Parshas Ki Seitzei
September 4th-5th, 1998
14 Elul, 5758
Judaism has many celebrated institutions: the Sabbath, the Day of Atonement, the Pesach
seder. (Not to mention stand-up comedy...though I haven't been able to pin down its
biblical source yet.) All of these are blessings for the Jewish people, and
storehouses of divine wisdom for all mankind.
There's one somewhat less formal Jewish observance, however, which hasn't gotten much
press outside Orthodox circles (as far as I know), but deserves to be mentioned, studied
and widely implemented. It is popularly known as shanah rishonah (the first year),
and denotes the special sacredness and obligations of the maiden year of one's marriage.
You guessed it: the source of the idea of shanah rishonah is found in this week's parsha,
nestled among its myriad other mitzvos:
When a man marries a new wife, he shall not go out to the army, nor shall it [the army]
obligate him for any matter; he shall be free for his home for one year, and he shall
gladden his wife whom he has married. (Devarim: 24, 5; Artscroll translation.)
As the Talmud and Codes explain, the new groom could not be conscripted (except in the
case of certain specific obligatory wars, such as those against Amalek or the seven
Canaanite nations), nor was he to be called upon to provide support for the army--by
preparing food or water for the troops, or fixing roads. He was exempt from all
public service, not to be burdened with any matter in the world (to paraphrase the
And what sacred duty took precedence over his civic responsibilities during this year?
The obligation to be "free for his home" and "to gladden
his wife." Rabbi Aharon of Barcelona, in his famous work, Sefer
HaChinuch, states that the Torah prohibits the groom from leaving his bride alone for many
days during the first year--regardless of the reason for his departure. (It's
unclear whether or not the Sefer HaChinuch would agree that she may willingly yield her
right to have him nearby, e.g. be mochel him, in yeshiva parlance.)
Here we must translate (as we did last week) Rabbi Aharon's lovely words as he explains
some of what's behind this mitzvah of shanah rishonah: [one root purpose of the
commandment is] to make the nature [of the groom] comfortable with her [the bride],
and to cause his will to cling to her, and to cause her form and all her ways to enter his
heart to the extent that all actions of any other
woman...seem foreign to his nature. For, in
general, everyone's nature is to pursue and love what he is familiar with.
Consequently, the man will keep his distance from any other woman, and turn his
thoughts to the wife who is fit for him... (Chinuch, Mitzvah # 582)
The Torah knows very well the difference in the nature of the sexes, and understands that
it is the man who characteristically has trouble settling down to the idea of ONLY ONE
mate; it has been suggested that one possible reason only men are obligated in the mitzvah
of tzitzis is that they are the ones who typically need to be reminded "not to go out
spying after your hearts and after your eyes," more than women. Shanah
rishonah, as the Sefer HaChinuch presents it, is a wonderful antidote to this male disease
(epidemic!) of distraction: it calls upon the groom to work for a whole year at making his
new wife the sole focus of his thoughts and affection. It lays the foundation,
ideally, for a lifetime of loyalty.
In practice, separation between husband and wife during shanah rishonah is strongly
discouraged, if not actually prohibited. I once heard one of my teachers, Rabbi
Noach Orlowek, speak of the supreme importance of the first year of marriage in
establishing trust between husband and wife; he commented that due to the spiritual
decline of the generations, we usually need much more than one year nowadays to accomplish
what the Torah had in mind. Our shanah rishonah might have to be three or four years
Needless to say, marriage doesn't lose its importance afterwards. Rabbi Akiva Tatz,
another noted contemporary thinker, has stated that there is nothing more worthy of
the very greatest lifelong investment of energy and idealism than the task of perfecting
one's marriage, under the guidance of the Torah. But shanah rishonah is the crucial
I saw an interesting item from an Israel news service on the Internet a few days ago.
Two Hebrew University physicists have concluded, based on groundbreaking research
in relativity theory, that black holes cannot be safely passed through. One of them
commented--wryly, I suppose, or perhaps with genuine regret--, "Alternatives
will have to be found for those wishing to pass through to other universes."
How perfect, I thought: to spend our lives wishing for
other bodies, other jobs, other surroundings...and now, other universes! We see the
same dynamic in our own national history, of course: the books of the prophets are filled
with reproof for the errant Jewish people, who were given the supreme gift of the Torah
and the mitzvos, but wandered off in search of...other gods. We just can't be
satisfied with what we have, evidently.
The mitzvah of shanah rishonah, on the other hand,
works to develop that other, brighter side of human nature that the Sefer HaChinuch
highlighted: the capacity to "pursue and love what one is familiar with."
It teaches us not to look for other spouses, but to commit our hearts to the ones
It's never too late to strengthen the spirit of shanah rishonah in our marriages, and in
our lives. May Hashem give us the wisdom to be satisfied, and even more--to
REJOICE--with all that we have.
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director of the Savannah Kollel/ Savannah Torah Education Project. Phone:
fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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