Harmony in the home — shalom bayit — is a foundational Jewish principle. But where there are conflicting needs or desires, compromise may be necessary to achieve this idyllic state. As we learn in the Talmud, “Rava said: It is obvious to me [that if one must choose between] the Shabbat light and the Hanukkah light, the former is preferable, on account of peace of the home.” (BT Shabbat 23b) While the family can enjoy the illumination of Shabbat candles, it is forbidden to benefit from the light of the Chanukah candles.
The overarching question is: At what cost, and at whose cost, is shalom bayit created? When is shalom bayit a façade masking suffering and pain, making it essential to speak out and speak up? Historically, the burden of shalom bayit has been placed on the wife, reflecting the patriarchy of traditional Judaism and the notion that the wife is the foundation of the home and determines its character and atmosphere. (Chabad Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s Igrot Kodesh) The textual origin may be found in a talmudic discussion where the word bayit is understood to mean “wife.” “Rabbi Yosei said … ‘In all my days, I did not call my wife, my wife… . Rather, I called my wife my home, because she is the essence of the home.’” (BT Shabbat 118b)
Jewish tradition traces shalom bayit’s origins back to Sarah and Abraham. This first “Jewish couple” provides a window into a relationship that appears to be conflict-free but, on closer scrutiny, is more complicated. In Genesis 12:11-20, we learn that, as they journey to Egypt to escape famine, Abraham politely asks Sarah to pretend they are brother and sister, rather than husband and wife. He is fearful that, as a husband, he will be killed so Pharaoh can take Sarah for himself, whereas a brother would not be an impediment to Pharaoh’s desires.
Simply stated, in a shocking lack of faith in God, he asks her to sacrifice herself in order to save him. Though Sarah did not have the power to refuse her husband’s request, at least the appearance of a request was presented. After being taken into Pharaoh’s household, she is released when her true status is revealed.
The story repeats itself with King Abimelech, the king of Gerar (Gen: 20:1-18), but here Abraham simply assumes Sarah’s consent — although we know that consent once given does not mean consent for all time. Sarah again is silent, presumably now long-accustomed to subordination and to maintaining the appearance of shalom bayit. The sad irony is that, by submitting to her husband’s will, there will no longer be a safe bayit, a home, for her, let alone a harmonious one.
Sarah is not always submissive to her husband. On behalf of her only child, Isaac, she finally speaks up, forgoing the façade of agreeability and shalom bayit. Sarah demands that Abraham throw Hagar and their son Ishmael out of the household because she perceives that their presence puts Isaac at risk. Upset at this disruption to his domestic peace, Abraham turns to God — only to be told that now he must submit to Sarah’s demand.
“Shtika k’hoda-ah” say the rabbis: “silence presumes agreement.” But this silence can also enable injustice and suffering. When fear prohibits an individual’s outcry — whether at home, at work, or in a public space —each of us is obligated to disturb the silence in whatever ways we can. A home where one is afraid to speak out and speak up is not enlightened; it is a home robbed of the light that Rava taught is essential to shalom bayit.
Deborah Rosenbloom is Jewish Women International’s vice president of programs and new initiatives, responsible for JWI’s programmatic work to end gender-based violence. She appreciates the insights of Rabbi Richard Hirsh, David Levin, and Susan Tomchin on this essay.