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The Shidduch (Hebrew - shidduchim) is a system of Jewish matchmaking in which Jewish singles are introduced to one another in Orthodox Jewish communities for the purpose of marriage
In strictly Orthodox Jewish circles, dating is limited to the search for a marriage partner. Both sides (usually the parents, close relatives or friends of the persons involved) make inquiries about the prospective partner, e.g. on his/her character, intelligence, level of learning, financial status, family and health status, appearance and level of religious observance. A shidduch often begins with a recommendation from family members, friends or others who see matchmaking as a mitzvah, or good deed. Some engage in it as a profession and charge a fee for their services. A professional matchmaker is called a shadchan. After the match has been proposed, the prospective partners meet a number of times to gain a sense of whether they are right for one another. The number of dates prior to announcing an engagement may vary by community. In some, the dating continues several months. In stricter communities, the couple may decide within a few days.
Those who support marriage by shidduch believe that it complies with traditional Judaism's outlook on Tzeniut, modest behaviour in relations between men and women, and prevents promiscuity. It may also be helpful in small Jewish communities where meeting prospective marriage partners is more difficult. Also, the decision as to whether or not the mate is good can be made with the emotional boundary of the shadchan who, if so desired by the couple, can call and talk to either side in the beginning stages of the dating to iron out issues that can crop up during the dating process. Usually as the couple see more of each other the shadchan backs away and lets the couple manage it for themselves. It's expected that the couple keep the shadchan up-to-date on how the shidduch is going at regular intervals.
If, for some reason, the shidduch does not work out, then usually the shadchan is contacted and it is he/she that tells the other side that it will not be going ahead. If the shidduch works out then the couple inform the shadchan of the success.
Sometimes named as negative aspects are the disadvantages to young people with medical or psychiatric issues, financial, family or sibling issues, chronic diseases, people with disabilities, people from broken homes, orphans, converts, and baalei teshuva (returnees to Orthodoxy). Often the disadvantaged end up being matched with people with other disadvantages. It can also reduce the amount of choice for the prospective partners themselves.
Biblical Jewish Matchmaking
The first recorded shidduch in the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. Old Testament) was the match that Eliezer, the servant of the Jewish patriarch Abraham, made for his master's son Isaac (Genesis Ch. 24). Abraham gave him specific instructions to choose a woman from Abraham's own tribe. Eliezer traveled to his master's homeland to fulfill Abraham's wishes, arriving at a well. After a short prayer to God for guidance, describing how a virtuous woman might act toward a traveling stranger at the well, Rebekah appeared on the scene and did everything described in Eliezer's prayer. Eliezer then went with Rebekah to her family and appealed them for permission to take Rebekah back with him to be Isaac's wife. Once this permission was granted, Rebekah joined Eliezer on the road home to Isaac. Even so, Isaac gained his own impression of her before agreeing to marry her (Rashi, commentary to Genesis 24:67).
However, when Eliezer proposes to take Rebekah back to Isaac in Canaan, he is told by Rebekah's family: "Let us ask the maiden" (i.e. Rebekah). This is taken as an instruction for Jewish parents to weigh their child's opinion in the balance during an arranged marriage. Regardless of whether proper procedure is followed, this is not the end of the decision - it is believed by Jews that the final say belongs to God, who may have different plans (compare with the match of Jacob & Leah).
The Talmud (tractate Kiddushin 41a) states that a man may not marry a woman until having seen her first. This edict is based on the Torah statement: "Love your neighbour (re'acha) like yourself" (Leviticus 19:18), where the word "neighbour" can be interpreted as "spouse". In other words, a marriage that is arranged so completely that the prospective couple has not even seen each other is strongly discouraged, as it is likely to be uncomfortable for the couple.
The etymology of the words "shidduch" and "shadchan" is uncertain. The Medieval Rabbi Nissim of Gerona (commonly called Ran) traces it back to the Aramaic word for "calm" (cf. Targum to Judges 5:31), and elaborates that the main purpose of the shidduch process is for young people to "settle down" into marriage (Commentary of the Ran to Talmud, Shabbat 10a).
Considering the prevalence of a number of genetic diseases in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, several organizations (most notably Dor Yeshorim) routinely screen large groups of young people anonymously, only handing them a telephone number and a PIN. When a shidduch is suggested, the candidates can phone the organization, enter both their PINs, and find out whether their union could result in critically disabled children. Although occasionally receiving criticism, the construction has led to a sharp decrease in the number of children born with Tay-Sachs disease and other genetic disorders.
The process of shidduchim is the subject of some criticism, mainly for being "unromantic" and too closely resembling the practice of arranged marriages. However, this is not really the case as there is no requirement in the Shidduch process to marry the person being dated. It is simply an arranged date, through which romance can blossom, and most certainly not an arranged marriage. It should be noted that those using this matchmaking process have a far lower divorce rate than the US standard. The numbers given are under 6%. One counter-argument to this, of course, is that divorce is much more discouraged among Orthodox Jews (Ashkenazi and Sephardi) than among the rest of the US population, so divorce rates are not necessarily indicators of marital success. Shidduchim also limit the number of potential mates for people with perceived disadvantages (as mentioned above).
Cultural and literary references
In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the Milkman's daughters have trouble finding a suitable match. The matchmaking is conducted by an old widow named Yente.