Watching the Royal Wedding, I was struck by how different it is to a Jewish wedding. Traditional Jewish ceremonies seem not to include vows to each other, for example. How can that be? Isn't that the whole point of the ceremony?
Maybe the place to start is with the word “ceremony.” The Oxford dictionary defines ceremony as “a set of formal acts, especially those used on religious or public occasions.” Our starting question may thus be: are “traditional Jewish ceremonies” ceremonies as defined by this dictionary?
Our initial response may be that they certainly are. Are they not formal acts used on a religious occasion? But is a Jewish wedding a religious occasion as we generally understand this term? Within the context of the religions that surround us, weddings most certainly are, for it is a clergyman that is the active individual, marrying the couple. Within the world of Halacha, Jewish Law, though, this is not the case. Rabbis do not marry. The technical function of a Rabbi at a Jewish wedding is simply to ensure that all the legal (halachic), technical details marking this formation of a contractual entity of marriage are met. I know, this doesn’t sound too romantic. Yet isn’t this what marriage is really all about? You wonder why there are no vows in a traditional Jewish marriage ceremony for as you question: “Isn’t that the whole point of the ceremony?” Well isn’t the whole point of a marriage the formation of a new contractual entity, formed by a man and a woman, which defines the variant rights and obligations of these two parties to this new entity? The objective of the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony is thus to mark the exact moment that this new entity is created, not to define the nature of this commitment. That is already inherent to the formation of this entity.
It is within this context that we can understand the Jewish wedding. At its basic simplicity, at a Jewish wedding, a man and a woman marry each other. They are the participants in this activity. They marry themselves -- another, such as a rabbi, does not marry them -- just as in any contractual arrangement, the parties to the contract are the ones who form the contractual bond. The first mishna in Tractate Kiddushin thus informs us that there are three ways that this bond may be formed. The mishna’s use of the Hebrew root verb of koneh, generally translated as acquire, is often misunderstood. The mishna states that “is acquired (niknit) in one of three ways,” but what the root of this word koneh really reflects is a change in legal status due to a new association and what the mishna is stating is that a new marital unit can be formed in one of three ways. The practice today is to do so through a monetary transaction, namely the giving of a ring (an object of value) from the man to the woman done so with a statement that this transaction is done so for the purpose of marriage, i.e. to create this contractual entity. See, further, Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha’ezer 27:1. The universal practice of using a ring is already mentioned in Tosfot, Kiddushin 9a, d.h. V’hilchata.
We still, though, should be able to refer to this undertaking as a ceremony for, albeit it is not performed by clergy per se, it is still of a religious nature. Further discussion of this issue would take us into a whole investigation of what we mean by the term ‘religion’ and that is clearly outside the parameters of this response. The fact is, though, that the term ceremony may still be most applicable to this event for a wedding is clearly a public occasion. There is the further necessity that this action of marriage be done in the presence of two witnesses. On one hand, a traditional Jewish marriage ceremony is a private action undertaken by the parties to a contract that formalizes the exact moment that this new unity is formed and thus new rights and obligations emerge. It is done, however, in public – as indicated by this need for two witnesses and by the very nature of weddings to have guests – to inform the world of this new entity which must now act as so in the public domain as well. There are no vows in this “ceremony” for any responsibilities of the parties of this new contractual entity are already understood by the parties as inherent to the creation of this very entity. The ceremony simply marks the new entity’s institution.
The fact is, though, that the ketuba, the marriage contract, which explicitly outlines many of these obligations (especially those of the husband to the wife) is still read at a traditional marriage ceremony. The ketuba, in Aramaic, is, actually, an interesting focus of traditional weddings in that, in addition to being publicly read, it is signed publicly, prior to the wedding, by witnesses who are assured by the groom of his acceptance of his obligations. For more on the ketuba, one may wish to read The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage by Rabbi Maurice Lamm, pp. 197-206. The reading of the ketuba and its public signing by witnesses, however, are not necessary parts of the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony. These activities should not be seen as supplanting the vows found in other wedding ceremonies. The simple fact is that the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony is qualitatively different than other wedding ceremonies. The purpose of other, religious wedding ceremonies is to sanctify the union within the context of the religion. This is done by invoking the religion’s acceptance of this union through the declared vows within a religious context and the declaration of the officiating clergy that this union is indeed sanctified. Traditional Judaism, however, believes that a marriage union is inherently sanctified if the parties to this new entity themselves form this union in a proper fashion and with proper intent, accepting the rights and obligations that are inherent to this new union. It is then the public demonstration of this private commitment which marks the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony.
The traditional Jewish wedding ceremony includes the ritual of the groom handing of ketubah, a written document memorializing his promises, to the bride. Those promises essentially amount to financial support. The groom does not repeat those vows, but they are binding because witnesses sign the document. So the vows do exist, but in written form.
Commonly, modern American versions of the ketubah expand upon those promises in two ways. First, the English paraphrase (obviously, not a straight translation) often speaks of emotional pledges, for example, to love, honor and cherish, as well as behavioral promises such as support. Second, the English paraphrase often includes a statement of the bride’s own promises to the groom.
Some of the differences between orthodox and non-orthodox wedding ceremonies today relate to this mutuality of obligation. In the Talmudic, pre-modern template, the man betroths the woman by presenting her with an object of worth—that is the antecedent of the modern “wedding ring”. The woman, in exchange for that consideration, consents to marry the man. But in many non-orthodox modern variations of the traditional ceremony, the man and the woman “marry each other”. It is no longer the case that one is the active, and the other the reactive, partner in the ceremony. Rings are exchanged (this is expressed by the phrase, “double ring ceremony”).
Granted, In the Conservative/ Masorti ritual, some of the traditional asymmetry is preserved. Upon placing a ring on the bride’s right index finger, the groom recites the Hebrew original of the phrase, “behold, you are betrothed to me by this ring, in accordance with the rite of Moses and Israel.” The bride does not recite the parallel phrase, but rather says, upon presenting her groom with his ring, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”—a phrase from the Biblical Song of Songs, rather than from the legal tradition of the Talmud.
Nonetheless, mutuality is the overall message of the typical, double-ring wedding ceremony in Conservative/ Masorti praxis. At the end of the service, the officiant pronounces the couple, not “man and wife”, as was once the norm—borrowed from English Protestant liturgy—but rather “husband and wife”. The wife is not the auxiliary of the man, but the full and equal partner of the husband.
The Jewish wedding ceremony certainly has some differences from what one would see at a wedding such as the recent wedding in the British royal family. For Jews, a wedding is ultimately the marking of a legal transition and a legal transaction, it is one of the reasons we do not perform weddings on Shabbat, since it is an act of commerce.
The core of the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony is actually the act of kinyan, acquiring. In the basic form, the groom purchases the bride, and acquires her for himself. In payment he offers the Ketubah (marriage contract) as a security for his bride should he decide that he no longer desires her and a ring.
The modern Jewish wedding ceremony is somewhat different, and in most modern settings, there is a brief recitation of vows. The central moment of the ceremony is still the phrase that create the legal transaction when the groom says to the bride: “Harei at m’kudeshet li b’taba’at zot k’da’at moshe v’yisraeil – you are sanctified to me with this ring according to the custom of Moses and Israel” In most egalitarian weddings the bride will say the exact same phrase altered only for gender purposes.
The Ketubah is also still an important part of the ceremony, and here is where there is some significant changes in the tone, that adds in what we would call “vows”. In the traditional text it is a legal formula that provides assurances for the bride. Most modern Ketubot use text that expresses the couple’s love for one another and includes vows about love, respect communication and the importance of creating a Jewish home. This is true at least in English even if the traditional Aramaic is used instead of a direct Hebrew translation.
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