In talmudic times, the usual age of the bridegroom was eighteen to twenty. Girls were treated as marriageable from the beginning of their thirteenth year. A Jewish court would often compel a man to take a wife; such pressure, however, was not applied in the case of students. A contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, Simeon ben Azzai was never married, because he was enamored of the Torah; he said: "The population of the world can be kept up by others."[1]

Twelve months was the normal interval between the betrothal (erusin) and the marriage (nissu'in), when the bride was taken to her husband's house.."[2] Since the sixteenth century the two ceremonies of betrothal and marriage have been performed on the same day. The talmudic term shiddukhin refers to the arrangements preliminary to the legal betrothal, which has been gradually replaced by the engagement.

The performance of a wedding includes the use of a ring and a canopy (huppah), the breaking of a glass, the reading of a marriage contract (ketubbah), and the recital of the seven benedictions. The ring is said to have been introduced in the seventh century; it replaced the ancient gift of money or an article of value. It need not be of gold, and must not contain gems; it is put on the forefinger of the bride's right hand; afterwards she places it on the customary finger of the left hand.

Originally, the huppah was the marriage chamber, into which the bridal couple were conducted after a procession; but now it is merely symbolic. A regular preliminary of the marriage ceremony is the bridegroom's signing of the ketubbah, which sets forth the amount payable to the wife in the case of the husband's death or the wife's divorce. The ketubbah was designed to protect the rights of the wife and her personal property; it was also intended as a strong restraint against rash divorces. The ketubbah is still retained, though it hardly has any legal significance. It is carefully preserved by the bride, and was often engrossed in parchment with illuminated borders. [In recent decades, couples have been writing egalitarian (usually illuminated) ketubbot in which they express their commitments and promises one to the other.]

The bridegroom breaks a glass as a symbol of the mourning for Zion, which is frequently recalled in the Hebrew wedding hymns. The Talmud relates: "When the son of Ravina was married, the father took a costly vase of white crystal, worth four hundred zuzim, and broke it before the rabbis present, who were in an uproarious mood, in order to curb their spirits."."[3] The custom, then, arose from a desire to keep men's joys tempered by serious thoughts and the memory of Zion.

The term for the betrothal ceremony is kiddushin (consecration), indicating the religious significance of Jewish marriages which are described as a divine covenant.."[4] Hence the ceremony is usually conducted in the synagogue and is hallowed by the seven blessings, which are recited when a quorum of ten (minyan) is present. They are quoted in the Talmud as birkat hatanim (nuptial blessing).."[5] The fourth benediction refers to the perpetual renewal of the human being in the divine form. In the last three benedictions a prayer is uttered that God may comfort Zion, cause happiness to the young couple, and bring about complete exultation in a restored Judea and Jerusalem.

Since the betrothal ceremony is now combined with the wedding ceremony, two glasses of wine are used. The blessing for the betrothal reads: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments, and prohibited illicit relations; You have forbidden the cohabitation of those who are merely betrothed, permitting it to those who are married through consecrated wedlock. Blessed art You, O Lord, who sanctifies Your people Israel by consecrated wedlock." This is followed by the groom's placing the ring, symbolic of attachment and fidelity, on the forefinger of the bride's right hand, and saying: "With this ring you are wedded to me in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel." [In egalitarian ceremonies, the woman places a ring on the groom's finger as well, as recites a verse from the prophets or other Jewish sources.]

The phrase "in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel" signifies the traditional interpretation of the laws of Moses, since the regulations of betrothal (erusin) are not directly biblical. After the reading of the ketubbah, the aforementioned seven blessings are chanted over a second cup of wine. Then comes the groom's breaking of the glass in memory of unrestored Jerusalem. The two cups of wine are said to represent cups of joy and sorrow; the bride and groom drink of both, expressing their intention to share one another's joys and sorrows. The plain ring of pure gold is symbolic of the purity of marital fidelity. Since the fourteenth century the wedding ceremony has been conducted, as a rule, by a rabbi, although any Jew is qualified to perform a wedding.

The term tenaim (conditions) signifies the engagement, which consists of certain conditions entered into by the parents of the couple as to the dowry (nedunya) and other details stipulated in a written document. This contract includes a provision that the party withdrawing from the agreement before marriage must pay to the other party a fine (kenas); hence, the Yiddish word farkenast denoting engaged, It is customary to break a dish at this engagement ceremony (tenaim) for the reason given above, or else: to warn the guests against excessive hilarity.

It is good manners that everyone who partakes of a wedding feast should give a present to the young couple.[6]


[1] BT Yevamot 63b [back]
[2] BT Ketubbot 5:2 [back]
[3] BT Berakhot 30b
[4] Proverbs 2:17
[5] BT Ketubbot 8a [back]
[6] Zohar, i,149a


From: Encyclopedia of Jewish Concepts, "Marriage" 243-245, by: Philip Birnbaum NY 1998, Hebrew Publishing Company

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