Kiddushin 7a ~ Does Marriage Make You Happier?

קידושין ז, א

אמר ריש לקיש: טב למיתב טן דו מלמיתב ארמלו

Resh Lakish said: It is better for a woman to live as tad du than to live alone...

In a 1975 lecture to the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi J.B. ("the Rav") Soloveitchik,  quoted the aphorism of Resh Lakish found in today's page of Talmud.  The Rav went on to explain that it was "based not upon sociological factors...[but] is a metaphysical curse rooted in the feminine personality. This is not a psychological fact; it is an existential fact." Wow.  Is this statement of Resh Lakish really an existential fact? To answer this, we need to first answer another question - what do his words actually mean?

One way to understand the aphorism is as follows:  "A widow would rather live in misery than live alone." But that's not the only translation, which depends on the exact meaning of the Aramaic phrase טן דו (tan du).  There are a number of possibilities.


Let's start with Rashi and his explanation to our text:

בגופים שנים בעל ואשתו ואפילו אינו לה אלא לצוות בעלמא

Tan Du: Two bodies. A husband and wife; even if he is nothing more to her than company.

This explanation of Rashi's does not suggest that married misery is preferred over a single life. This is a slightly different explanation that Rashi gave in when we met this phrase in Yevamot.

טן דו - גוף שנים. משל הדיוט הוא, שהנשים אומרות טוב לשבת עם גוף שנים משבת אלמנה

Tan Du: Two bodies. This is a common maxim, for women say that it is better to live as two than to live alone.

So according to Rashi in both Yevamot and here in Kiddushin, Resh Lakish never addresses living in misery. He just made the observation that women prefer marriage over a single life.


Not so Marcus Jastrow, whose dictionary (published 1886-1903) became a classic reference text for students of the Talmud. Jastrow translated טן דו as a load of grief, an unhappy married life. This will become very important later, so make note. 


Moving on, the Soncino translation of Kiddushin (first published in 1966) echoes Jastrow's translation: "It is better to carry on living with trouble than to dwell in widowhood".  This is similar to the Soncino translation of the same phrase when found in Yevamot 118: "It is preferable to live in grief than to dwell in widowhood." However, a footnote to the text in Yevamot notes that "Levy compares it with the Pers., tandu, two persons." (The reference here is to Jacob Levy's  German Dictionary Chaldisches Worterbuch uber die Targumim - Aramic Dictionary of the Targums and a Large Part of Rabbinic Literature.) Why did Isidore Epstein, editor of the Soncino Talmud, choose to use Jastrow's translation over that of Levy - and that of Rashi? Answering that will take us too far off track, so we will leave it for another time... 


Melamed's Aramaic-Hebrew-English Dictionary (Feldheim: Jerusalem 2005) follows Rashi : "טן דו = two bodies." 


The ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud basis its translation on Rashi: "It is better to live as two together than to live alone." However a footnote (note 18) brings its meaning closer to that of Jastrow and the Soncino: "I.e it is better to be married  - even to a husband of mediocre stature - than to remain single." 


In his Hebrew translation of the Aramaic text found in Yevamot 118, Rabbi Steinsaltz follows Rashi, and translates  טן דו as "two bodies." A side note points out that the true origin of the phrase is not known, though it likely comes from Persian.

The newer English Koren Talmud follows the same translation: "It is better to sit as two bodies, ie., to be married, than to sit alone like as a widow. A woman prefers the any type of husband to being alone."  Elsewhere in the Koren series, (Yevamot 118a) there is a note, (written by Dr. Shai Secunda), which is more definitive than the Hebrew note. Tan Du is from middle Persian, meaning together.  It's nothing to do with being miserable.


I've left perhaps the strongest textual witness for last: how the words Tan Du were understood during the period of the Geonim (c. 589-1038). In 1887 Avraham Harkavy published a collection of responsa from this period that he found in manuscripts held in the great library of St. Petersburg. In this collection is a reference to our mysterious words:

  טן דו בלשון פרסי שני בני אדם. ארמלו יחידות 

טן דו in Persian means two people. ארמלו means alone.

Chronologically, this is our earliest source, and, therefore, perhaps our most compelling. Case closed.


So far we have the following four versions of what we will now call the Resh Lakish Rule:

It's better for a woman to be...

  • ....married and unhappy than single  (Jastrow)
  • a less desirable or mediocre marriage than no marriage at all (ArtScroll footnote).
  • ...miserable and married than to be a widow (Soncino).
  • ...with a husband than to be alone (ArtScroll, Koren, Melamed, Rashi, Teshuvot Hage'onim)


It seems that the translation of  טן דו as miserable originated with Jastrow, and that those who translate Resh Lakish as saying "misery is better than being single" are following in the Jastrow tradition. If we were to evaluate the Resh Lakish Rule per Jastrow (and Soncino and an ArtScroll footnote), the question is, what, precisely, constitutes  a "miserable marriage"? One in which the woman feels physically safe but emotionally alone? One in which her husband loves her dearly but is  unable to provide for her financially? Or one in which she has all the money she needs but her husband is an alcoholic? Tolstoy has taught us that each unhappy family (and presumably each miserable marriage) is unhappy in its own unique way. The point here is not to rank which is worse. 

[In the 1950s, a] bad marriage was usually a better option for a woman, especially if she had a child, than no marriage at all.
— Stephanie Coontz. Marriage, A History.Viking 2005. p288

Today it would be utterly silly (and incredibly rude and insulting) to suggest that a woman is better off miserable than single.  But after our review, that does not appear to be what Resh Lakish ever said.  What he really said was this: a woman would be better off (טב) married than living alone (as a widow). Resh Lakish didn't explain what he meant by better off, so we will have to assume that what he meant was a measure of overall well-being, or what we call... happiness. What we want to know, is how this understanding of Resh Lakish stands up today. Was the Rav correct when he called this "an existential fact"?


Happiness inequality exists and has been well documented. University of Pennsylvania economists Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, (who live together, but not within the bonds of marriage), note that

“...the rich are typically happier than the poor; the educated are happier than those with less education; whites are happier than blacks; those who are married are happier than those who are not; and women—at least historically—have been happier than men.”

But why is this so? Don't we all oscillate around a set point of happiness, regardless of what life may throw at us? Some psychologists think so.


According to the set point theory of happiness, we all revolve around our own, innate happiness point. When we are faced with adversity, we do, to be sure, become sadder. But we eventually bounce back to where we were before, back at our set point. Similarly, when met with some good mazal, we are, for a period, more happy. But then we return to our innate set point for happiness, wherever that was prior to the good fortune. The evidence for this comes from a classic study which found that "lottery winners were not much happier than controls" and that accident victims who were paralyzed "did not appear nearly as unhappy as might have been expected." (The problem is that this study used a tiny sample - there were only 22 lottery winners and 29 paralyzed accident victims - so we need to be very cautious in generalizing from it.) 

Married people are – on average – happier than those who are single, but perhaps this fact does not suggest causation. Some would argue that it's just a correlation. A grumpy person, unable to hold down a job and miserable to be around, is not likely to find another individual willing to marry him. So it’s not that marriage makes you happier –it’s that happier people are more likely to find a partner and get married. According to this set point theory of happiness, the Resh Lakish Rule would not be supported, since the act of marrying would have no overall long-term effect on happiness.


However, evidence from a 15 year longitudinal study of 24,000 people suggests that "marital transitions can be associated with long-lasting changes in satisfaction."  This would support the claim that marriage is causally related to happiness. It's not that you went from being a happy person who was once single to being a similarly happy person who is now married. What actually happened was that the marriage had an effect on just how happy you became.  And data from other large cohort studies show that happiness increases when people marry. Just look at the happiness of women by marital status in the figure below. Was Resh Lakish onto something?

Mean happiness of women by marital status, birth cohort of 1953-1972, from ages 18-19 and 28-29. From Easterlin, RA.  Explaining Happiness .   Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences   2003. 100 (19): 11176-11183.

Mean happiness of women by marital status, birth cohort of 1953-1972, from ages 18-19 and 28-29. From Easterlin, RA. Explaining HappinessProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2003. 100 (19): 11176-11183.

All this supports the Resh Lakish Rule that people are happier when they are married. (I say people because all the evidence applies equally to men too.) But we can get even more specific, because Resh Lakish used the word ארמלא, which most likely means widowed (and hence has a secondary meaning of being alone). There is actually data that applies to this more specific Resh Lakish claim about widows, and it comes from The Roper Center at the University of Connecticut. 

From    Economics and Happiness   , ed Bruni L. Oxford University Press 2005.

From Economics and Happiness, ed Bruni L. Oxford University Press 2005.

As shown in the table, 62% of women who are widowed want to be happily married.  (Of course this also means that about 40% of widowed women would rather not be married -  even happily. That’s a huge proportion. Still, the overall finding still supports the Resh Lakish Rule.) The women's perspective is the most important perspective in this conversation, and when women (widows) were asked, most wanted to be married again. Widows indeed wish to live as two rather than live alone. I don't think this amounts to anything like an existential fact, as claimed by the Rav. But the evidence from the social sciences would certainly support the Resh Lakish Rule.

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Gittin 49b ~ Who Wants to Marry More?

גיטין מט, ב

יותר ממה שהאיש רוצה לישא אשה רוצה להנשא

More than a man desires to wed, a woman desires to be wed.(Gittin 49b).

When a couple marries under traditional Jewish law, the husband undertakes several financial obligations which are outlined in the ketuvah. Among these, he agrees to provide money for his wife in the event that the couple divorce or that he dies.  In today's daf, the Talmud discuss what kind of land the husband may provide for this payment to his wife. Rabbi Yehuda opined that the land may be of inferior (rather than average or superior) quality.  The reason is that a women is so eager to marry, that she will do so even if her right to collect her ketuvah payment was limited to inferior land.  Or as the Talmud puts it, יותר ממה שהאיש רוצה לישא אשה רוצה להנשא: "More than a man desires to wed, a woman desires to be wed" (Gittin 49b).  Since she will agree to marry even if she will only receive inferior quality land in the event of divorce or her becoming a widow, there was simply no need to demand the husband provide any better land.  

We have come across a similar concept when we studied Ketuvot (86b). There the Talmud asks: what would happen if a man owes money to both a debtor and to his ex-wife to pay for her ketuvah? The answer given is that if this unlucky person can only repay one of the debts, he should repay the creditor and not his ex-wife. Although this ruling might discourage women from getting married in the first place, the Talmud was not be concerned, because "more than a man desires to wed, a woman desires to be wed."  

We've had other occasions to look at sweeping statements made by the rabbis of the Talmud about ways women view marriage. Resh Lakish famously stated (יבמות 118) that "it was better for a women to live with a husband than to live alone" (though you may recall that there were at least four ways to understand this statement of Resh Lakish). We also noted that the late Rabbi J.B. ("the Rav") Soloveitchik believed that this statement reflected "an existential fact." (It also turned out that he was wrong.) While the Talmud does not seem to suggest that its psychological insight is an "existential fact," does it have any validity to it in today's society? Do women really want to be married more than men?


In June 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that same sex marriage was guaranteed by the Constitution. The lesson here is that societal norms of about all aspects of marriage are changing very quickly. It may indeed have been true in talmudic times that women wanted to marry more than did men, but our society is vastly different. And with that note of caution, we may proceed.

The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change.
Changes, such as the decline of arranged marriages and the abandonment of the law of coverture, have worked deep transformations in the structure of marriage, affecting aspects of marriage once viewed as essential. These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution. Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.
— US Supreme Court Opinion 14-556 decided June 25, 2015.


In 2011 the anthropologist Helen Fisher and two colleagues released the "largest and most comprehensive nationally-representative study of single men and women ever done." They surveyed 5,200 single people in the US aged 21 to over 65, and found "a new picture of single Americans emerges that is radically different than it was 50 years ago..." And what of the talmudic claim that women are more eager to marry?

This national survey clearly shows that men are just as eager to marry as women are; 33% of both sexes want to say “I do. (Helen Fisher 2011. The Forgotten Sex: Men.)

So today in the US (at least according to Fisher's survey,) it is not correct to say that women want to be married more than men. Some of Fisher's other findings about the attitudes of single men might surprise you too:

Men in every age group are more eager than women to have children.  Even young men. Among those between ages 21 and 34, 51% of men want kids, while 46% of women yearn for young.  Men are less picky too.  Fewer men say it is important to find a partner of their own ethnic background (20% of men vs 29%  of women said this is a “must have” or “very important”); and fewer say they want someone of their own religion (17% of men vs 28% of women said this is a “must have” or “very important”).   Men are also more likely to have experienced love at first sight...

Let's give the last word to Dr Fisher, (who serves as an advisor to, and remember the danger of assuming that human nature does not change.  

My colleagues and I have put over 60 men and women ages 18-57 into a brain scanner to study the brain circuitry of romantic passion.  We found no gender differences. supports what I have long suspected: that men are just as eager to find a partner, fall in love, commit long term and raise a family.
It’s an illuminating, indeed myth-shattering, new set of scientific data.  And the sooner we embrace these findings, and fling off our outmoded and unproductive beliefs about both sexes, the faster we will find—and keep–the love we want.

[Repost from Yevamot 118.]

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