Q. Why is a matchmaker called a shadchan?A. The term derives from a word which means “to persuade”, “to negotiate”.
As a distinct profession or business, shadchanut dates from the time of the Crusades, when Jewish life was so disrupted parents worried that their children might remain unmarried.
At first match-making was a side-line often adopted by the rabbi, who in the Middle Ages received no salary for performing rabbinical functions and had to seek an income from subsidiary pursuits.
The expansion of shadchanut is reflected in references to the subject found in halachic literature from the 13th century. How much commission may a shadchan claim? What happens if the projected marriage does not take place?
At times the shadchan was such a respected personage that the words of Job could be applied to him, as they were to Jacob Mollin, the Maharil who was highly esteemed marriage broker:
“Unto me men gave ear, and waited,
And kept silence for my counsel,
After my words they spake not again,
And my speech dropped upon them” (Job 29:21)
But many lacked the unquestioned integrity and good judgment of the Maharil. They tried to persuade people that it was immodest to do their own courting, that it was undignified for families to approach each other direct and the sales talk of the experienced shadchan could obtain a young man or woman who might otherwise be far beyond the wildest dreams of the client.
In many places an untidy appearance, plus a rolled umbrella and a bowler hat was the uniform of the matchmaking profession. A shadchan’s most valuable piece of equipment was his little dog-eared book, which a recent writer has called “the social register of the shtetl”.
From Mendele Mocher Sefarim to Sholom Aleichem to Israel Zangwill and far beyond, the shadchan was depicted in literature, with all his goings-on. But he did have quite a high rate of success.