Having clarified last week that the only way to achieve marital happiness is by realizing that it is for keeps and we simply must do what it takes to make what we have work; now, we are up to the next step: ok, so how do I make it work?
But before delving in, an important word of qualification: Marriage is a people grower. However much we mentally prepare ourselves, and however many tools we learn about, marriage, by necessity, stretches us. It forces us to mature and grow beyond the constricting boundaries of the self-persona that we begin with. Just as in physical growth, when one develops his muscles, there will necessarily be a certain amount of feeling discomfort and burn, so too when it comes to true character growth is there necessarily going to be a certain amount of feeling discomfort and burn. The good news is, that just as a body builder doesn’t suffer from the burn, on the contrary, he revels in it because he knows it means his muscles are getting bigger, he is getting stronger, and his endurance and power levels are increasing by leaps and bounds; so too, be being aware that this is what it’s all about, one will feel a tremendous simcha and satisfaction in feeling the burn of the character development and growth that takes place through traversing the beautiful journey of marriage.
Ok, so here we go. What better place to begin but the Rambam, right? In Hilchos Ishus 15:19 the Rambam writes:
צוו חכמים שיהיה אדם מכבד את אשתו יתר מגופו ואוהבה כגופו ואם יש לו ממון מרבה בטובתה כפי הממון ולא יטיל עליה אימה יתירה ויהיה דיבורו עמה בנחת ולא יהיה עצב ולא רוגז
The Chachamim have commanded that a man must be honoring his wife more than himself and love her as himself. And if he has the monetary means, he increases her comfort according to his wealth. And he must not impose excessive awe upon her. And his speech with her must always be pleasant. And he must not be moody or irritated [around her].
In this amazingly concise statement, the Rambam has summed up for us the rules of how to treat and relate to a wife. This statement truly is the kol ha’Torah kulah of shalom bayis, and the rest is its pirush which we need to learn. We need to brand this statement into the deepest level of our consciousness. Every single married man should repeat this statement of the Rambam until he has memorized it word for word.
Let’s take this maamar and break it down into its component parts, and try to build at least a rudimentary understanding of each facet that will serve as a solid foundation upon which to build throughout our lives.
Honoring Your Wife – A State of Being
שיהיה האדם מכבד את אשתו יתר מגופו ואוהבה כגופו
That a man must be honoring his wife more than himself and love her as much as he loves himself.
Note, that the Rambam did not write sheh’yechabeid adam es ishto, that a man should honor his wife. He wrote sheh’yihiyeh ha’adam mechabeid es ishto, that a man should be honoring his wife. This is not a small textual nuance, it is a world of a difference: the goal is not to simply carry out acts of honor and love towards one’s wife; rather, it is to become the type of person who honors and loves his wife. It is meant to become part of one’s essence. It is not just something you do, it is a state of being. It is who you are. A man that honors and loves his wife.
Underscoring this point is the fact that there is an obligation to honor and love every Jew. Obviously, that would apply to one’s wife as much as to any other Jew, if not more so. So what were Chazal adding by issuing a specific instruction about the obligation on a man to honor and love his wife? This is the question the Rambam is answering for us by employing the expression sheh’yihiyeh – that when it comes to a wife, it’s not enough to carry out acts of demonstrating honor and love for her; it is a state of being. You take it with you wherever you go because it’s a part of you.
Let’s take a look at this in action.
A man once went to the home of Rav Yechezkel Abramsky to discuss a certain matter with him regarding a particular yeshiva. “When I arrived,” this individual related, “he was not there. The rebbetzin told me that he should arrive home any moment, so I waited for him there. A few minutes later, the Rav entered his house. The Rebbetzin immediately served him a cup of tea and sat down with him at the table. The Rav began conversing with his rebbetzin.
‘I left home this morning and took bus number 12 until Ha’Nevi’im Street. From there I walked up the hill. It wasn’t too difficult for me. I continued in the direction of Strauss Street until I got to the Geulah neighborhood. I went to Rav Yechezkel Sarna’s house and he received me with great honor. I discussed a problem regarding Vaad Ha’Yeshivos. You already know that I hold that there is a need to expand the number of those who take part in the Vaad’s meetings, and I wanted to convince Rav Yechezkel Sarna to start coming on a regular basis. You know what type of person he is, after all, Chazal say that women are better judges of character than men; and if he’ll become a permanent participant, it will spur everyone to follow through more thoroughly and assiduously with the Vaad’s resolutions.’ In this manner he continued elaborating to her about that matter.
‘When we finished our discussion,’ continued Rav Abramsky, ‘Rav Sarna escorted me out to the street. [Regarding where I needed to go next] I was not sure if I should take a taxi or a bus; but in the end I preferred taking the bus, and it was really min ha’Shamayim. On the bus I met someone who works at Techiya Publishers which is where I am having part of my Chazon Yechezkel being printed. He told me that they finished printing the parts that I gave already more than a week ago, and they have been sitting with nothing to do regarding my seifer. I do not know why no one from there informed me of this beforehand – you know how anxious I am for them to finish the project quickly – and I already have the next three sections ready. Were I to have travelled by taxi I wouldn’t have known anything about this…’ and such did he go on elaborating about that point.
When he finished his conversation with his rebbetzin she got up from the table and he came over to me. He said to me, ‘Forgive me that I ignored you all this time. However, baruch Hashem that you merited to see how one is meant to draw his wife close. Look, the whole day she’s alone at home. I have to find a way to make her feel a part of what goes on with [my] day. Although it may have seemed to you that I was speaking trivialities with her…but that is what happened to me today…so I tell her.’
Rav Abramsky added one more point, ‘Baruch Hashem I have merited old age, and it is only in the zechus of the chesed that I do at home to make her feel a part of my goings-on and thereby lift her spirits…’”
Rav Abramsky referred to this conduct of his as a chesed, but it is obviously a chesed that is born of tremendous respect and love; it is a chesed that demonstrates great honor. Let’s try a bit to understand why. This is going to require some elaboration, but don’t worry, soon we’ll get back to analyzing this story of Rav Abramsky. Also, although we are going to begin with a discussion about learning how to talk to a wife, it is important to realize that the most important thing a husband needs to learn regarding communicating with his wife is how to listen. Generally speaking it is the wife who does most of the talking, and as her husband it is very important to learn how to listen to her properly (this will be elaborated upon later, iy”H). That said, let’s continue.
Two Nations Divided by a Common Language
Rav Noach Orlowek makes an observation: men have constipation of the mouth. That is precisely the way he put it. Now, this is not to say that men do not know how to schmooze. But, somehow, when it comes to their wives (mothers, daughters, etc.), they can get constipated. She wants to know how your day was and you manage but a barely audible grunt of “great”. She wants to know if davening at Shul on Shabbos-Rosh Chodesh was nice, and just to respond “yeah” already feels like such an effort. She wants to know if your boss was happy to hear that you had a baby girl, and with great difficulty you barely get out an “I don’t know; I think so.” Even a man who has no problem shooting the breeze with his friends for hours on end, may find that with his wife he gets all clammed up.
What is going on here?
It’s actually pretty simple. There is a Gemara in Shabbos (62a) that clears up this confusion, along with a lot of other sticky points in shalom bayis as well. It is a really fundamental point that is going to come up a lot, so it’s worthwhile to pay close attention and assimilate this information really well.
Mishna: A woman is not allowed to go out (into the public domain) wearing a needle that has a hole, nor with a signet ring…and if she does she is obligated [to bring] a chatas.
Gemara: Said Ulah, it is the opposite when it comes to men (meaning, if a man goes out with a signet ring he is exempt, if he goes out with a regular ring he is obligated -Rashi-). We see, then, that Ulah holds that something which is fitting for a man is not considered fitting for a woman, and something which is fitting for a woman is not considered fitting for a man. Rav Yosef asks on this from a Braisah, “Shepherds can go out wearing sackcloth, and not only regarding shepherds did they say this [heter], rather even regarding anybody this is so, just that it is the manner of shepherds to wear sackcloth (so we see that even though regular people are not accustomed to wearing sackcloth, the fact that it is an adornment for one type of person suffices to halachikly classify it as an adornment for everyone –Rashi- [so why is it not the same regarding a signet ring vis a vis women and a regular ring vis a vis men])?! Said Rav Yosef, Ulah holds that women are a nation unto themselves.
The Gemara there continues with a back and forth regarding whether we can perhaps disprove Ulah’s psak. At the end of the day, we do pasken like Ulah. So not only is “women are a nation unto themselves” an observable fact, it is such a powerful reality that it directly impacts the halacha. Even though we generally say that once a particular item is used as an adornment for wearing by one type of person, that is enough to halachikly classify it as such for everyone; between men and women, though, it is impossible to say this. They are simply too different. The one’s adornments simply have no relevance whatsoever to the other. They are two, different nationalities. There is a nation called men, and there is a separate, different nation called women!
The truth is that it doesn’t take a big chacham to recognize this. Just take a look at a three year old boy and a three year old girl. The boy is busy digging up earthworms and dissecting them, stomping on giant ants, and riding his toy truck as fast as he can into the wall; and the girl is busy selecting the prettiest bow for her hair, feeding a bottle to her doll, and squealing in delight over the pretty sticker her morah gave her. It is not obvious that these are two completely different creatures?!
The way men think about things and the way they process their emotions is completely different from the way women do. The way men express what they are thinking and what they naturally enjoy conversing about is completely different from women. The way men respond and react to any given situation is so, so different from the way women do. And of course, the way men act and conduct themselves is so incredibly different from the way women do.
In a nutshell, in every facet of human behavior, men and women are worlds apart.
No wonder, then, that the type of questions she asks, the kind of information she desires to hear, and the manner in which she enjoys conducting a conversation can be not only uninteresting to a man, it can be downright burdensome. Her whole way of thinking, expressing, and communicating is so incredibly foreign to him that he just cannot relate; at all! So, yes, he is constipated; and not only in his mouth, but also in his mind. Because he does not at all think the way she thinks, he is practically screaming inside his head, “What does she want from me?!” If he is a crass boor he may even allow that inner scream to express itself externally as such. That is obviously very, very bad, and we hope that Bnei Torah are above that. But even they may say something like, “What more can I tell you? My day was fine, that’s all. The same thing that happens to me every day is also what happened today, so what more could I say?!” Even if he manages to curb his inner sense of frustration and say those words calmly or even not say them at all, it is still seriously missing the point. It is not honoring his wife, most certainly not being one who honors his wife, and it is not good. Not good at all.
Worse yet, if she then dominates the conversation and tells him every little this and every single that, and goes on and on about details and in a manner that he finds completely uninteresting and boring, he may gradually come to loathe his private time with his wife. He may come to find being alone with her a bothersome burden of which he cannot wait to be relieved. He may come to think of her as a nag, Rachmana litzlan, and a great distance can begin to form between them. A deep chasm and rift can begin to pull them emotionally apart from one another. This is not shalom bayis. It is not even honorable behavior, and it is most certainly very far from love.
They may be well-mannered enough to not fight (quite unlikely, though), they may even be careful to always speak to one another in a courteous and cordial manner (hard to believe), and they may even make a point to politely smile at each other regularly (what are the chances?); but it can hardly be said that this is shalom bayis. Maybe by the Goyim lack of war is considered peace, but by us Yidden lack of fighting is most certainly not the definition of shalom. This lack of shalom, which is so acutely manifest in their failure to successfully communicate and connect with one another, robs a woman of one of her most basic needs in marriage: to feel emotionally connected with her husband. This lack of communicating with her is most certainly not honoring her. On the contrary, it inflicts deep pain on her.
What it means to Honor Another
What this bring us to, then, is the very first premise we need to know for showing another honor; and that is to realize that you are honoring another. In other words, if you try to show someone else honor by taking your ideas of respect and just doing a copy-and-paste for that person, not only might you not wind up honoring, you may even wind up insulting and hurting! If you give an old-school Japanese guy a firm handshake and hearty hello, you may feel like you are showering him with honor and affection by proffering such a warm greeting, but for all you know he may be shaken to the core by how badly you just insulted his honor! Because the old-school Japanese nature and habits are so different from Americans’, they may relate to such behavior as a serious affront.
How, then, can you possibly show honor to someone who is so different from you? Well, go ask the clever, industrious, up-and-coming politician or businessman what he does when he needs to score a big deal in a foreign country. He studies up on their mode of conduct! He learns about them. He tries hard to find out what type of speech and behavior is acceptable to them. He wants very much to understand them, to get to know their way of thinking acting and relating, so that he will be able to successfully interact and communicate with them!
That is the foundation. The alef-beis of honoring someone. “A person’s desire is his honor.” Acting with another in accordance with the way they want things is how to honor that person. The first thing, then, is to understand that person, how they are different from you – perhaps even very different – so that you will be able to say and do those things that will indeed be honorable for them in accordance with their unique needs, wants, and character.
To paraphrase Rav Eliyahu Goldschmidt, marriage is akin to moving to a new country in which one needs to learn an entirely new language, mode of thinking, relating, and behaving. Not that a man discards the mode of thought, speech, and conduct that defines him as such; not at all. A man very much needs to hold onto that and infuse that character into the marriage in order to supply it with one of its most basic requirements; namely, male strength, stability, and leadership. You maintain that way of thinking, speaking, and acting and carefully apply it where appropriate, but you learn to expand beyond it as well. To incorporate the knowledge of an additional, whole new way of processing and relating so that you can successfully build the bridge between yourself and your wife by which the two of you will truly bond and come together.
So, the very first thing you need to know in order to show her honor and love, is her. You need to understand – to the best of your ability – her needs, her unique character, her desires, her way of thinking, processing, feeling, and communicating. Once you really start to understand her, you will be able to communicate with her and conduct yourself in a way that is truly respecting and honoring her, truly expressing love to and for her.
Next week, iy”H, we will begin by pointing out what we can learn more about this in detail from the story of Rav Abramsky.
As says in Pirkei Avos, “The honor of your fellow must be as dear to you as your own”, and “who is honored, he who honors others. Furthermore, the Medrash says, “So did Hashem say to the Jewish People: ‘My children, have I made you lacking for anything? What do I ask of you? Just that you should love one another, respect one another, and be in awe of one another.” Furthermore, Chazal tell us that all of the talmidim of Rabi Akiva perished because they did not show one another proper respect. And, as far as loving one’s fellow Jew is concerned, it is an explicit pasuk: v’ahavta l’reaicha kamocha.
 Because of the rule kol ha’karov karov kodem.
 Gedolei Yisrael B’Beisam page 73
 Shulcha Aruch Orach Chaim 301:9
See Tosafos in Kiddushin 31b and Seifer Chasidim 152