The importance of marriage in Jewish tradition is grounded in the Bible, with God declaring before he creates Eve to be Adam’s “helpmeet” that “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). And indeed, the institution of marriage as it has developed in Judaism transmits the clear message that companionship is no less important a reason for marrying than the commandment to “be fruitful, and multiply” (Gen. 1:28).
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A big wedding ceremony and party are not required to marry under Judaism. At least in theory -- not even a rabbi is necessary.
Under Jewish law, the process starts with the signing of the ketuba (marriage contract), a legal document composed in Aramaic in which the groom outlines the material conditions he promises to provide for the bride. The actual signing is done by two witnesses and, in Israel, by the groom as well.
Once the ketuba is signed, the marriage rituals can begin. The marriage ceremony is made up of two main parts, kiddushin -- also called erusin (engagement) -- and nisu’in.
According to the Talmud, kiddushin (literally, “sanctification”) or erusin, is said to have taken place when any one of three things has happened: The woman must accept from the man a ring, or something else of value; she receives a marriage contract from him; or they have sexual intercourse.
Historically, after this, the couple will have needed a bill of divorce in order to separate.
During kiddushin, the couple recite two blessings, one of them over a cup of wine; the man gives the woman the ring in the presence of two witnesses, and repeats a formula declaring her “sanctified to me by this ring”; and the ketuba is read aloud.
The traditional ceremony does not include the bride giving her groom a ring, although there are rabbis who will permit it. The use of the ring goes back at least to Talmudic times.
In modern times, it is the first of these three conditions – the acceptance of the ring, evidence that the woman has agreed to the union – that is considered a necessary condition for marriage. No rabbi today would consider a couple just having sex as being engaged or married.
The rites of erusin constitute the first of the ceremony’s two distinct parts, the second being nisu’in (literally, marriage).
In ancient times, these two parts took place at different times, often with a gap of as much as a year between them. By the Middle Ages, however, the precariousness of Jewish existence, and the inconvenience to the couple of having to wait for so long to take up cohabitation, led to the both ceremonies being performed on the same occasion.
Among Ashkenazi (Jews of Eastern European descent) couples, the bride usually has her face covered with a veil before the marriage ceremony.
The nisu'in ceremony is performed under a huppa (marriage canopy), which symbolizes the household the couple will create together.
The nisu’in begans with the recitation of the Sheva Brakhot (seven matrimonial blessings) recited, either by the rabbi or by honored guests. The bride and groom both sip from the same cup of wine, and the groom breaks a glass (or, often, a light bulb). The last act is meant to remind the couple at this joyous moment that life also contains sadness and loss. usually, the groom also recites a line from Psalm 137 alluding to the destruction of the Temple.
As the wedding guests applaud the newly married couple, in many cases, the bride and groom will take leave of the scene for 10 or 15 minutes or so for yihud (unification), a brief period when they are alone together, which signifies the real beginning of their shared life together. (Historically, this would actually be the moment when they would consummate the marriage.)
Among traditional Jews, the wedding night is followed not by a honeymoon but by a week of festive meals, collectively called sheva brakhot, as the same blessings recited under the huppa are said each evening.
Because the bride is presumed to be a virgin on the wedding night, the couple’s first sexual contact is expected to be accompanied by blood. For that reason, after consummation they are supposed to avoid direct physical contact for a number of days, similar to the days of separation that accompany and follow the woman’s monthly period. The week of celebratory dinners, hosted by friends and relatives, are meant to be a distraction of sorts until the couple can be physically intimate again.
Marriage in modern Israel
In Israel, where civil marriage is not an option, only religious marriages are recognized as legally binding, and the only rabbis permitted to perform weddings are those who are authorized by the Chief Rabbinate.
Increasingly, couples that don’t want to wed under the auspices of the rabbinate get legally married abroad: if the marriage is legitimate where it was performed, it will be recognized by the State of Israel.
Sometimes, if the overseas marriage was a civil ceremony, they will then have a religious ceremony at home conducted by the cleric of their choice.
Marriage abroad is the only option for couples who want to intermarry, and also for Jewish couples who are not permitted to marry by religious law. For instance, there are restrictions applying to kohanim, men who are descendants of the priestly tribe, including not being permitted to marry a divorced woman or a convert.
In the United States, the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements have all endorsed the idea of same-sex marriages, although their exact positions are still evolving, whereas Orthodox Judaism, which regards homosexual behavior as forbidden, does not allow for gay unions. For this same reason, legally binding same-sex weddings can not take place in Israel, although the Interior Ministry will recognize the union of any gay couple that has wed legally in another country.