Before we return to the story and relate how Hillel’s wife and son joined him in Judea, we must look into the marriage customs and the place of women in society in Judea and Babylon. It is easy to lump ancient society’s approach to women under one distastefully male-dominated, woman-abusive state of affairs, but it is not the way things were. Generalizations are never entirely true, and when one examines the history of those two countries, many surprises surface.
This segment is by no means the entire story. Much more research is needed, and will be added as the book develops, since the subject is extremely important if one is to understand Hillel’s views of marriage, family, and women in general. There are many sources that are easily obtained, but also some unpublished dissertations about the subject I happened to see more than ten years ago in the wonderful New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish Division room. At the time, I was researching my biography of Maimonides, and the material I needed was 11th and 12th centuries, so I did not study those papers. I plan to go back there and see if they can still be accessed.
Most of us have at least a superficial knowledge of the Old Testament, and might remember that it is full of love stories. A few thousand years ago, people did not seem to be much different from us, and often behaved in a manner that would make today’s tabloids proud. They fell in love, sacrificing much for the privilege of marrying their beloved, the way Jacob was willing to work fourteen years for the privilege of marrying Rachel. They fell out of love and wanted to get rid of their spouses, like Samson and his unnamed bride who preceded his love affair with Delilah, and who betrayed his trust and told his secrets to his friends and lost him much money in the process of an adolescent bet. They committed adultery that led to murder, like David and Bathsheba. The list goes on. But those individual stories, while quite interesting, are not showing the point in which they were very different from us. To these people, the individual was not as important as the group. In our society, the individual rights are so much part of our psyche, that the idea of arranged marriages is alien to us. In antiquity, marriage was not an arrangement between two individuals. It was an arrangement between two families, and the benefit to the family was uppermost in the mind of everyone involved, even the bride and groom. The purpose of marriage was to have children – who were of utmost importance to the survival of the family and in turn, of the entire society. When child mortality is rampant, it is absolutely essential for each individual to think in terms of producing the next generation. And so the patriarchs of the families would meet to arrange the marriages between their children, arrange for the money that would exchange hands, and take care of all the legal matters, which we will discuss later segments. Love and personal interest were there, but they were secondary to the common good.
Money would be paid, the price of the bride will be clearly discussed and noted, but that does not mean that the young woman did not have rights, was treated like a chattel, or had to face several senior wives in a polygamous family. (Actually, the word should be “polygyny,” or multiple wives. since “polygamy” implies the option of several husbands). In Babylon, where Hillel was born and raised, monogamy was the custom, and it was very much the same in Judea. The Arab tribes practiced the option of several wives, but you had to be able to afford them, and not too many could. This explains Herod’s many wives, since even though he considered himself Jewish, he really was more comfortable in Idumean society, which was mostly Arab. The ordinary young wife joined her husband’s family with property of her own, and throughout her marriage could be engaged in commerce and trade of a very diversified nature. She had specific rights when it came to the marriage contract and to the divorce issues as well.
Men who could afford it had concubines. The concubine was not a wife, but nevertheless she was a respected member of the household, and had her rights, too. Her children were legitimate, though secondary in inheritance rights to those of the legitimate wife. Often the concubine was a former slave of the legitimate wife, given to the husband with the intent of having more children as the wife grew too old to bear. There was no disgrace in the matter to either concubine or wife.
In upcoming segments I will talk about women’s issues in more detail. Particularly interesting is the marriage contract, the Ketubah, and the similarities between Babylonian law and Jewish law. Women’s relation to religion is most intriguing, since while the God of Israel was highly patriarchal, the feminine presence of the Goddess Ashera never left Judaism, appearing very strongly in the guise of the Shekhina. I would like to discuss prostitution, both sacred and secular, and society’s attitude toward them, and to examine women of positions of authority. Stay tuned!