Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Jewish Wedding Ceremony

Today I read an exquisite book entitled Made in Heaven by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. It is a Jewish Wedding Guide. The reason I read it is because many of my friends are engaged and/or soon to be married, please God (shoutout to Malka and Batya!), and I wanted to have a better understanding of all the different rites and customs that each person chooses to observe at their wedding. Also, I think the entire marriage and wedding ceremony is fascinating.

Here are some of the things I learned (but by no means a comprehensive guide. If you want the guide, I highly recommend purchasing Made in Heaven; it is wonderfully informative.) I am going to quote directly from the book unless otherwise indicated.


1. Many difficult problems arise when tenaim are broken, and in the confusion following the war [World War II], such broken engagements became a common occurrence. Therefore, the tenaim ceremony was shifted to just before the wedding so that there would be no chance that it would be broken.

In circles where formal tenaim are not made, it is customary to have a "word" (vort in Yiddish). While this is considered a formal engagement, it is not as immutable as tenaim. The custom at a vort is to make a meal, and to have the rabbi or another officiant make a kinyan with the bride, groom, and their parents.

A kinyan is a formal acceptance of obligation. The act of acceptance is usually done by taking the corner of a handkerchief, napkin, or other object that the officiant is holding. According to Jewish law, taking the object is a formal acceptance of an obligation. The practice is mentioned in the Bible: "This was the ancient practice in confirm all things: a man would take off his shoe and give it to the other party. This, among the Israelites, would create an obligation" (Ruth 4:7). While the Biblical custom may have involved a shoe, a handkerchief or other article can also be used. (Pages 28-29)

2. The main part of the ceremony is the groom giving something of value to the bride. In theory, then, the marriage could be contracted with a potato or an article of clothing. The requirement that the article used in the ceremony belong to the groom is a clear point of law.

In order to understand this, one must understand what is accomplished when something of value is given. There are two ways of purchasing something in Jewish law: by cash (kesef) or by barter (chaliphin). When something is purchased by barter, what has transpired is simply an exchange of property. However, when a transaction is made for cash, the transaction can also effect a change of status.

Therefore, when the groom gives the bride something of value, he is not "buying her." Rather, he is changing her status from that of a single woman to that of a married one. Obviously, a woman is not a chattel, and cannot be purchased for money. The money is merely a legal consideration that makes the woman's new status binding. The Talmud states emphatically that a woman cannot be married through a barter transaction, because this would imply a change in ownership, and would give the woman the status of a chattel. (45-46)

My brother Taran has informed me he plans on giving me a potato at my wedding to remind me of the way in which I gleefully taught him this (today at Havdalah I decided everyone needed to know you could marry people with potatoes.)

3. The giving of a ring also symbolized the giving over of authority. Thus, when Pharoah transferred authority to Joseph, he gave him his ring (Genesis 41:42). Similarly, Achashverosh gave his ring of authority first to Haman (Esther 3:10), and later to Esther (Esther 8:2). In giving his new wife a ring, the husband is symbolically giving her authority over his household and everything else that is his. From that moment on, everything in their lives will be shared. (49)

4. When a man puts on tefillin, he winds the strap three times around his left middle finger and says, "I will betroth you to Me forever. I will betroth you to Me in justice, love and kindness. I will betroth you to Me in faith, and you shall know God" (Hosea 2:21, 22). The strap is thus a renewal of the "marriage" between God and Israel, and it is therefore wound around the finger just like a wedding ring. Then, just as the strap binds man to God, the wedding ring binds the bridegroom to his bride. (50)

5. On only using a smooth gold ring, without any engraving: There are also kabbalistic reasons for this. The perfectly smooth ring represents the perfectly smooth, untroubled cycle of life. In some circles, the custom is that the ring not have any design or pattern on it, neither on the inside nor on the outside. (53)

Rav Harold Shusterman of Bnei Reuven here in Chicago refused to marry my parents unless they used a plain gold band. "Bella'leh," he told my mother, "do you want your marriage to be smooth and untroubled?" He did tell her that she could add designs or engraving after the wedding. I see in this book using a smooth band is cited as being a Lubavitch custom from Sefer HaMinhagim; Rav Shusterman was Lubavitch. As an aside, he also forbade them to use white wine; my parents were married with rich red wine under the chupah.

5. On the Sabbath before the wedding, it is the custom for the groom to be called to the reading of the Torah. This is called an Aufruf, which literally means calling up.

The source of this custom is the Midrashic teaching that when King Solomon built the Temple, he made two special gates, one for mourners, and one for bridegrooms, so that mourners would be consoled and bridegrooms would be blessed. When a bridegroom would enter, the people near the gate would say, "May He who dwells in this Temple bless you with good children." Later, when Solomon's Temple was destroyed, it became the custom to have the bridegroom come to the synagogue so that the people would be able to bless him. (68)

6. By the Aufruf: The nuts that are thrown are alluded to in the verse, "I went down to the nut garden..." (Song of Songs 6:11) Before one can enjoy the kernel of a nut, one must first break away the shell. Similarly, before two people can know one another intimately, they must break away the shells that surround them. In marriage, the barriers between husband and wife gradually disappear.

It is also taught that the Hebrew word for nut, egoz, has a numerical value of 17. This is the same as the numerical value for tov, meaning good. This indicates that the bridegroom is forgiven all his sins, and has been transformed from a state of sin to a state of good. (72)

But if this is the case, why is it that on Rosh Hashana we are forbidden to serve nuts or nut cake because it equals the gematria of cheit without an aleph?

7. Another possible reason why the couple fasts is that the first sin involved eating- eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Therefore, on the day that the bride and groom are seeking forgiveness from sin, they refrain from eating. It is almost a statement that they want nothing to do with the sinful eating of the Tree of Knowledge. (83)

8. However, the Midrash teaches that man is like glass- if glass is broken, it can be remelted and reblown. Similarly, even when a man dies, his life is not over. We believe in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the dead; just as glass can be restored, so can a person after he dies.

That is why we break glass, as opposed to pottery. The breaking of glass recalls our mortality, but it also recalls the divine promise of immortality.

Another allusion to the breaking of the glass is that just as glass can be remelted and restored, so can man, even after his soul has been shattered and blemished by sin. No matter what sins a person may have committed, if he repents, God forgives him. It is thus taught, "Nothing can stand up before repentance." The bridal couple have all their sins forgiven on their wedding day; therefore, this is a particularly appropriate time to break the glass. It indicates that no matter how broken they are spiritually, they can be restored just as the glass can.

Another reason that a glass vessel in particular is broken is because of the tradition that King Solomon built a special gate for bridegrooms. According to one tradition, this gate was made of glass. The glass is broken to recall that with the destruction of the Temple, the glass gate was also shattered. (204)

9. It is a very beautiful custom in many circles to set aside a special table for the poor, where any poor person can come in and partake of the wedding meal. When the poor are invited to a meal, the table becomes like an altar, atoning for all the host's sins. It is considered very auspicious for the newlywed couple that their wedding is open to the poor. (210)

10. The practice of a cake-cutting "ceremony" has no place in Jewish tradition (211)

Now, what does that mean? Is there a problem with a wedding cake in Jewish tradition? I love wedding cakes.


Anonymous said...

Now go back over the list and think about how many of the reasons are prescriptive (i.e. these are the reasons that the practice was initiated) versus descriptive (i.e. once the practice had been established , reasons were given later to explain it)

Joel Rich

The Cousin said...

On #6--In all the various shuls I've been in, I've never seen nuts thrown at an aufruf. Usually it's the Starkist gel candies or on occasion some Laffy Taffys. I wonder why...

As for #10--I think that's more of a modern day "thing" to do. But as we know, there are wedding guests who do like to "steal" cake. ;)

The Talmid said...

Bein din l'din just had an interesting post about engagements

To Cousin -

starkist gels are SOFT. If we'd throw lollipops, people would get their eyes poked out. I lain and run for cover before launch time.
Chana, many interesting minhagim are found directly in the Shulchan Aruch and the nosei keilim - Even Haezer siman 61-65 mentions many customs and their significances. There are also sefarim about hilchos nesuin that include minhagim - one is Nesuin Kehilchasa by Adler, IIRC, and another one written by R' Yisrael Webster.

Throwing nuts - one of my alltime favorite stories is: a young man, just married, found wheat kernels in his mother-in-laws chicken soup on pesach in Yerushalayim. He told R' Isser Zalman Meltzer, a huge gaon and tzaddik, the zkein roshei yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael at the time (and founder of Otzar Haposkim on Shulchan Aruch Even Haezer) who somewhat uncharacteristically gruffly told the young man to give him his shtriemel, and R' Isser Zalman rubbed his sleeve around it whereupon wheat kernels fell out. He said "they threw wheat kernels at you last week (at aufruf or chassuna, I don't recall) - don't complain about your in-laws without looking at your own hat first. (I think I read this in one of the Rabbi Krohn's Maggid books)

The Cousin said...

To the Talmid--I should've clarified in my prior comment, I know why we use Sunkist Fruit gems (and granted, I've been hit by them too many times before).

Rather, my curiosity is to why the throwing of nuts is no longer as common this day and age. Is it more of a safety thing? Or is it less comon because of cost and/or the prevelance of nut-allergies?
(I wonder about these random kinds of things before I have my morning cup of coffee).

Now my next random thought--on the "potato" topic. Now what exactly defines "value" or bestows "value" upon an object?
[Okay, I confess, I just finished reading Atlas Shrugged)

Now where's my cup of coffee at?

Charlie Hall said...

Prior to my wedding there was neither a vort nor tenaim. They are not required.