The central narrative in parashas Hayei Sarah is the mission of Avraham’s servant to obtain a wife for Yitzhak. It is generally assumed, by midrashim, other commentaries (including Ibn Ezra, in a passing remark in parashas Yisro1), and contemporary Orthodox students of the Torah that the servant in question was Eliezer, but the servant is not actually identified anywhere in the Biblical text, and the name Eliezer does not appear even once in Hayei Sarah. In fact, the name “Eliezer” appears only once in all of Sefer Bereishis, in Avraham’s plaintive lament to Hashem over his childlessness:
וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם אֲדֹנָי יֱקוִק מַה תִּתֶּן לִי וְאָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי וּבֶן מֶשֶׁק בֵּיתִי הוּא דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר.2
I had long been cognizant of the above, but in the course of preparing for my parashah lectures on פרשת חיי שרה, I was quite surprised to discover that according to one midrashic interpretation (by a sage ironically named “אלעזר”) of the aforementioned verse, “Eliezer” may not have even actually existed at all!
ובן משק ביתי ר’ אלעזר אומר: בן משק ביתי, זה לוט, שנפשו שוקקת עליו ליורשני, הוא דמשק אליעזר, שבשבילו רדפתי מלכים עד דמשק ועזרני הא-ל.
ריש לקיש בשם בר קפרא אמר: בן משק ביתי, בר ביתי הוא אליעזר, שעל ידו רדפתי מלכים עד דמשק, ואליעזר היה שמו, שנאמר: וירק את חניכיו ילידי ביתו שמונה עשר ושלוש מאות.
מנין אליעזר הוה, י”ח וג’ מאות:3
The lectures, on the topic of arranged marriages, with accompanying handout, are available at the Internet Archive. Previous lectures on this topic are also available there, and we have previously written about it here. Following are my weekly cognate halachah columns:
The main topic of parashas Chayei Sarah is the arrangement of the marriage between Yitzhak and Rivkah by Avraham and his trusted servant (often understood to be Eliezer). The Rabbinic tradition does not have much to say about the relative merits of arranged vs. autonomous marriages. We consider here one guideline that it does contain: the Talmudic prohibition against marrying a woman sight unseen, since he may subsequently find her repulsive, “and the Merciful One says ‘thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’” (Kiddushin 41a). Rabbeinu Tam suggests that this may not be normative (Mordechai Kesubos #179), but the consensus is that it is (Shulchan Aruch EH 35:1). The Beis Yosef (ibid.) states that viewing the woman beforehand is only required when it is feasible, but when it is not, due to geographic distance or other factors, it may be dispensed with.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was apparently common in Ashkenazic communities for marriages to be arranged without the couple having ever met. Various halachic authorities attempt to reconcile this practice with the Talmudic admonition:
- The Derishah (ibid.) notes that although the couple did not meet prior to the engagement, they did meet before the actual marriage ceremony.
- The Beis Hillel (ibid.) adds that this Talmudic concern may actually be the rationale behind the “chasan mahl” (“groom’s meal”), a meal held the night before the wedding during which the groom and bride would see and converse with each other. [This meal is less common today, although it is still practiced in some Chassidic circles (see Nitei Gavriel, Hilchos Nisuin I:4:2).] Some authorities argue, however, that the couple should really meet before the engagement, due to the binding nature of engagements (at least in certain societies) and the fact that breaking an engagement is humiliating to the jilted party (see Nitei Gavriel, Shiduchin Ve’Tenaim Ch. 3 nn. 2-3).
- The Derishah (ibid., in an alternative justification) and Beis Shmuel (ibid. s.k. 2) suggest that since due to economic instability or demographic considerations a marriage that is not arranged immediately may wind up never coming to fruition, the requirement for the couple to meet may be dispensed with (as per the aforementioned position of the Beis Yosef).
The central narrative of parashas Chayei Sarah is the mission of Avraham’s servant to find a wife for Yitzchak. As we have previously noted, the Talmud (Kiddushin 41a) prohibits formally betrothing (kiddushin) a woman sight unseen, “lest he see something repulsive in her after the betrothal, and she will become repugnant to him, which will cause him to hate her.” Various commentaries address the question of why this halachah does not seem to have been followed here:
- The Sefer Chassidim (#389) explains that Yitzchak had no choice, since he was unable to leave Eretz Yisrael (i.e., as per Avraham’s reiterated insistence to his servant that he not take Yitzchak with him to the land of Avraham’s birth).
- Some of the Tosafists explain that the Talmudic prohibition only applies to actual kiddushin, and Yitzchak did not perform kiddushin until he met Rivkah. (Moshav Zekeinim) Others, however, assume that the servant did indeed perform kiddushin before Yitzchak ever met Rivkah. (See R. Asher Weiss, Kiddushei Rivkah U’Birchos Erusin )
- Some explain that personal observation of the woman is not absolutely necessary, and the man is able to rely upon reports of the woman’s appearance. (Accordingly, Yitzchak was able to rely upon the servant’s assessment of Rivkah.) (Tzeidah La’Derech, beginning of parashas Lech-Lecha)
- Some suggest that since the entire problem with marrying a woman sight unseen is that one may subsequently discover that he is repelled by her appearance, one who never plans to look at his wife need not worry about this. Just as Avraham (according to an opinion of Chazal) never looked at his wife Sarah and never even knew what she looked like until the point that they traveled to Egypt, so, too, did Yitzchak plan to follow in his father’s footsteps and never look at his wife! (R. Avraham Yakir, cited in Shut. Va’Yageil Yaakov EH #17) R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, however, disagrees with this approach, arguing that the prohibition of Chazal is universal and does not contain exceptions. Moreover, we see that Avraham ultimately did wind up discovering what his wife looked like. (Cited in Eshkol Yosef issue #212 – see the extensive discussion there and in #214)