There has been much discussion of marriage at a young age, especially for women.
Stories are particularly strong in the Khasidic community. I agree that the answer
is likely to depend on the culture of the community, which will vary both with
geography and time, and will be influenced (some) by applicable law, and the
customs of the surrounding community.
The official records of the Jewish community of Nezhin Ukraine, just NE of Kiev,
for 1860-1918, contain more than 3,000 marriages. None of those marriages purported
to be contracted by a person less than 16 years old. No man was married under age
18 during this time. Around 1.5% of the women first married at age 16 in the 1860s
and 1890s, and less than 1% in the other decades. 10.4% of the women first married
at age 17 in the 1860s; 4.5% in the 1870s; and 2% or less in each decade
However, it is impossible to ignore the wealth of anecdotal stories. Without
records, we cannot confirm them, but they are too widespread to be dismissed.
Here is a theory. Jewish marriage consisted of two ceremonies which I will loosely
call engagement and marriage. These two ceremonies did not usually occur
simultaneously. The engagement often preceded the marriage by a considerable
period, and it is possible that many Jews were engaged by their parents at a very
young age. Many married thereafter when they reached normal marriage age. I have
a memoir of a Jew born in 1865 in Galicia who says that normal marriage age was 18.
Here is the question on which I have no evidence: How serious was engagement? Was
it sufficiently serious that a couple when they reached their dotage would refer
to their engagement as the age at which they were married? Put differently, was
engagement such a significant commitment that severing it would have required a
The one record I have found that might support the idea of early marriage is an
1880s divorce that states that the woman was 13. I could find no record of her
having previously married in Nezhin. She might have married elsewhere. In that era,
about 2/3 of the couples who married in Nezhin are later mentioned in the Nezhin
birth or divorce records, leaving 1/3 who likely settled in other towns. But
alternatively, would it be possible that the couple divorcing were never actually
married, only engaged?
I would be interested to know if anyone has a 19th century marriage record stating
that either bride or groom was younger than 16.