the age difference is sometimes irrelevant to the shidduch’s suitability.

Age is also less important when the boy is someone who is self-aware and mature. A famous example is Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch, a great leader of the German Jewish community in the mid-1800s. He married a woman who was three years older than he. When asked why he chose a wife older than he, he replied that he had lofty goals to accomplish in life and wanted a mature woman who could be a partner in it all. 

Question: Is it wrong to reject a shidduch based on looks?

Answer: There’s no question that in most cases, especially in our times, a basic attraction is a necessary component of marriage. In fact our sages tell us that a man should not finalize a shidduch, without first seeing the prospective marriage partner, to ensure that he is happy with her appearance.

There is a question, however, about what “attractive” means. How much of our idea of attractiveness is dictated to us by society? The images we see all around us media advertisements and billboards – even if we try not to look or be effected by them – set up an outlook that most people absorb into their minds without even realizing where their value system is coming from. Being influenced by society’s evaluation of what is attractive stops us from looking at the person with fresh eyes and noticing his or her appealing features. This can be a nice smile, a pleasant facial expression, gracefulness, an aura of strength, serenity, or any of dozens of traits with which Hashem endows people. The saying that “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” is true, but only when we really take the time to appreciate another person rather than judging him or her according to Hollywood standards.

There is a story of a boy who went out with a girl and rejected her because even though he liked her very much, he didn’t find her attractive. A short time later, he found out that this girl’s nick-name was Shenster – Yiddish for “The Prettiest.” This threw a new light on the girl; people considered her pretty! Maybe he had missed something, he thought. He decided to try another date with her, and lo and behold, he found her pretty as well. The couple was married soon thereafter.  

The moral of the story is that we are all very influenced by society’s evaluation of what is attractive. While you certainly can and should marry someone you find appealing, you should also be aware that you might be mindlessly overlooking the unique beauty that each person possesses. Before rejecting someone because he or she lacks appeal, you would be wise to try to drop any preconceived notions and look at the shidduch with fresh eyes.

Question: How many times should one go out before becoming engaged?

Answer: In our circles, it is appropriate for a couple to go out 8 to 10 times. This should be enough time to see each other in various situations and get a feel for the way the person communicates, thinks, treats people and deals with frustration. Couples need to go out often enough to allow both parties to feel comfortable and let their true personalities emerge. After 8 to 10 dates, the couple should be able to make a fairly accurate assessment of each other’s personality and beliefs. That doesn’t mean that they will show their worst side to each other. However, most people will have a great deal of difficulty hiding a major character flaw over the course of 25 or 30 hours of intensive interaction with another person. Of course, as any married couple will attest, you only begin to really know each other after the wedding.

There are segments of Jewish society that favor a much quicker dating process. In Chassidish circles, “dating” as we define it doesn’t exist. The couple meets a few times just to get a basic feel for each other. If everything seems to be in order and they feel positive about each other, they get engaged.  Usually, these couples are just as happy as couples who get to know each other better before engagement.

However, this system can only work in a very insulated environment. In such an environment, it is far easier to research the family of a suggested shidduch, and  assume that the children of a particular family all share the same influences and approach to life. But, in our times, this type of insularity is hard to maintain and just doing typical research will often not yield a clear picture of what the boy or girl is all about.

Rabbi Moshe Bik once commented to the Satmar Rebbe, leader of the Satmar Chassidim, that based on their positions, they had a difference in perspective as to how often a couple should go out before becoming engaged. The Satmar Rebbe – a staunch proponent of the Chassidic method of keeping the dates short and sweet – told Rabbi Bik that he was unhappy with the American system of lengthy dating. Rabbi Bik famously responded that the Rebbe’s opinion was based on officiating at weddings, but Rabbi Bik officiated at Jewish divorce proceedings. “That’s why I say they should go out at least 8 times,” Rabbi Bik explained.

The number of dates is important because certain things only emerge over time. There are no short-cuts to getting to know another person. There is a story of a couple who had gone out a few times and everything was moving forward. To the girl it seemed that the boy was pleasant and caring. Then, on one date, they went to a mall where they saw someone trip and fall. Instead of expressing his concern for the person who fell, the boy found the person’s accident amusing.  The girl quickly realized that his character traits were lacking, and called it off.

Not only is the number of dates important, but the quality of dates is also crucial. Each party has to give the other full attention, be willing to have some open, meaningful conversations and take time after the date to think about what transpired.

In summary, even if the heart says “yes” after Date #1, people must realize that this is a life-time decision and they should hold off on a decision until enough of the facts are in, to be really sure that this is the right life partner.

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