Relationship Insights from Maseches Sanhedrin:
Familiarity Breeds Contempt

By Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW and Chaya Feuerman, LCSW Psychotherapists

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 7a) makes this observation with a clever quip:

Jewish Dating Advice, Relationship Insights

“When our love was strong, we could lay comfortably on the edge of a sword. However, now that our love is not as strong, even a bed that is 60 cubits long is not big enough!”

This calls attention to the dynamic that when one feels intense passion for another person, flaws and inconveniences are hardly noticed. On the other hand, if one no longer has this strong feeling, even minor shortcomings, physical defects and slightly annoying habits are magnified a thousandfold.

Why is it that we lose passion for our spouses over time? Although in healthy relationships, understanding, respect, love, and admiration actually increases over the years, it is almost universal that passion tends to decrease.

In part, this seems to be due to our biological destiny. In a new relationship, our bodies are endowed with health and vigor to help propel and motivate us toward the task of bearing offspring. However, as the relationship grows older, we lose that edge because it is not as necessary for our survival. Additionally, studies have shown that even a relatively young male who is already married has a lower average testosterone level than his unmarried peers.

Of course, there are many aspects to a relationship, and even if one has less passion, there may be in increased sense of security, stability and emotional intimacy. Often these qualities can only be developed in a more mature relationship. And one should not confuse lust with love. Nevertheless, for those readers that are not content with accepting their biological destiny, we have the following thoughts:

The difference between Man and animal is that Man can use his intellect to transcend his environment and overcome his instinct. A nocturnal reptile must hunt in the night and sleep in the day. But a human can choose to work at night or during the day, because a human can use his intellect to create artificial light. So while there definitely are strong biological and instinctive reasons why a married couple of many years will not feel the same passion as when they were newlyweds, there may be ways to effectively combat this trend. To do this, one must understand what actually turns on this biological switch. After all, how does your body know that the person next to you is your spouse of 25 years and not someone else? What are the triggers that signal your mind and heart? Part of the answer to this lies in the idea that what is novel or new registers differently in our brain. Our brains apparently are attracted to something different and perceive it as exciting and interesting. This is why even though a person may be tired, sleep deprived, and on the verge of falling asleep, if he were to get involved in something truly new and exciting, he would suddenly feel more alert.

Similarly, although we cannot make ourselves into new people, we could make efforts to be more unpredictable in our relationships. Women instinctively do this by buying new clothes, or trying new hairstyles. But it goes beyond that. A person can consciously make an effort to be different without buying new clothes. He can order different food, encourage his spouse to try a new activity. Or even consider acting in the opposite way than you usually would. For example, say you usually get frustrated when someone leaves the lights on in the living room or kitchen all night. Instead of getting angry, or saying something sarcastic, consider a totally different response. It could be a joke, it could be experimenting with choosing to not care about whether the light was left on or not. As another example, instead of being the “know-it-all problem solver” who has all the answers, act helpless and defer to other family members. Or, in the reverse, if you usually are meek and submissive, experiment with being assertive and outspoken (of course, in a non-obnoxious manner.)

The Nature of Marriage

The Mishna relates that one cannot provide testimony about certain blood relatives and relatives through marriage, such as brothers, uncles, nephews, and brothers-in-law. Of course one very important relation is the spouse. The reader may be familiar with the concept that Jewish marriage is accomplished in two stages, erusin and nisuin. Erusin is a kind of engagement, except halachically speaking, it is as binding as marriage and would require a get in order to dissolve its bonds. Nesiun is the final stage, and is accomplished through various symbolic acts that indicate that the couple are now living together. In ancient times, even young children were “married off” via the erusin process as a way to secure the marriage, and then when they became of age, nesiun was accomplished and the marriage was complete. In modern times, erusin and nesuin are accomplished back to back. The giving of the ring, along with the groom stating “Harey at etc.” effectuates erusin. And, the chuppah, or perhaps going into a private room subsequent to the chuppah, effectuates nisuin.

With this introduction, we can now proceed to the heart of the matter. The Gemara Sanhedrin (28b) rules that a wife through erusin is also considered a relative and one may not testify about her, even though it is not a fully complete marriage. The Gemara then asks, why in regard to other laws, a wife through erusin is not considered a relative? For example, though a cohen is permitted to become ritually impure in the course of burying and mourning for a deceased wife, that is only if she is a full wife via nisuin. Not erusin. What’s the difference? To this, the Gemara answers: “The matter of the cohen becoming impure depends on a flesh and blood relationship, however this matter (that of the testimony) depends on a closeness of thought.” The Gemara seems to be saying that after a husband and wife live together they become flesh and blood relatives. However, during erusin, they have a certain closeness, but are not as flesh and blood. This closeness is enough to invalidate any testimony that one may have in regard to one’s erusin spouse.

At first glance, the Gemara’s logic seems to be straightforward. Even a wife through erusin is an object of love and positive regard, and therefore you cannot be trusted to objectively testify about her, just as one cannot testify about a close relative. However, this is simply not correct because actually, the Mishna (27b) rules that one may indeed testify about his best friend or worst enemy. Therefore we see that emotional love does not interfere with the ability for a witness to provide accurate testimony. (Although it does invalidate one to serve as a judge, see Sanhedrin 29a.) Therefore the closeness of thought that the Gemara refers to is not the same as liking or loving a person. Rather, the Gemara’s position seems to be that relatedness, insofar as what renders one invalid to give testimony is accomplished via a closeness of thought or perhaps a sharing of values and ideals. Though friends also share values and ideals, a marriage engenders this state via a more intense and formal arrangement.

Practical Insight

The upshot of this technical analysis is a surprisingly subtle emotional insight. There are two stages to marriage built on two different ways of relating. On the one hand, there is the becoming as one, in flesh and blood. This represents the more physical aspects of the relationship. On the other hand, there is a different kind of relatedness, which is the outcome of a sharing and closeness of thought. This sharing or closeness of thought can be thought of as arising from a commitment to share the same fate, adopt the same values, and to become dependent on each other’s actions and decisions. It is the combination of both ingredients that create a healthy marriage relationship.

Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, CSW co-authors a weekly column in the Jewish Press on religion, relationships and parenting, along with his wife Chaya Feuerman, CSW. The Feuermans also have authored a book, titled "How to Have Fun Without Getting into Trouble: Essays on Relationships, Parenting and the Self" available through Rowman and Littlefield, inc. In addition, Simcha serves as Director of Community Services at Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. He received training in family therapy from the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center and maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Queens, New York, where he provides individual therapy, family therapy and couples counseling.

To email a question to Simcha please click here

(Please note: All questions asked to Simcha will be published on the site with the pseudo names.)

Dating advice is made available through a joint Ohel Family Services & SawYouAtSinai relationship.

SawYouAtSinai combines Jewish matchmaking with online Jewish dating. Jewish singles can use a shadchan, a Jewish matchmaker, to send them shidduchim (matches) so they can find their bashert. Our matchmakers have made successful matches between Jewish singles internationally including: Atlanta, Chicago, Florida, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Montreal, London, Manchester, England, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Israel, Johannesburg, Sydney and Melbourne just to name a few.

Other Questions