Among the Talmud’s most famous statements is Rav’s (and/or Shmuel’s – see Moed Katan 18a) assertion that forty days before a man is born, a heavenly voice proclaims who he will marry and what house and field he will acquire (Sotah 2a). Famous though it may be, few have studied it in depth or pondered the serious issues it raises.
It should, of course, be noted that the application of this statement can be quite limited. The Gemara itself cites another statement that would seem to contradict it – that matching up spouses is as difficult for God as the splitting of the Red Sea – and concludes that Rav’s statement is only speaking about a “first match.” While the simplest way to understand this is to say that Rav’s statement was about a first marriage as opposed to a second marriage, there are several commentators who understand a “first match,” as something much more limited and, hence, much less common. Meiri, for example, understood a first match to be one in which the couple is very young and lacking enough life experience that would warrant marrying someone fitting that life experience. If so, that would exclude just about all marriages today.
But all qualifications aside, the statement remains difficult. Why should some things be predetermined, whereas most other things are not? And why specifically these? If the concept of “beshert,” or a match made in Heaven, has become so popular as to desensitize us to these questions, we should perhaps focus on the assertion that this is also true about a man and his field. Why did Rav not say this about a man and his job, for example, or a man and his study partner or business partner?
Perhaps we can understand this better if we compare it to a theoretical divine voice saying that a certain man is destined to be united with a certain pair of lungs. After all, we now know that like almost any organ, lungs can readily be transplanted from one body to another. That being the case, lungs could also be seen as an independent unit. You might object and say that a person’s (first!) lungs develop together with the rest of the person in the embryo, removing any need for God to bring them together. But I think that is precisely the point! A man and wife may develop and be born apart, but they are really no different than any part of the person’s actual body. And apparently this holds true for a man and his house and field as well.
Rav is teaching us that defining what constitutes a unit is not as simple as we might think. Indeed, the Torah already graphically tells us that a man and his wife become one unit when it writes that, “a man shall cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh” (Bereishit 4:22). Note that it does not present this as a metaphor and say, “like one flesh.” This is apparently no less true of a man and his (“first”) wife and a man and his (presumably “first”) field then it is of a man and his lungs.
This simple organic unity described in the Torah, however, is not present with a second match, no matter how harmonious that marriage may be. Returning to our analogy, a transplanted organ may well be better than a person’s birth organs, but it still requires transplantation and adjustment. Maharal accordingly explains that the comparison to the splitting of the Red Sea is because the same process was there in reverse – combining parts that don’t belong to the same unit is just as difficult as splitting parts that do.
In terms of the specifics, we are being taught that man is created together with his basic necessities. A man or woman cannot truly live and certainly not reproduce without a spouse; nor can they survive without food and shelter. Hence one is born with a spouse for companionship and to reproduce, with a field to provide basic sustenance, and with a house for shelter. As such, these things are intrinsic and required parts of himself. This is the case whether he attaches these parts to his body or learns to live without them by replacing them through his own efforts.
There is a famous story about Rabbi Aryeh Levine who, when referring to his wife, once told a physician, “our foot is hurting us.” People generally quote this story to show the great love he had for his wife. Yet according to our understanding of Rav’s teaching, it is not so much love that he showed as understanding of who he actually was.