The Rise, Fall and Subsequent Rise of the Jewish Matchmaker, otherwise known as The Shadchan
By Suzanne Zettel
It is official! – The Jewish matchmaker is back in vogue! Some people may be forgiven for not realizing that the Jewish matchmaker, the shadchan, ever went out of vogue, for the Jewish matchmaker is so synonymous with Jewish life it is hard to believe that someone so vital and important can be forgotten. And yet, we also have to forgive those who have never heard of a shadchan. My idea here is to introduce again the lush history of the shadchan and explain how the shadchan slipped out of favor and is now well and truly back into our lives again.
The first recorded shadchan was G-d who made the match between Adam and Eve. Later on in the Torah we see Eliezer as the shadchan trying to find a match for his master Avraham’s son Yitzchak and of course he comes back with Rachel. We all know that G-d has our matches preordained in heaven and yet our matches are not revealed to us, we are supposed to search for our beshert. Apparently Rabbi Akiva responded to a similar question on predestination – why do we have to go through a search process for something that G-d already has set up for us? And the answer is, that “Everything is known to G-d yet free will is given to man”. But when the road gets rocky and your beshert is hidden, a shadchan can be your guide on this sometimes complicated and convoluted journey. As one person noted in his postscript to Rabbi Beryl Wein’s “The Shadchan”, “I would have given anything to have had a matchmaker find a mate for me. Thank goodness they are back where they belong, they deserve all the respect they can get”. KD 09/08/2004.
If we track the shadchan from the beginning of time, we see an evolution in the needs for the Jewish matchmaking process. In the very early days, the shadchan was essential to keep splintered and isolated communities alive during the time of persecution and pogroms around the medieval times. Shadchans risked their lives to travel treacherous roads in order to reach outlying communities and to keep the fabric of society alive. “G-d pairs two people even if he must bring them from one end of the world to another” (Talmudic scholars as quoted by Rabbi Maurice Lamm,” Matchmaker Matchmaker”.) In the time of the shtetels, the shadchan becomes forever etched in our memory as the robust member of the community who knew everybody and everybody’s business as it became the Jewish matchmaker’s vocation in life to match. Because the classic shadchan has a long and honorable tradition in Jewish life, it wasn’t the simple ordinary member of the community who could become a unifier of human beings. The shadchan had to have deep personal integrity and balanced judgment to be entrusted with as vital a task as arranging a permanent union. Because the shadchan would probe into every family to make sure there was no imperfection, the shadchan pushed families to aspire to greater heights in order that they did not miss out on the best match possible. The shadchan kept families vigilant and phobic about intermarriage, illegitimacy and scholarly achievements. The shadchan knew that the best matches were based on the qualities of academics, scholastic and family pedigree. The idea that the couple never met up until after the chuppah brought the most solid, reliable marriages where love was learned, grew over the years and families were rooted and grounded in the fact that the communities were being held together by shared values. The shadchan was at the core of the traditional Jewish family life in the shtetel where the laws of family purity, Jewish dating and marriage were irrevocably intertwined. Jewish law prohibits mingling between the sexes and the Jewish matchmaker’s role is crucial in their meeting and being supervised until the time of marriage.
Although the Jewish matchmaker’s role is still needed today, there are many criticism of the shadchan in today’s modern world. The first criticism is that whilst the shadchan appears to be the only viable solution within the orthodox world for couples to meet and hopefully marry while adhering to the halachic strictures of Tznius which limit male-female interaction, the Jewish matchmaker takes away romance. The second criticism is that the shadchan keeps marriages away from disadvantaged people. To this end there is a web site called “Endthemadness” which is trying to educate the public as to the dangers of ostracizing people, for example, at the age of 26 labeling the females as over the hill. Rabbi Moshe Bellows Esq has set up a Shadchan Code of Responsibility in order to regulate the way that the Jewish matchmaker uses their very powerful role, because “the setting up of people for marriage is an important, delicate Endeavour replete with awesome responsibility”. Endthemadness draws attention to what can happen when people are pushed aside in the Jewish matchmaking world, for example, if they are too poor, too old or have a disability. Rabbi Bellows specifically takes this head on and reminds the shadchan to realize the “vulnerability of clients, be sensitive to idiosyncrasies or seemingly undesirable characteristics which can make a shadchan’s job harder”. Rabbi Bellows continues that shadchans should reduce the number of their clients so they can concentrate on the ones that they have and spend more time getting to know their clients. Also, the shadchan should realize when their clients need to be passed over to health care professionals and to realize that they don’t own the clients. It wasn’t only these reasons that pushed the shadchan into the shadows, but also the changing needs of modern society.
We are living in a different world from medieval times with their splintered isolated communities and we are living in a different world to the shtetel with all its simplicity. Whereas shtetels revolved around Jewish law, today most Jews are assimilated in big westernized cities. The values of modern society no longer call for a shadchan, society is more egocentric, people are aspiring for bigger and better things and people want to choose what they want and generally want it right away. Because the nature of society changed, the idea of a Jewish matchmaker became demeaning. Using a shadchan implied that a person was incapable of making a match without a shadchan. However, there is an inherent irony in describing the current situation like this and it has been recognized. It is precisely BECAUSE of today’s greater concentration of Jews in an assimilated lifestyle that makes the shadchan so much more important. It is precisely because the way the Jewish world is today, seeking desperately to preserve itself, fearful of the imminent collapse of the host culture, decimated by growing divorce rate, it is precisely for these reasons that the Jewish community would welcome back, in a new guise, the old shadchan, “who traces his own lineage after all, back to G-d himself” (Rabbi Maurice Lamm, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”). Marriages are made in heaven, but we need the Jewish matchmakers here on earth.
Jewish matchmakers have played a pivotal role in Jewish dating and today they are back in vogue in a new disguise. They have come back in the form of computer dating! The shadchan used to be the most visible member of their community, busy around the shtetel collecting their information and immediately putting it to use by being able to match people up. Today the computers are our biggest resource, and the shadchan is working very hard to sift through profiles in the dating service and bring it to the attention of the members waiting to find their beshert. Just look at www.sawyouatsinai.com with over 300 Jewish matchmakers! According to a medieval Rabbi Nissim of Gerona-Ran, the word shadchan can be traced back to the Aramaic word “sheket”, meaning calm or silence (Targun to Judges 5:3). The term shadchan signifies tranquility or peacefulness. The connotation is that the shadchan pacifies the parents who are anxious about their child’s marital prospects. It also implies a sense of tranquil arrival for two people, tired of the dreams, the frustrated expectations and long search for a loving spouse. Welcome back in vogue, the Jewish Matchmaker, the shadchan!
Suzanne Zettel is a Jewish Matchmaker on JRetroMatch and works with Jewish Singles all over the world. She has her Masters in Social Work from Leeds Metropolitan University and has worked as a Family Guidance Counselor in Toronto, Canada. As an employee of JRetroMatch, Suzanne is able to use her many life experiences and challenges to truly reach every one of her members, opening up their hearts and souls so they can receive and appreciate the many joys of Jewish dating and marriage. She is now living in Israel.