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:
“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
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
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
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
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