The Torah provides very little guidance with regard to the procedures of a marriage.
The method of finding a spouse, the form of the wedding ceremony, and
the nature of the marital relationship are all explained in the Talmud.
According to the Talmud,
Rav Yehuda taught that 40 days before a male child is conceived, a voice
from heaven announces whose daughter he is going to marry, literally
a match made in heaven! In Yiddish,
this perfect match is called "bashert,' a word meaning fate or
destiny. The word "bashert" can be used to refer to any kind
of fortuitous good match, such as finding the perfect job or the perfect
house, but it is usually used to refer to one's soul mate. There are
a number of statements in the Talmud that would seem to contradict the
idea of bashert, most notably the many bits of advice on choosing a
wife. Nevertheless, the idea has a strong hold within the Jewish community:
look at any listing of Jewish personal ads and you're bound to find
someone "Looking for my bashert."
Finding your bashert doesn't mean that your marriage
will be trouble-free. Marriage, like everything worthwhile in life,
requires dedication, effort and energy. Even when two people are meant
for each other, it is possible for them to ruin their marriage. That
is why Judaism allows divorce.
Although the first marriage is bashert, it is still
possible to have a good and happy marriage with a second spouse. The
Talmud teaches that G-d also
arranges second marriages, and a man's second wife is chosen according
to his merits.
How do you know if you have found your bashert? Should
you hold off on marrying someone for fear that the person you want to
marry might not be your bashert, and there might be a better match out
there waiting for you? The traditional view is that you cannot know
who your bashert is, but once you get married, the person you married
is by definition your bashert, so you should not let concerns about
finding your bashert discourage you from marrying someone.
And while we're on the subject of G-d arranging marriages,
I should share this delightful midrash: it is said that a Roman woman
asked a rabbi, if your G-d created the universe in six days, then what
has he been doing with his time since then? The rabbi said that G-d
has been arranging marriages. The Roman woman scoffed at this, saying
that arranging marriages was a simple task, but the rabbi assured her
that arranging marriages properly is as difficult as parting the Red
Sea. To prove the rabbi wrong, the Roman woman went home and took a
thousand male slaves and a thousand female slaves and matched them up
in marriages. The next day, the slaves appeared before her, one with
a cracked skull, another with a broken leg, another with his eye gouged
out, all asking to be released from their marriages. The woman went
back to the rabbi and said, "There is no god like your G-d,
and your Torah is true."
Mishnah Kiddushin 1:1 specifies that a woman
is acquired (i.e., to be a wife) in three ways: through money, a contract,
and sexual intercourse. Ordinarily, all three of these conditions are
satisfied, although only one is necessary to effect a binding marriage.
Acquisition by money is normally satisfied by the
wedding ring. It is important to note that although money is one way
of "acquiring" a wife, the woman is not being bought and sold
like a piece of property or a slave. This is obvious from the fact that
the amount of money involved is nominal (according to the Mishnah,
a perutah, a copper coin of the lowest denomination, was sufficient).
In addition, if the woman were being purchased like a piece of property,
it would be possible for the husband to resell her, and clearly it is
not. Rather, the wife's acceptance of the money is a symbolic way of
demonstrating her acceptance of the husband, just like acceptance of
the contract or the sexual intercourse.
To satisfy the requirements of acquisition by money,
the ring must belong to the groom. It cannot be borrowed, although it
can be a gift from a relative. It must be given to the wife irrevocably.
In addition, the ring's value must be known to the wife, so that there
can be no claim that the husband deceived her into marrying by misleading
her as to its value.
In all cases, the Talmud specifies that a woman can
be acquired only with her consent, and not without it (Kiddushin
As part of the wedding ceremony, the husband gives
the wife a ketubah. The word "Ketubah" comes
from the root Kaf-Tav-Bet, meaning "writing." The ketubah is also called the marriage contract. The ketubah spells out
the husband's obligations to the wife during marriage, conditions of
inheritance upon his death, and obligations regarding the support of
children of the marriage. It also provides for the wife's support in
the event of divorce. There are standard conditions; however, additional
conditions can be included by mutual agreement. Marriage agreements
of this sort were commonplace in the ancient Semitic world.
The ketubah has much in common with prenuptial
agreements, which are gaining popularity in America. In America, such
agreements were historically disfavored, because it was believed that
planning for divorce would encourage divorce, and that people who considered
the possibility of divorce shouldn't be marrying. Although one rabbi
in the Talmud expresses a similar opinion, the majority maintained that
a ketubah discouraged divorce, by serving as a constant reminder
of the husband's substantial financial obligations if he divorced his
The ketubah is often a beautiful work of calligraphy,
framed and displayed in the home.
The process of marriage occurs in two distinct stages: kiddushin (commonly translated as betrothal) and nisuin (full-fledged marriage). Kiddushin occurs when the woman accepts
the money, contract or sexual relations offered by the prospective husband.
The word "kiddushin" comes from the root Qof-Dalet-Shin,
meaning "sanctified." It reflects the sanctity of the marital
relation. However, the root word also connotes something that is set
aside for a specific (sacred) purpose, and the ritual of kiddushin sets aside the woman to be the wife of a particular man and no other.
Kiddushin is far more binding than an engagement
as we understand the term in modern America; in fact, Maimonides speaks of a period of engagement before the kiddushin.
Once kiddushin is complete, the woman is legally the wife of
the man. The relationship created by kiddushin can only be dissolved
by death or divorce. However, the spouses do not live together at that
time, and the mutual obligations created by the marital relationship
do not take effect until the nisuin is complete.
The nisuin (from a word meaning "elevation")
completes the process of marriage. The husband brings the wife into
his home and they begin their married life together.
In the past, the kiddushin and nisuin would routinely occur as much as a year apart. During that time, the
husband would prepare a home for the new family. There was always a
risk that during this long period of separation, the woman would discover
that she wanted to marry another man, or the man would disappear, leaving
the woman in the awkward state of being married but without a husband.
Today, the two ceremonies are normally performed together.
Because marriage under Jewish law is essentially a
private contractual agreement between a man and a woman, it does not
require the presence of a rabbi or any other religious official. It
is common, however, for rabbis to officiate, partly in imitation of
the Christian practice and partly because the presence of a religious
or civil official is required under American civil law.
As you can see, it is very easy to make a marriage,
so the rabbis instituted severe punishments (usually flogging and compelled
divorce) where marriage was undertaken without proper planning and solemnity.
It is customary for the bride and groom not to see
each other for a week preceding the wedding. On the Shabbat of that week, it is customary among Ashkenazic Jews for the groom to have an aliyah (the honor of reciting a
blessing over the Torah
reading. This aliyah is known as an aufruf. There
are exuberant celebrations in the synagogue at this time.
The day before the wedding, both the bride and the
Before the ceremony, the bride is veiled, a process
called badeken, by the groom, or chatan. The veil symbolizes the idea
of modesty and conveys the message that no matter how attractive physical
appearances may be, the soul and character are paramount. This is an
ancient custom and serves as the first of many actions by which the
groom signals his commitment to clothe and protect his wife. The act
is in remembrance of when Rebecca veiled her face before marrying Isaac.
The badeken is symbolic of covering a treasure which one values.
The ceremony itself lasts 20-30 minutes, and is conducted
under a chupah, wedding canopy, a symbol of the home to be built and
shared by the couple. The chatan, followed by the kallah, bride, are
escorted to the chupah by their respective set of parents. Just as one
would rise in the presence of royalty, it is proper for the guests to
rise upon the arrival of both the chatan and the kallah. When the groom
reaches the chuppah the chazan, cantor, blesses him and asks G-d to
bless the bride and groom. When the groom arrives underneath the chupah
he dons a kittel, white robe, which symbolizes spiritual purity. Under
the chupah the kallah circles the chatan seven times; just as the world
was created in seven days, the kallah is figuratively building the walls
of the couple's new home. Another explanation is that the seven circles
correspond to the seven times in the Torah where it is written, ". . .and when a man marries a woman. . ."
The chazan then blesses the bride and asks G-d to bless the chatan and
There are two separate parts of the wedding, kiddushin and the nisuin. For the kiddushin, the rabbi recites a
blessing over the wine, and then a blessing acknowledging forbidden
and permitted relationships in Jewish law. The first cup accompanies
the betrothal blessing, and after these are recited, the couple drinks
from the cup.
There is no requirement for a ring to be used in a
Jewish wedding. Rather, a chatan must give the kallah an object worth
more than one peruta, a small unit of value; however, it has become
customary to use a ring. The man places the ring on the woman's finger
and says "Be sanctified (mekudeshet) to me with this ring
in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel." According to Jewish
law, this is the central moment of the wedding, and the couple is now
After the kiddushin is complete, the ketubah,
marriage contract, is read aloud in the original Aramaic text. The contract is then signed by two edim, witnesses. The ketubah
is the property of the kallah and she must have access to it throughout
the couple's marriage.
The nisuin then proceeds. The bride and groom
stand beneath the chuppah, and the bride and groom recite seven blessings (sheva brakhos) in the presence of a minyan (prayer quorum of 10 adult Jewish men). The essence of each of the seven
- ... who has created everything for his glory
- ... who fashioned the Man
- ... who fashioned the Man in His image ...
- ... who gladdens Zion through her children
- ... who gladdens groom and bride
- ... who created joy and gladness ... who gladdens the groom with
- and the standard prayer over wine.
The couple then drinks the wine.
The groom smashes a glass (or a small symbolic piece
of glass) with his right foot, to symbolize the destruction of the Temple.
The couple then retires briefly to a completely private
room, cheder yichud, and are left alone for the first time. This time
is also symbolic of the groom bringing his wife into his home.
Yichud is followed by a festive meal, which is followed
by a repetition of the sheva brakhos. Exuberant music and dancing
traditionally accompany the ceremony and the reception.
A Typical Sephardic Wedding Ceremony
Many Sephardic Jews, particularly North Africans, begin weddings several days before the actual ceremony with an elaborate party to which the bride wears an embroidered velvet dress adorned with pearls and other jewels. Often, this dress is a family heirloom. After guests share a meal, henna dye is painted on each woman's palm, symbolizing both fertility and protection against the evil eye.
In Ashkenazic circles, a bride-to-be visits the mikveh (ritual bath) with a close female relative, usually in private. But in Sephardic tradition, all the women of the community accompany the bride-to-be and her mother and sisters to the mikveh. Afterward they enjoy a lavish feast of sweets, then dance in the mikveh's foyer. In Spanish-speaking communities, this custom is called noche de novia, literally, "night of the sweetheart."
A wedding day is considered a yom tov, a festive event, and the Sephardic bride and groom do not fast. They are expected to savor a meal honoring the occasion. Also, Sephardic Jews have no tradition of bedeken, or veiling of the bride. And Sephardic Jews consider the custom of yichud -- in which the couple slips away for a private moment right after the ceremony -- a davar mechuar, a "repugnant thing," in that it compromises modesty.
Among Sephardic Jews the ketubah (marriage contract) is a binding contract: The two families negotiate a sum to be paid in the event of a divorce. During the ceremony, the Sephardic bride does not circle her groom seven times, as is the Ashkenazic custom. The Sephardic couple generally faces the audience with a tallit draped over their heads, and the officiating rabbi has his back to the guests.
The Sephardic groom's aufruf is held on the Shabbat following the wedding rather than the one preceding it. Called an Avram Siz, this rite demands the reading of a passage in Genesis in which Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to find a suitable mate for his son, Isaac. The name Avram Siz is Aramaic for "Avram was old," the words that introduce this passage, which is read in Aramaic.
At the Sephardic weeklong celebratory feasts called Shevah Brachot, guests arrive at the couple's new home bearing food and drink. The bride and groom are treated as a king and queen; seven wedding blessings are recited over them, and their home is likened to a royal court.
Marriage is vitally important in Judaism.
Refraining from marriage is not considered holy, as it is in some other
religions. On the contrary, it is considered unnatural. The Talmud says that an unmarried man is constantly thinking of sin. The Talmud tells of a rabbi who was introduced to a young unmarried rabbi. The
older rabbi told the younger one not to come into his presence again
until he was married.
Marriage is not solely, or even primarily, for the
purpose of procreation. Traditional sources recognize that companionship,
love and intimacy are the primary purposes of marriage, noting that
woman was created in Gen. 2:18 because
"it is not good for man to be alone," rather than because
she was necessary for procreation.
According to the Torah and the Talmud, a man was permitted
to marry more than one wife, but a woman could not marry more than one
man. Although polygyny was permitted, it was never common. The Talmud
never mentions any rabbi with more than one wife. Around 1000 C.E., Ashkenazic Jewry banned
polygyny because of pressure from the predominant Christian culture.
It continued to be permitted for Sephardic Jews
in Islamic lands for many years. To the present day, Yemenite and Ethiopian Jews continue to
practice polygyny; however, the modern state of Israel allows only one
wife, unless you come to Israel with more than one wife, in which case
you can keep the wives you have but you cannot marry new ones.
A husband is responsible for providing his wife with
food, clothing and sexual relations (Ex.
21:10), as well as anything else specified in the ketubah.
Marital sexual relations are the woman's right, not the man's. A man
cannot force his wife to engage in sexual relations with him, nor is
he permitted to abuse his wife in any way (a practice routinely permitted
in Christian countries until quite recently).
A married woman retains ownership of any property
she brought to the marriage, but the husband has the right to manage
the property and to enjoy profits from the property.
The minimum age for marriage under Jewish law is 13
for boys, 12 for girls; however, the kiddushin can take place
before that, and often did in medieval times. The Talmud recommends
that a man marry at age 18, or somewhere between 16 and 24.
The Torah sets forth a laundry list of prohibited relations. Such marriages are
never valid. A man cannot marry certain close blood relatives, the ex-wives
of certain close blood relatives, a woman who has not been validly divorced
from her previous husband, the daughter or granddaughter of his ex-wife,
or the sister of his ex-wife during the ex-wife's life time.
The offspring of such a marriage are mamzerim (bastards, illegitimate), and subject to a variety of restrictions;
however it is important to note that only the offspring of these incestuous
or forbidden marriages are mamzerim. Children born out of wedlock
are not mamzerim in Jewish law and bear no stigma, unless the
marriage would have been prohibited for the reasons above. Children
of a married man and a woman who is not his wife are not mamzerim (because the marriage between the parents would not have been prohibited),
although children of a married woman and a man who is not her husband
are mamzerim (because she could not have married him).
There are other classes of marriages that are not
permitted, but that are valid if they occur and that do not make the
children mamzerim. The marriage of minors, of a Jew to a non-Jew,
and of a kohein to
the prohibited classes of women discussed below fall into this category.
A kohein is not permitted to marry a divorcee,
a convert, a promiscuous woman, a woman who is the offspring of a forbidden
marriage to a kohein, or a woman who is the widow of a man who died
childless but who has been released from the obligation to marry her
husband's brother. A kohein who marries such a woman is disqualified
from his duties as a kohein, as are all the offspring of that
Sources: Judaism 101;Wedding
booklet of Avi Hein and Sarah Szymkowicz; Dayan, Brigitte, "Pearls, henna and challah: Sephardic nuptial customs," Jewish News Weekly of Northern California (November 8, 1996).