Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Adam Hakohen's complains to Moses Montefiore concerning the deleterious effects of child marriage and stringent rabbis.

In 1846 England's Jewish (literal) knight in (figurative) shining armor, Moses Montefiore, took a trip to Russia. The economic plight of the Jews under the Czar's dominion was dire, and for decades they had been subjected to mostly oppressive measures from a very hostile government. However, even in bad situations people can do things to improve themselves. Thus, despite the oppression and poor economic condition of the Jews, the Mussarites did not see why the Jews can't set on a course of improving their own character.  Similarly, some Jews felt that various practices and social situations of the Russian Jews were a great cause of their plight. So when Montefiore visited, a great opportunity was seen, to influence him toward their own understanding of what ought to be done to improve the situation of Jews under the Czar. 

One blogger known as Adam Hakohen Lebensohn (1789?-1878) wrote a flowery rhyming Hebrew letter to Montefiore, in which he intended to impress upon him what the true situation of the Jews under the Czar is, and how he must pay attention to what he sees. He outlined four major problem areas in need of solutions. Toward the end of the lette he called them arbah avot nezikin, four primary categories of damages, after the opening words of the Talmudic treatise Baba Kamma. His letter to Montefiore was printed in the third volume of his collected poems, Shirei Sefat Kodesh, this volume bearing the title Yeter Shirei Ada"m (Vilna 1869) (pp. 67 - 72).

Here are two of his four categories of damages which he felt were arresting the healthy  progress of a very poor and downtrodden people. 
Another illness which has spread among all the people is to rush to marry their boys and girls, even babies, and by multiplying the size of their families, they invite problems, physical illness, and oppressions, and they shorten their life spans. Before a boy knows how to earn a dime, he finds he has ten mouths to feed. All his days are nothing but problems, and pressures which never cease constricting him - and in his middle age he lives to see the same probems also in his own sons and daughters! 
Even worse than these are the teachers and rabbis, who know nothing of governance or circumspect judgment, or how to lighten the burden of the masses. All of their efforts are devoted to multiplying customs and prohibitions, and stringencies upon stringencies, which have no source in the Torah or tradition. Instead, these customs come from foreign sources, or the practices of old women, or foolish men . . .  If I would enumerate them all, there's be no respite.


  1. Did he address the issue of the Cantonist, which, in 1846, was in full swing? Seems to me that would be far more pressing than either of the two categories mentioned above.

    To me the Cantonist period is the saddest chapter in recent Jewish history, which gets overshadowed (understandably) because of the monumental sweep of the Holocaust. But the individual records of 12 year old boys and younger, kidnapped by Jewish kidnappers from under their screaming mothers's arms, forced into a lifetime among full grown russian soldiers intent on beating the Jew out of the little boy . . . heartbreaking. There's a book on it by Larry Domnitch. You cant read more than a few pages without breaking down into sobs.

  2. This was about what the Jews needed to do improve themselves, not what the Czar needed to do to stop oppressing them, so no, he did not mention it.

  3. Thanks. But the early marriage custom was itself prompted - at least in part - because of opression from the czar. Being married and/or having kids would absolve you from conscription. Solve one and you solve the other.

  4. abba's rantings4:58 PM, June 05, 2012

    unrelated, but i can't resist from linking to one of my favorite yehoram gaon songs (about montefiore):

    is there any contemporary jewish figure who is as universally revered as montefiore was?

  5. That's absolutely untrue. Early marriage predated the Cantonists by, possibly, centuries. Adam Hakohen himself was married at 13, probably 20 years before the forced conscription began. It was just Jews doing what Jews did because Jews did it. As an aside, Shaul Stampfer in one of his books points out that the really young marriage (13, as opposed to 17) was mostly confined to the learned class and if memory serves his theory was that it was a form of conspicuous consumption, a way to show off that one is supporting a son-in-law who is learning.

  6. A little while ago I posted about Moses Marcuse's book about hygiene, medicine, against superstition, etc. In it he mentions the harmful effect that childbirth has on girls who are too young, if it doesn't kill them, that is.

  7. Does he specify which ages he considers too young to marry?

  8. He doesn't, and it's difficult to say what he considers okay. Shaul Stampfer had an article on early marriage, which I mentioned above, and I think he says something like how when he was researching the Volozhin yeshiva, of those bochurim whom he was able to find biographical data, he found 13 born born between 1794 and 1825. Ten of the 13 were married before 14. Stampfer also makes it clear that by 1840 the average age was already rising.

    For what Adam Hakohen considered normal, I would guess that you'd have to look at what was considered the respectable marrying age in gentile society at the time and he probably wanted that - if I had to guess it would be under 20 for women and probably closer to 25 for men. Remember, this was part of a package deal of things he thought were keeping them poor and miserable. Part of it was economic, so presumably he felt that married people should be self-sufficient or close to it and that is only even possibility at a certain age.

  9. Joe in Australia12:17 AM, June 06, 2012

    S.: is it not possible that these birth dates are fictitious, and recorded in order to, e.g., prevent the students being drafted?

  10. Well, I'm not informed enough to debate it. BUT - note that I did not say early marraige was a tactic in response to the Cantonists, but a tactic in response to opression. The former was merely one manifestation of the latter. In the case of Russia, a benefit would be to avoid conscription. In other places it could be to avoid the one-marriage per family law. The point is, early marraige is not a purely Jewish idea, like, say, kiddush on Friday night.* It was a response to various forms of anti-semitism.

    This idea is not my own. I've heard that since I was a kid, and if you Google it you will also see it in other sources. I dont think this is an appropriate case where one can simply survey the literature 250 years after the case and debunk tradition. [And Shaul Stampfer is an energetic researcher, but I have long said about him that one has to have a healthy amount of skepticsm about his claims and results. Kabdehu Vichashdehu, in other words.]

    (*Unless, it occurs to me, you will say that using a cup of wine to convene or sanctify a religious event was really a pagan custom that the Jews co-opted and made religious. Is that actually the case?)

    1. Well, you mentioned conscription, so I thought that was the crux of your argument.

      I'm not sure what you mean about debunking tradition. What tradition is there of early marriage to counter persecution? That sounds like as modern a theory as any.

      The problem with your thesis is that in places where there was the one-marriage per family law they did not get married as early. Apparently the data does show that in most places in Europe the Jews did, or were perceived as, marrying earlier than the general population. Either way, come on - 13? This cries out darsheni. There is early and there is early.

    2. Agreed.

      (The tradition I referred to, btw, is oral.)

    3. I heard it from people's mouths.


  11. Doesn't tosfos talk about kidushei ketana even though the chachomim say not to, b/c of the tzoros?

  12. "arbah avot nezikin"

    arba'ah... "arba imahot, shelosha avot"

  13. http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/General+News/129705/New-Takanah-in-Toldos-Aaron-.html

  14. http://www.nairaland.com/450419/age-marriage-medieval-times-paedophilia

    It would seem that this was not a Jewish only custom historically


  15. Is this the same as Adam hakohen sherry of here: 'S. pointed out to me that in the Wikipedia entry for Yimach Shemo, Adam HaKohen Sherry also makes an appearance'?



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