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Jewish view of marriage

Judaism considers marriage to be the ideal state of existence; a man without a wife, or a woman without a husband, are considered incomplete.

Ancient customs

In traditional Jewish society, from the era of the Talmud up to the enlightenment, social association of the sexes was usually restricted. In Orthodox Jewish communities these social restrictions are still in force.

Engagement for marriage was generally brought about by a third person, often a professional match-maker ("shadchan"). The process is called Shidduchim (Hebrew: matches). The shadchan received a brokerage-fee fixed by law, as a rule a small percentage of the dowry. It was paid by either of the parties, or each paid one-half, at the betrothal or after the wedding. The rabbi, as a person enjoying special confidence, was also often employed as intermediary. Although the marriage preliminaries were the concern of the parents, their children were not forced into marriage over their objections.

Marriage ceremony

The marriage ceremony is based on the rules for transfer of property or of rights in antiquity. In marriage, the woman accepts a ring (or something of value) from the man, accepting the terms of the marriage. This is called betrothal, or kiddushin or erusin. A prenuptial agreement (ketubah) is read publicly. Witnesses are required for both the signing of the ketubah and the ceremonies.

Finally the couple are joined in matrimony under the chuppah, in the ceremony of Nissuin, symbolizing their setting up house together. Very often the chuppah is made of an outstretched tallit (Jewish prayer shawl), but it can be any sort of canopy.




see: Sheva Brachos

At the giving of the ring the groom makes a declaration "You are consecrated to me, through this ring, according to the religion of Moses and Israel." Traditionally there is no verbal response on the part of the bride. She accepts the ring on her finger, and closes her hand, signifying acceptance. Conservative and Reform Jews however, create new minhagim (customs) in the wedding ceremony. Today most non-traditional Jewish women respond by giving a ring to the groom, and recite an appropriate passage, such as the famous verse from the Song of Songs, Ani l'dodi v'dodi Li ("I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me", Song of Songs 6:3).

The ceremony reaches its climax with both the bride and groom drinking wine. The groom then steps on the wine glass to break it. The origin of this custom is shrouded in history, and various understandings of this custom exist:

The oldest source seems to be from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot 31a; it has a story about the wedding of Rav Ashi's son. When the celebrants began to get carried away, Ashi brought out and broke a crystal glass in front of them. The interpretation by the Tosafot (early medieval Talmudic commentators) is that even during moments of great celebration, one must maintain proper decorum. It may be related to the belief that it is best to temper one's joy, in order to avert inviting bad fortune.

The breaking of the glass represents the Jewish community's continuing sorrow of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; no celebration is totally complete without the Temple.

Among Kabbalists (adherents of Jewish mysticism), this custom is said to be a reminder of the broken fragments of Creation, and our need to engage in Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world on a spiritual level.

Ancient methods of betrothal

In the past, a Jewish betrothal could be contracted in three ways (Mishna, tractate Kiddushim 1:1):

With money (as when a man hands a woman an object of value, such as a ring or a coin, for the purpose of contracted marriage, and in the presence of two witnesses, and she actively accepts); Through a shtar, a contract containing the betrothal declaration phrased as "through this contract"; or By sexual intercourse with the intention of creating a bond of marriage, a method strongly discouraged by the rabbinic sages.

Today only the betrothal ceremony involving the object of value, almost always a ring, is practiced, but the others may be fallen back upon should a halachic dispute occur.

The Ketubah

The ketubah lays out rights of the wife (to monetary payments upon termination of the marriage by death or divorce), and obligations of the husband (providing food, shelter, clothing, and sexual satisfaction to the wife). Due its overriding importance, it was not written in the Hebrew language, but in Aramaic, the lingua franca of Jews at the time the first Ketubot became standardized.

Orthodox Judaism uses a traditional ketubah based on the forms that have evolved and standardized over the past millennium. There are minor variations between Orthodox groups, but none of major legal or theological difference. While Jews today no longer speak Aramaic, Orthodox ketubot are still in this tongue. Nowadays many Orthodox ketubot also have English translations.





What is a tallit?


Conservative Jews use a traditional ketubah, but have incorporated two changes. Aramaic ketubot are still used, but since Hebrew has been reborn as a living language, an official Hebrew version of the Ketubah is now sometimes used. A second change is that a new paragraph is allowed as an option; this paragraph includes a directive that if the couple ever gets a civil (non-religious) divorce, they must go to a Bet Din (rabbinical court) and follow its directives, which tells the husband that he must give his wife a get, a Jewish divorce.

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements use both more equalized versions of the ketubah, and also use documents that are essentially not a ketubah at all, but rather a new form of wedding celebration document.

Jewish Wedding Traditions

Shidduch - The very first stage of a traditional Jewish marriage, is the shidduch, or matchmaking.
When the families have met, and the young couple have decided to marry, the families usually announce the occasion with a small reception, known as a vort.
Ketuvah - At the reception itself, the first thing usually done is the completion, signing and witnessing of the ketuvah, or marriage contract.
Bedekin - After the signing of the ketuvah, which is usually accompanied by some light snacks and some hard liquor for the traditional lechaims (the Jewish salute when drinking, which means, "to life!"), the groom does the bedekin, or "veiling."
Chuppah - The next stage is known as the chuppah, or "canopy." The chuppah is a embroidered cloth stretched or supported over four poles, and is often carried by attendants to the location where the ceremony will take place. It is meant to symbolize the home which the couple will build together. Embroidered cloth usually used is a .
Kiddushin - The groom, now takes a plain gold ring and places it on the finger of the bride, and recites in the presence of two witnesses, "Behold you are sanctified (betrothed) to me with this ring, according to the Law of Moses and Israel."
Sheva Brachos - After this, the sheva brachos, or seven blessings, are recited, either by one Rabbi, or at many weddings a different blessing is given to various people the families wish to honor.
Cheder yichud - Now that the couple are married they are accompanied by dancing guests to the cheder yichud, "the room of privacy."

Family Purity

The Laws of "Family Purity" (taharat hamishpacha) have always been a pre-requisite of the Jewish marriage. This requires a knowledge of the menstrual Niddah laws which all Jewish brides and grooms have been required to study and practice.


The Jewish concept of marriage is based on kiddushin (sanctification). The wife and husband are publicly sanctified to each other in an exclusive relationship. The rules regarding such sanctification, by definition, are for a relationship between the Jews. The Jewish declaration of marriage includes the phrase that the marriage is being carried out by the laws of Moses and Israel; such a declaration has no meaning for a marriage ceremony between a Jew and a gentile. If any such marriage is carried out Jews of course recognize the civil legitimacy of such a ceremony, but accord it no religious legitimacy.

Civil versus religious marriages, and inter-faith marriages

There is an ongoing debate about inter-faith marriage in especially the Jewish community. Traditionalists speak of a "Second Silent Holocaust." Modernists see inter-faith marriages as a contribution to a multicultural society that enriches lives. Similar debates occur in other communities, for instance among the Roma people.

In the past, intermarriages were extremely rare, and were often the result of a Jew rejecting their religion and heritage; in 1800s Europe intermarriages often took place as the result of a conscious and deliberate effort to assimilate into European society. Over the last century the rate of intermarriage in the USA in particular has skyrocketed, but most occur for different reasons. Most of these intermarriages take place because the Jew has a much larger chance of meeting a non-Jewish partner, and because many Jews in the USA are being raised without a religious, observant upbringing, and without any detailed formal Jewish education.

All branches of Orthodox Judaism, both Haredi and non-Haredi, refuse to accept any validity of intermarriages. Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism do not accept the Halakha (Jewish law) as normative, so technically they do not have firm rules against it. Therefore, under certain circumstances that must be discussed with the rabbi beforehand, many Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis will officiate at a marriage between a Jew and a gentile, as long as the couple agrees to certain conditions. These conditions usually state that the couple must raise the children as Jewish and provide them with some sort of formal Jewish education. However some Reform and Reconstrictionist Jews view intermarriage as a threat to the unity and survival of the Jewish people, and many still discourage it.

There is a difference between a religious Jewish marriage and the secular marriage. In the United States (and many other countries), when a rabbi officiates at a wedding, it is de facto a legal wedding by the law of the United States, as well; therefore, a rabbi cannot officiate for you without a civil license. This is the secular (civil) marriage. However, Kiddushin is a ceremony that can only take place between two Jews. Many rabbis will not officiate at a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew because it is outside the realm of Jewish law and custom.

Jewish educators note that the vast majority of American Jews receive no Jewish education whatsoever after age 13, and have no substantial understanding of Judaism's theological, philosophical, and ethical teachings. Some hold, therefore, that much intermarriage today, is thus not a deliberate rejection of Judaism, but a choice to marry a person that one has happened to meet.

If a gentile converts to Judaism in accord with Halakha (Jewish law) and then marries a Jew, this by definition is considered a Jewish marriage, not an intermarriage.


Halakha (Jewish law) allows for divorce. The document of divorce is termed a get. The final divorce ceremony involves the husband giving the get document into the hand of the wife or her agent, but the wife may sue in rabbinical court to initiate the divorce.

Conservative Judaism follows most of the laws and traditions regarding marriage and divorce as is found in Orthodox Judaism. One difference is that the Conservative movement allows certain changes to be made in the Ketubah (wedding document) to make it egalitarian. Often a clause is added to prevent any possibility of the woman ever becoming agunah (called "the Lieberman clause"). Most Orthodox Jews hold that this modification is a violation of Jewish law, and this have devised a separate prenuptial agreement external to the ketubah which has a similar effect. In a recent development the Rabbinical Assembly, the international assembly of Conservative rabbis, has also promoted the use of a separate prenuptuial agreement, to be used in place of the Lieberman clause. This is not because they have concerns about its legitimacy, but rather about its effectiveness.

Reform Jews have traditionally not used a Ketubah at their weddings. They instead usually use a short wedding certificate. They generally do not issue Jewish divorces, seeing a civil divorce as both necessary and sufficient. In recent years those in the traditional wing of Reform have begun using egalitarian forms of the ketubah. Conservative and Orthodox Judaism do not recognize civil law as overriding religious law, and thus do not view a civil divorce as sufficient. Thus, a man or woman may be considered divorced by the Reform Jewish community, but still married by the Orthodox or Conservative community.

Marriage in Israel

As civil marriage does not exist in Israel, the only institutionalized form of marriage in Israel is the religious one. I.e. marriage must be conducted by a cleric. In specific, marriage of Israeli Jews must be conducted according to Orthodox Jewish halakha. The subject of marriage in Israel is a very controversial subject, as secular and religious Jews are at odds regarding the establishment of civil marriage in Israel.

Basic Judaism - Spreading Torah at the Speed of Light

Jan 1, 2008