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Marriage in Judaism

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.

Bashert: Soul Mates

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.”

Acquiring a Spouse

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 2a-b).

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 wife.

The ketubah is often a beautiful work of calligraphy, framed and displayed in the home.

The Process of Marriage: Kiddushin and Nisuin

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.

A Typical Ashkenazi Wedding Ceremony

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 groom fast.

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 kallah.

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 married.

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 blessings is:

  1. ... who has created everything for his glory
  2. ... who fashioned the Man
  3. ... who fashioned the Man in His image ...
  4. ... who gladdens Zion through her children
  5. ... who gladdens groom and bride
  6. ... who created joy and gladness ... who gladdens the groom with the bride
  7. 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.

The Marital Relationship

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.

Prohibited Marriages and Illegitimate Children

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 marriage.

Sources: Judaism 101.
Wedding booklet of Avi Hein and Sarah Szymkowicz.
Brigitte Dayan, “Pearls, henna and challah: Sephardic nuptial customs,” Jewish News Weekly of Northern California (November 8, 1996).