Working Hard or Hardly Working?
The rise of women’s work opportunities over recent decades beyond previous levels has allowed for a number of family work arrangements. Many even argue that an Orthodox family today requires both parents earning salaries. On the other side of the spectrum, others in the Orthodox community insist that the husband study in kollel rather than work. Which view is supported by Jewish tradition?
I will not attempt to resolve this weighty issue and I suspect that Jewish texts and history allow for more than one arrangement. I wish to address only one aspect of this discussion: a husband’s explicit promise upon marriage to work in order to support his wife. In the traditional kesubah, a groom pledges, “I will work for, esteem, feed and support you…” Does this not create a requirement, if one did not already exist, for a husband to work in order to financially support his wife?
The test case is a husband who refuses to support his wife. What does a religious court do for a woman who makes this claim? The Talmudic case is the rebellious husband, mentioned in the same breath as the more famous rebellious wife. The Mishnah (Kesubos 63a) states that a rebellious husband is fined for every week he continues in his sinful ways. The Gemara records a debate over the nature of the husband’s rebellion, assuming it is parallel to that of a rebellious wife. According to one opinion, the husband refuses to engage in marital relations. According to another, it is a refusal to financially support his wife. Regardless of whether such a man is the rebellious husband of the Mishnah, the Gemara quotes Rav who insists that the husband must divorce his wife and pay her kesubah.
Tosafos (ad loc., sv. be-omer) quotes R. Eliyahu of Paris who deduces from this passage that a husband must even rent out his services as a laborer (in our language, getting a job) in order to support his wife. If a husband has assets then the court can easily fine him and even take from his assets to pay that fine. But what if he has no money and refuses to work? According to R. Eliyahu, a court can order him to work (although will certainly face difficulty in enforcing that order). R. Eliyahu adds a proof from the text of the kesubah mentioned above. The husband has obligated himself to work (ana eflach) and can be forced to honor that promise.
However, Rabbenu Tam disagrees. Rashi and Rabbenu Chananel explain this passage as meaning that the husband rebels not from work but from the support he gives his wife in exchange for her housework. In the classical arrangement, he supports her and she keeps the house. The word “work,” according to these commentators, refers to the wife and not the husband.
Additionally, Rabbenu Tam explains that the phrasing of the kesubah means that the husband pledges to work around the house, including growing vegetables for food if necessary. It does not mean renting out his services for pay.
Ritva (ad loc.) offers a different interpretation of the kesubah. According to his reading, it means supporting a wife who is ill. Just like a husband must pay for his wife’s medical bills, he must also work to provide for her during her illness. However, he is not obligated to work to support her when she is healthy. Alternatively, perhaps it is just flowery language and means that the husband will support the wife if he can. Everyone agrees that if a husband has any money then he is obligated to use it to support his wife. The issue here is whether a man with no money is obligated to earn some to fulfill his marital responsibilities.
The Machaneh Ephraim (Hilchos Sechirus Po’alim, no. 2) quotes the Rosh who states that a man is not normally obligated to work to pay a debt. If he lacks the funds, he does not pay even if he is intentionally unemployed. However, according to R. Eliyahu, a husband’s obligation to his wife is unique. Unlike other financial obligations, a man must work to pay off his debt to his wife.
However, the Machaneh Ephraim disagrees that a man’s debt to his wife is unlike other financial obligations. Rather, he suggests, the debate between R. Eliyahu and Rabbenu Tam revolve around the language of the kesubah. According to R. Eliyahu, a husband explicitly accepts a condition of higher financial obligation to his wife by agreeing to the kesubah. According to Rabbenu Tam, that condition does not include an obligation to work.
As already mentioned, the Ritva agrees with Rabbenu Tam, as does the Rosh. The Radbaz (Responsa, 3:566) also rules like Rabbenu Tam. However, Rav Meir of Rothenberg (cited by the Tur) quotes the French rabbis who agree with R. Eliyahu. The Semag (lavin 81) also follows R. Eliyahu. In Shulchan Aruch (Even Ha-Ezer 70:3), the Rema quotes R. Eliyahu’s view as “some say” and the Vilna Gaon (ad loc., no. 9) states that most authorities agree with Rabbenu Tam.
In practice, I don’t know what contemporary religious courts do when a husband refuses to look for employment and a wife complains.