As we have seen, halakha establishes eighteen to twenty as the ideal age for men to marry, with a delay until 24 under extenuating circumstances. In contrast, halakha does not establish a specific age for women to get married. The reason is that all mitzvot related to establishing and providing for a family, as well as the mitzva of Torah study, were imposed on men as an obligation, whereas for women it is a non-obligatory mitzva. A man who has not studied the basics of the Torah or cannot support his family is considered a sinner. Therefore, the Sages instruct men to wait until age eighteen to get married. In contrast, women can get married earlier, since they are not obligated to learn all the basics of the Torah and are not halakhically required to assume the burden of supporting their families. Men are obligated in the mitzva of procreation, so halakha does not allow a man to delay marriage past twenty, or in extenuating circumstances, past 24. In contrast, since women are not obligated to procreate, the Sages did not establish an age by which they must get married. Nevertheless, the Sages said that it is proper for a woman to marry as early as possible. This way, she will fulfill the mitzva of procreation without delay, and the evil inclination will not tempt her (Sanhedrin 76a).
Since a woman fulfills a tremendously important mitzva by marrying and having children, the Torah commands parents to do their best to help their daughters marry. The Sages even instruct people to put aside approximately one-tenth of their assets to help a daughter get married (Ketubot 52b; SA EH 113:1). Nevertheless, the beit din does not get involved in compelling parents to do so (Rema, EH 70:1).
In times of dire poverty, many families were forced to marry off their daughters while they were still girls in order to ensure their future, to make sure that they would not go hungry, and so that they would have the privilege of raising a family. Therefore, the Torah permitted a father to marry off his daughter while she was still a minor (under the age of twelve). However, when there was no existential need to marry off minors, the Sages prohibited doing so, saying, “A man may not marry off his daughter while she is still young; [rather, he must wait] until she has matured and is able to say, ‘I choose this one’” (Kiddushin 41a; SA EH 37:8).
If a father died, the Sages ordained that in order to ensure a minor daughter’s well-being, her mother and brother could marry her off. However, since such a marriage does not have the status of a Torah marriage, if the minor wants to leave the husband they chose for her, she may say before two witnesses that she refuses to be married to him, and this dissolves their union. Based on her refusal, a certificate of repudiation (shtar mi’un) is drawn up. However, if she has not rejected him by the time she turns twelve and exhibits signs of puberty, she becomes his full-fledged wife (SA EH §155).
Nevertheless, when it was not absolutely necessary to marry off a minor in order to ensure her well-being, the Sages directed that even a poor man should not marry off his minor daughter without her wholehearted consent. Only when a girl was close to puberty, if she wished to marry a particular person, then it was a mitzva for her father to marry her off to him (Kiddushin 41a; SA EH 37:8; Tiferet Yisrael, Kiddushin 2:2). If she was not interested in getting married yet, they would wait until she was. In general, the Sages said that girls should be encouraged to marry early, as soon as possible after puberty, so as to avoid delaying the fulfillment of the mitzva of procreation. Additionally, doing so would protect her from the evil inclination’s enticements to act promiscuously. As it says, “Do not degrade your daughter and make her a harlot” (Vayikra 19:29), on which Rabbi Akiva commented, “This refers to a man who delays marrying off his adult daughter” (Sanhedrin 76a).
When such marriages were made due to financial necessity, then even though the bride did not choose the groom, there was no shame in it. Many such marriages were happy and resulted in a thriving family life. The relationship would evolve: At first, the husband’s attitude to his young wife would be paternal. As she grew up and developed her identity, they would become peers. As their connection deepened, she would become as a mother to him, taking care of all of his emotional needs. The Sages use this development as an allegory to describe God’s relationship with the Jewish people (Shemot Rabba 52:5). We must add that the Sages instructed the husband of a minor to refrain from sexual relations until his wife reached puberty. A man who has sexual relations with a minor, even his wife, is deemed a child molester. The Sages say that such a person prevents the arrival of the Messiah, since the girl takes no pleasure in this, nor is she able to bear children (Nidda 13b).