A couple of years ago I found myself stressed about a dilemma. I had discovered that one of the biggest Rabbis of the 20th century decreed that Orthodox Jews were forbidden from attending a Reform Synagogue. Being a baal teshuvah (someone who became observantly Jewish later in life) my family was still not observant and in about seven years I was going to have a big problem. When my sister’s children have their Bar and Bat mitzvahs, was I really going to not attend such a momentous family event?
If it was up to me, I wouldn’t miss it even if I had to walk 4 miles in the 100 degree heat on a Shabbos morning. But it wasn’t up to me, it was a stringency my community holds and I would be expected to as well. Could I shirk this obligation saying, “I’m just not at that level yet”? Sure, but that would go against my bitachon, my trust that Hashem runs the world, as well as my integrity. The other option, however, would make an irreparable rift in my relationship with my sister and her children forever. It was a problem that weighed on me heavily.
Then one day, my friend Saul said, “Why don’t you talk to our Rabbi?”
I had already mentioned it to one Rabbi in passing, but I had been vague and not specific about my situation. So I called the Rabbi my friend recommended. I told him the story and his first response was, “There’s not even a question. You have to go.”
The sense of relief was how a man on death row must feel upon receiving a pardon. For expediency sake, that was not the end of the conversation. There would be guidelines I would have to follow and the answer he gave me may not be the answer he gives to someone else. But that’s the true role of a Rabbi. To understand the ins and outs of Jewish law (halacha) while also understanding the unique individual before them, to give the appropriate Torah they need. In this case, the Rabbi was making his decision based off a critical function known as shalom bayis.
You may have heard the term shalom bayis as a sort of loophole for Jewish laws. It’s not, but as my story implied, it sort of is. The term literally means peace in the home. It is most used to describe the building of the immediate family unit, most specifically in negotiating the relationship between a man and wife. You know the phrase, “You can be right, or you can be happy.” Or even, “You can be right, or you can be married.” In a nut shell, that’s what shalom bayis is about. But putting aside your own desires and even dignity for the happiness of your partner is one thing. Transgressing the Torah for them? That’s something entirely different.
The Torah in no way, shape, or form says you can break the laws to satisfy your spouse, so let’s check that misconception at the door. But a story in Berishis (Genesis) does imply some rule bending. God comes to Abraham and Sarah and tells them that in a year’s time, Sarah will have a son. Sarah laughs and says “After I have become worn out, will I have smooth flesh? And also, my master [Abraham] is old.” To which God replies to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Is it really true that I will give birth, although I am old?'” (paraphrasing Berishis chapter 18:10-13).
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) comments that Sarah didn’t say she was old, but that Abraham was old. Yet when God relates her words to Abraham, He changes them, so Abraham won’t feel bad and “for the sake of peace.” Then the Talmud in Yevamos 65a further says that, “Peace is so great, even the Holy One changes for it.” God didn’t perfectly quote Sarah, so what? But remember we regard God as not only a reliable source, He’s the essence of Truth. When God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but it is really just a test, God has to word the text so specifically that the actual text of the Torah is still true (God doesn’t say sacrifice, He says bring Isaac up the mountain as an olah which is a type of sacrifice, but literally means to raise up.)
Another source for shalom bayis is in something known as the Sotah procedure. A bizarre ritual done only in the days when the Temple stood, if a wife was suspected of adultery (and under very specific conditions) the husband could bring her to the kohanim in the Temple and subject the wife to a test of drinking special “bitter” waters. The waters would prove her guilt or innocence through miracle. But in order to perform the Sotah procedure, the holiest name of God would need to be written on parchment, then cut up and dissolved into the water. In Judaism, the care of God’s name is paramount and forbidden from being erased, burned, or even thrown away. You may have seen G-d, H’, יי, or other abbreviations for God’s name. That’s so if the paper is thrown away, you’re not actually destroying the name of God. But the Gemara says that for the sake of shalom bayis, God is willing to let His name be erased.
Bias for Bayis
We now understand that peace in the home is so critical that God is willing to bend truths and even sacrifice His name for it. But how far does that extend? Can you eat at McDonalds because your wife has a craving for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese? No. But think about it another way. Let’s say you really don’t want to get Covid. Like you’ve got an auto immune disease so you can’t get the vaccine and if you did get Covid you have a good feeling you’d be in that 2% who actually will die. So when you go into the grocery store, you’re going to mask up, keep more than six feet from everyone even though they’re probably vaccinated, and you’re going to sanitize, then wash your hands. You’re going to go above and beyond.
A lot of rules observant Judaism holds by is a bit like that. Sure you probably won’t get covid, but if millions were in the same situation, without those extra precautions, some people are still going to get sick. That’s how Jews feel about making sure we accomplish mitzvahs and avoid anything that would create a divide between us and Hashem (or rather that’s how we try to feel about it.) But what if that same Covidphobic person needs to get their medication, but forgot their sanitizer at home? Of course they’re still going to walk into the pharmacy. They just need to make sure to wash their hands really well when they get home.
Building a home of peace is as important as picking up your heart medication. Sometimes you might have to risk somethings to get there. But unlike with Covid, you need a Rabbi to know which precautions are stringencies, and which practices are essential halachas that cannot be compromised on. Building a home with peace is like laying the foundation of a house. You don’t really need to worry so much about what color the walls are going to be at that early of a stage. Similarly, making sure the family holds to cholov yisroel (a stringency concerning milk) may not be the hill you want to die on.
It May Not be Peace even if there is Quiet.
As I’ve said before, the Jewish concept of peace (shalom) doesn’t mean the absence of conflict. Shalom comes from the word shalem which means whole. So real peace comes when everybody’s needs are being met. When a person is single, that bar may be a lot easier to reach. Getting work done, learning with no distractions, fulfilling mitzvahs how you like to do them and at the level you like to do them is all great. But when you’re living with a spouse, all of that becomes much harder.
However, a home is compared to a mishkan (the prototypical Temple and a microcosm of all creation.) The Gemara in Sotah (the section concerning the ritual described above) informs us that the Schechinah (God’s earthy presence) rests between a husband and a wife. So even though a person may have been making slam dunks with their Torah and mitzvah observance before marriage, those same accomplishments within the context of marriage have far more powerful implications. It’s like playing high school basketball vs the NBA. You may not be able to dunk anymore, but when you make a shot, the whole world is watching.
So to put aside the hot shot stuff for the sake of mastering the basics with a partner and bringing up a new generation, that’s what the game is all about. But you can’t do that if you can’t get the players on the court. Peace brings joy, positivity, clarity, and growth. And according to the Rambam who says, “The Torah was given only to bring peace to the world,” clearly Shalom Bayis is what it is all about. Just make sure you talk to your Rabbi to know whether your compromises are wise and warranted, or if you’re walking into an over crowded super spreader event without a mask.
This post is dedicated to the merit of the refuah shelma of Yosef ben Faygi.
Great article. Thanks for taking the time to write it.
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