The question of how old Rivka was when she got married is something of a sore subject. On the one hand, everyone knows that she was 3 when she got married. It’s a famous midrash, and that’s that. But when you think about it, it seems more than a little strange. On a textual level, she was only 3 when she was drawing water from the well? That’s a pretty strong 3 year old. Worse, on a moral level, marrying a 3 year old seems more than just a little problematic. And while it is certainly true that people used to get married much younger than we do today, suggesting that Rivka was only 3 years old when Yitzchak married her bothers many people, myself included.
The fact of the matter is, though, that Rivka being 3 when she got married is far from a simple fact. In truth, there may not be such a strong reason to accept it in the first place, which would do away with all of our problems. There’s going to be a bit of math here as we work this out, but I promise it’s not too bad.
Let’s first begin by figuring out why it is that the famous midrash that everybody knows states that Rivka was 3 when she got married… There is a midrash in Bereishis Rabbah that states that Yitzchak’s age at the akeidah was 37 (it seems to take this for granted). Indeed, that midrash as well is also pretty famous. Many authorities assume that Yitzchak was certainly 37 at the akeidah. We all know this. So now Rashi works out the math to prove:
- Sarah was 90 when Yitzchak was born (that is explicit in the posukim).
- Sarah died at 127 (also explicit in the posukim).
- Sarah’s death is assumed to have occurred immediately following the akeidah (the source for that is smichas haParshiyos, or “immediate juxtaposition of verses”. We're told about her death right after the akeidah, and thus we conclude that she dies immediately following the akeidah. This is drash, though, and some challenge it noting, for instance, that the verse says Avraham went back to Be'er Sheva following the akeidah, while Sarah died in Kiryas Arba. This seems like good textual evidence that Sarah's death and the akeidah didn't actually happen at the same time.)
Thus we have 127 - 90 = 37, so Yitzchak was 37 at the akeidah. So, if Yitzchak was 37 at the akeidah, we must also say that Rivka was 3 when she got married based on the following:
- Rivka was born right after the akeidah, when, per the above, Yitzchak was 37 (The source for this is once again smichas haParshiyos. Her birth is announced right after the akeidah. This also works thematically. At the end of the akeidah, Avraham is promised children/many future generations.)
- Yitzchak was 40 when he married Rivka.
- If Yitzchak was 37 when Rivka was born, and married her when he was 40, then Rivka was 3 when she got married.
According to Rashi, then, Rivka was most certainly 3 when she got married. It is this Rashi, of course, that made this position, and the midrashim it is based off of, so famous. So what’s the problem with all of this? Well, nothing necessarily.
But it does depend on who you ask. Tosfos takes objection to this on two grounds. One, Rivka is called a na’ara by the Torah. An only-3-year-old is never referred to by that term anywhere in our liturgy. Second, we have another midrash that states that Rivka was 133 when she died. That does not fit with the math Rashi gave us above:
- Yaakov received his blessing at age 63 (Rashi has a whole separate calculation to prove this. I’ll spare you.)
- He then studied 14 years with Ever (Rashi assumes this based on a interpretation of a posuk there).
- After this he worked for 20 years for Lavan (this is explicit in the posukim).
- Yaakov then traveled for 2 years, after which he received word that his mother, Rivka, had died. (The source for this is another midrash.)
Now, if we assume that Rivka was 3 at marriage, and thus 23 when Yaakov was born, the above calculations make her 122 at the time of her death, not 133 like the midrash states! Thus, based on these calculations, she would have to have been 13 when she got married, not 3, says Tosfos!
Tosfos does not reconcile these two views. He states that they simply cannot be harmonized. They are two different interpretations, based on two different sets of assumptions. Take your pick; they are both equally valid (with Rivka being 13 certainly being the more palatable option).
Ibn Ezra also takes issue with Rivka being 3 at the time of her marriage, because, as explained above, this would mean that Yitzchak was 37 at the akeidah. But the akeidah is only really remembered as a great triumph of Avraham! If Yitzchak was so old and aware, he should have gotten some credit too! Thus, Ibn Ezra states that some people assume Yitzchak was 5 at the akeidah, but that his personal view is that he was 13. This would also put Rivka at being much older than 3 when she got married to him, if Yitzchak was indeed 40 when he got married.
Now, here’s something really crazy. The original midrash that states that Yitzchak was 37 at the akeidah — which is, as was shown, the starting point for Rivka being 3 at marriage — actually has another textual version/variance. I do not know the origins of this alternate version, but in it, it actually has a second age in parenthesis. It reads that Yitzchak was 37 or possibly 26! If this is indeed the case, this solves all of our problems, as this fits with the second midrash that says that Rivka died at 133. Because if Yitzchak was 26 at the akeidah, then Rivka was about 13-14 when she got married, and thus the math works out that she was 133 when she died.
At the end of the day here, the point here is simply to show both the depths, and technicalities when it comes to interpreting the posukim, midrashim, and so forth. After all of this, I think it is clear that it is, in fact, not so clear just how old Rivka was when she got married to Yitzchak — and it is a bit of a pity that only one view, in a vacuum, is presented to most people, without seeing how or why we ended up there.
The truth is that it’s just not that simple. One view is not more correct than the other, but the fact that Rivka was 3 at the time of her marriage is presented as fact, when it is in reality based on a lot of math, many assumptions, and a midrash that has a textual variance that could make the whole position moot anyway. And further, there is a different, equally acceptable way (that is held by a number of major Rishonim) to go about that math, and those assumptions, that puts Rivka at being much older — 14 or more — when she got married.
If we had a time machine and could go back the moment of their wedding, how old would Rivka really be? I have no idea. But I don’t much care either, beyond the fact that it is just as likely, if not more likely, that she would be 14 (or older) than she would be 3.