08. Coercion to Marry

Shulḥan Arukh rules, “It is a mitzva for every man to marry a woman when he is eighteen…and under no circumstances should he pass the age of twenty without a wife. If a man passes the age of twenty and does not want to get married, the beit din compels him to marry in order to fulfill the mitzva of procreation” (EH 1:3). What does this coercion involve? According to Rif and Rambam, he is beaten; according to Tosafot and Rosh, he is rebuked and sanctioned – no one is to do business with him or employ him, but he is not physically beaten or excommunicated (SA EH 154:21).

The question arises: How can a person be compelled to fulfill this mitzva, when marriage requires desire and love? How is it conceivable that we would coerce someone to get married? Clearly a man is not forced to marry someone he does not choose to marry. Rather, the Sages wish to advance a principled position: a person should get married by the age of twenty in order to fulfill the mitzva of procreation, and in principle the beit din should compel him to do so. In reality, though, only on rare occasions is the beit din in a position to intervene. An example would be a situation in which a young man has a close relationship with a young woman, and they have agreed to get married, but he keeps delaying the marriage based on various pretexts. In such a case, the beit din would compel him to marry her (R. Ḥayim Palachi, Ru’aḥ Ḥayim, EH 1:12).

Usually the issue of coercion arises when a man wants to marry a woman who cannot have children. For example, Rivash (who lived c. 600 years ago in Algiers) was asked about a young man who wanted to marry a rich old woman. The beit din of Tenes sought to prevent it on the grounds that he would not be able to procreate with her. Rivash responded that longstanding custom is not to compel particular matches, for such coercion can lead to much strife (Responsa Rivash §15). (The issue of a couple who has no children after ten years of marriage is addressed below, 6:7-8.)

To summarize, according to Shulḥan Arukh, the rabbinic courts can coerce a person to fulfill the mitzva of procreation, but as we have explained, in practice this has been done only in exceptional cases, when there was blatant disregard for the mitzva. According to Rivash and Rema, even then coercion is not used (SA EH 1:3). Current practice follows the last approach.

If a man reaches the age at which he is obligated to marry but has not found the right woman, even if there is a woman who is willing to marry him, he is not obligated to compromise, and he may continue his search for a suitable match (Yafeh La-lev, vol. 4, EH 1:13). However, if he is deluded, in search of a woman who does not exist or who would most likely not agree to marry him, he is guilty of delaying the mitzva. To help resolve these kinds of problems, the Sages instruct, “Get yourself a teacher; acquire a friend” (Avot 1:6). These mentors may give him advice, and sometimes even point out the error of his ways. The older the unmarried man, the harder he must try to fulfill the mitzva. This includes the willingness to compromise, because it would seem that what it comes down to is not compromising but adjusting to reality.

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