Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R, DHLNEFESH International Publications and Information
(Simcha Feuerman maintains a private practice specializing in high conflict and couples . His practice is in Brooklyn, Queens and Boca Raton.) The following ideas are based on his daily blog, Psychology of the Daf.
The Gemara in Kesuvos dappim 12-13 deal extensively with the halakhic consequences and nuances of misrepresentation of facts in Shidduchim. How much exaggeration is normal when describing a Shidduch? How much should the person himself or herself disclose about flaws? How much should others? In this article, We will discuss these matters from a halakhic and psychological perspective.
The Gemara states that if a man married a woman who was previously married and maintained she was a besula (virgin), even if it turns out that she wasn’t, the husband has no claim that the marriage was under false pretenses and should be dissolved. Tosfos on 12a explains the ruling as follows. The second husband does not really believe that a previously married woman could be a virgin, so even if witnesses testify to that fact, he takes it with a grain of salt. Why? He figures they were exaggerating in order to raise her esteem in the eyes of her suitor. This is a pragmatic and interesting idea. Even if such falsehood might not be permitted, there is a de facto recognition that people exaggerate when it comes to providing information regarding Shidduchim.
Sefer Chassidim (507) states one must not hide information in Shidduchim about family members, when the flaws are serious enough that the person would not want to marry if he or she knew about it. The Chofetz Chaim’s Shmiras Halashon provides guidelines for which information in Shidduchim to reveal (9 Rechilus and tziyurim afterwards). I will select a few key points:
- It is not permitted to give negative information that would not be severe enough to break the Shidduch. There is no practical outcome, so why give it over?
- Nor may one give information about character traits that may seem subjectively bad to you but could possibly be good to others. For example, someone who is exacting and meticulous. Is this clinical obsession and perfectionism, or admirable discipline?
- One also may not give negative information, even if objectively and severely negative, that would not stop the Shidduch anyhow.
- If there is reason to believe that each party in the Shidduch is being equally deceptive and dishonest about similar and related matters, there is no need to disclose. The example given by the Chofetz Chaim is if each party has a tendency to over promise various gifts and financial support.
- If the flaw is observable and obvious. Why tell the person if he or she can see and evaluate for himself? Something I wonder about is weight. I am not talking about if the person isn’t “model-thin”, since that is subjective and not universally a problem. As a therapist who has met thousands of couples, I can testify that it is mind boggling what flaws can be manufactured and obsessed about. One spouse can be obsessed with being thin, and meanwhile the other spouse resents that “she isn’t round enough, or too tiny.” What I wonder about is a person who is morbidly obese and you know the other party would not find that acceptable? According to the Chofetz Chaim’s guidelines, this should not be permitted since it is an obvious flaw that the person can see and evaluate for himself or herself. However, I wonder if given the expense and effort that people may put even into a first date, with some even having to travel, is it really fair to withhold that information? The information is not to prevent loss from a bad Shidduch but to prevent loss from spending time and money on a date that is almost surely not what the person is looking for. This cause of loss is not obvious or apparent. I think it should be permitted, as the Chofetz Chaim’s guidelines might not have taken into account the financial loss of a wasted date, as there may have been different customs regarding dating. Ask your local posek on that one.
Aside from the above, the Chofetz Chaim also lists several conditions that must be met in order to reveal information, even if it meets the other criteria above:
- You must not exaggerate
- You cannot reveal minor ordinary illnesses. It must be a serious, systemic illness
- Your motivations must be absolutely pure, with no feelings of resentment or jealousy
- If the information is not first hand, or there is reason to believe that the status changed, you should merely indicate that you have heard such and such and it is worth investigating, without indicating absolute sureness if it is true.
However, other poskim (for example, Rav Menashe Klein, Mishne Halachos 12:278) hold that if a person asks you explicitly about a particular feature or trait, even if it is not something that others would mind, you must answer honestly. You do not have to volunteer such information, but indeed when asked directly, Rav Klein says it is even forbidden to hedge and say, “I don’t know.” Rav Klein says, this is a lie, because, in fact, you DO know.
This is all in regard to references. What about the person himself? What are the halachos of self-disclosure of flaws prior to marriage.
There is a Teshuva of Rav Moshe Feinstein regarding a young woman who was sexually active prior to marriage, and she wanted to know if she had to reveal this information to her potential chosson (Iggeros Moshe OC 4:118). Rav Moshe ruled that she must reveal this information but should follow these guidelines:
- This information is private and there is no value in telling others about this personal flaw — only tell the person you wish to marry.
- Do not discuss this early in the dating process. Wait until it is clear that there is intention to marry. Presumably, Rav Moshe meant when the shidduch becomes “serious”, that is, when there is indication that the parties are interested in marriage and now want to start sharing more practical and detailed information, not merely the second before he proposes.
- She should contextuallize the past misdeeds, i.e., it happened one time, and her feelings got the better of her, and she repented etc. It seems from the context that Rav Moshe was recommending a small amount of “airbrushing”, allowing her to minimize the extent of her transgression.
- Rav Moshe offered her encouragement: Since she is revealing the flaw after he has gotten to know her, he will see her strengths and good qualities and not allow this issue from the past to hold him back from marrying her.
We can extrapolate from this responsum that significant flaws must be revealed, but strategically. They should be disclosed only when there is sufficient knowledge about the person’s whole character and after there seems to be a serious likelihood of proposal. It also seems that one does not have to give over the flaw in its most ugly detail, and can be slightly minimized so long as the key information is given. I would add, given what we learned above from Rav Menashe Klein’s ruling, if asked directly about something, one is absolutely obligated to give the total and unvarnished truth. Rav Moshe was talking about information that she volunteered, unsolicited. If afterwards, he chooses to ask for more detail, I don’t believe it is permitted to lie.
I must stress that not everything that is permitted is wise. Meaning to say, even if halakha technically permits one to withhold information, the implications in establishing and maintaining trust and intimacy could be devastating. If a spouse finds out years and tears later that important information was withheld, it is cold comfort to hear the excuse, “But I asked daas Torah.” Let me offer two examples of how badly this can go.
There is an accepted idea that if a person has certain mental health challenges, but does not take medication, it is not considered serious enough to reveal. This is probably based on the Chofetz Chaim’s Shmiras Halashon guidelines (9 Rechilus and examples afterwards) that we discussed prior.
Here is an example of how following these halachos to the letter of the law can lead to trouble. There is a contingent of people who resist taking helpful medication, because taking medication is considered the red line between having to reveal or not reveal mental illness. This leads to the ironic and foolish situation of some people being far more symptomatic and ill, losing years of personal development and function so that they can say, “My illness is not serious enough to take medication.” Of course, logically this is nonsense. The person who is not taking medication may be more ill and more dysfunctional than the person who has taken medication for years, and now is stable and met many academic and social challenges in life successfully.
Another scenario is sharing past behaviors after repentance. Consider a person who used to smoke but quit several years ago. Or a person who was looking at improper material on the internet, but has quit and now is clean for a year. From a halakhic perspective, these sins are in the past and no longer relevant. Yet, given the decent chance that in times of stress there can be regression, how will your spouse feel when he or she finds out that this was not a new problem? Secondly, problems like addictions and compulsions are fueled by shame and secrecy. Not being able to share challenges and urges with a spouse who could be a support and friend is a terrible lost opportunity. Additionally, by keeping any shameful secret, it can lead to barriers in intimacy, shame, lack of confidence and self-sabotage. The spouse, too, may feel that something is missing, leading to other kinds of withdrawal or lack of trust.
So keep in mind, getting a heter (permission) for something is not the same as being given good advice. The halachos of what to reveal in Shidduchim is sensitive and complex, and the information in this article should not be taken as the final halakhic word. Rather it should be talking points to sensitize you to know what to ask of your personal posek.