Ten Commandments for a Happy Marriage
For those preparing for marriage, as well as those already wed, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, offers his Ten Commandments for a successful marriage. His advice is based on the 3,300-year-old Jewish tradition, is timeless and applicable to modern couples of all backgrounds.
Marriage Unplugged — From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, observant Jewish families turn off the TV, shut down the computer, ignore the phone and spend time together without the distractions of daily life. Set aside a night each week to tune out the world, tune into each other and focus on the reality of your own lives.
United We Stand — The chuppah, or canopy, that a couple stands under during a Jewish wedding ceremony signifies the home they will build together — symbolically reminding all present that the couple is becoming a unit. It’s OK, even healthy, to have differing opinions from your spouse, but when dealing with outside challenges, remember that you’re a team.
Marriage Ain’t All Wine and Roses — During a Jewish wedding ceremony, wine is sipped to symbolize joy; later, the ceremony concludes with the breaking of a glass calling attention to the fact that life is not always joyful. Yes, your wedding day should be one of the happiest of your life, but keep in mind that you’re sure to face tough times, both big and small, too — from lost jobs to clogged toilets. The good news is that when the proverbial glasses break, you can pick up the pieces together.
Save It for Your Spouse — Ever notice that religious Jewish men and women dress very modestly? It’s not because they’re ashamed of their bodies, but rather because they save their sensual side for their spouses. Keep that in mind the next time you dress for a night out with your pals. Yes, you should look your best, but reserve the seductive stuff for those nights you stay at home alone with your spouse.
Thou Shalt Not Embarrass Thy Spouse — OK, so it’s not one of the original commandments, but Jewish law does forbid people from embarrassing others. It’s equated with theft, since embarrassing someone is like “stealing” his or her dignity. Jewish tradition teaches, “Let your fellow’s honor be as dear to you as your own.” In other words, treat your spouse with respect and admiration in public, as well as in private, and you can expect the same in return.
Don’t Carry a Grudge — A marriage’s foundation can crumble under the weight of too many grudges. You’ve heard it a zillion times — “don’t go to bed angry.” Jewish tradition builds this age-old — and excellent — piece of advice into prayers said before going to sleep at night. But even more than that, in Judaism, Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — is the holiest day of the year. The catch is, however, that Jews can’t ask God for forgiveness until they’ve asked for forgiveness from the people they may have wronged. Take note — offer and accept apologies often.
Meaningful Conversations Encourage Meaningful Marriages — Remember when you were dating and you had in-depth conversations about current events, art, literature and other interesting issues? Keep that in mind the next time you notice that all you and your spouse seem to talk about is what to add to the grocery list, whose turn it is to wash the dishes and how much the neighbors spent on their new sofa. Jewish tradition reminds people to respect their spouse’s intellect, because when your conversations become too trivialized, your marriage does too.
Abstinence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder — According to Jewish law, a husband and wife should refrain from sexual relations during a specific part of each month. The time apart forces a couple to relate to each other in other, non-physical ways. Pick a few days each month to stay apart, and you’ll find it brings you closer together.
Thanks Are Welcome — Sure, we always say thanks for a great birthday present or an effusive compliment. But what about for the day-to-day things like a freshly prepared meal, cleaning the bathroom, taking out the trash and sharing the last serving of ice cream? Jewish tradition reminds people to appreciate the small stuff. There are blessings to be said before and after eating a small snack, upon wearing new clothes for the first time, upon smelling beautiful fragrances and upon seeing fruit trees in bloom for the first time each spring, among others. Remember to thank your spouse for the small things they do each day, and you’ll avoid the pitfalls of taking each other for granted.
Get to Higher (Spiritual) Ground — Yes, marriage is about two people, but you can’t focus on yourselves to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. Jewish tradition encourages couples to bring spirituality and godliness into their homes and lives.
Whatever your religious beliefs, if your marriage has a higher purpose — whether it’s to transmit your religious heritage to your children, help the homeless or save the environment — you’re sure to develop a stronger, long-lasting connection to each other.
A story is recorded in the inspiring biography about the late Jerusalem rabbi Aryeh Levin, “A Tzaddik in Our Times.”
One of the rabbi’s students was about to be married when he came to Reb Aryeh and asked: “How should I behave toward my wife? How should I treat her?” Reb Aryeh looked at him in wonder and said: “How can you ask a question like that? A wife is like your own self. You treat her as you treat yourself.” And, indeed, when his own wife, Hannah, felt pains, he went with her to Dr. Nahum Kook and told him, “My wife’s foot is hurting us.”
This same idea is found in the Torah, where it permeates the life of the first patriarchal couple, Abraham and Sarah. It is not surprising, therefore, that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote in his work, “Biblical Images,” “Abraham and Sarah were not just a ‘married couple’ but a team, two people working in harmony.”
We might wonder, however, how Abraham and Sarah transformed their marriage from “married couple” into a harmonious “team.” Perhaps the answer can be found in a puzzling incident. The Torah relates that soon after arriving in Canaan, Abraham and Sarah had to leave for Egypt because of a sudden bitter famine. As they approached the border of Egypt, Abraham commented to Sarah, “Behold, I now realize that you are a woman of beautiful appearance” (Genesis 12:11).
The commentaries question how Abraham could have made such a statement, as if he were seeing Sarah for the first time, when, in fact, the two had already been married for many years. Rashi, the classical commentator, likewise was perplexed, offering us not one but three answers to the problem. His last answer, labeled “the simple explanation,” seems most intriguing. Rashi suggests that Abraham always had appreciated Sarah’s beauty. He was not an ascetic, oblivious to physical reality, but, instead, recognized the true extent of her attractiveness. His unexpected remark was made, therefore, because he also realized that she would be attractive to the Egyptians, and he had to protect her. In worrying about her welfare, he demonstrated that her problem wasn’t simply her own; rather, it was their problem.
With this in mind, we can comprehend the next words in the text, which state that Abraham said to Sarah, “Please say, therefore, that you are my sister so that it will go well with me for your sake, and my life will be spared because of you” (Genesis 12:13). How, we must wonder, could Abraham ever have jeopardized Sarah’s life in order to save his own? Abraham, however, is really saying that he and Sarah are one. By saving himself, he likewise would save Sarah, and, therefore, he is totally justified in offering this plan of action.
A number of years ago, when the late sage Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach of Israel lost his wife after 50 years of marriage, he eulogized her and declared: “It is customary to request forgiveness from the deceased. However, I have nothing to ask forgiveness for. During the course of our relationship, never did anything occur that would require either of us to ask the other’s forgiveness. Each of us led our life in accordance with the Shulchan Arukh, the Code of Jewish Law.”
When I heard this story, I wondered how anyone could make such a statement! But then I realized that Rabbi and Mrs. Auerbach had models whom they followed. They had an image of how to treat each other, and they followed that image in every aspect of their relationship.
The image of biblical figures such as Abraham and Sarah, and of contemporaries such as Rabbi and Mrs. Levin and Rabbi and Mrs. Auerbach, can inspire all of us if we consider what our spouses really mean to us. Our mission in life is to emulate these models to the best of our ability, because when we do, we achieve real marital bliss.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.