Betrothal and Wedding Customs
The Israelite institutions of marriage fall into two parts: betrothal and marriage. Betrothal is not to be understood in its modern sense – that of engagement or an agreement to marry, but rather as an agreement of exclusivity which can only be annulled by a divorce. It is an agreement which, when entered into, is definite and binding upon both groom and bride, who are considered as man and wife in all legal and religious aspects, except that of actual cohabitation. After the betrothal ceremony, the two are considered man and wife.
The marriage ceremony completes the matrimonial formalities, is accompanied with festivities, and allows man and wife to live together and engage in physical relations with one another. It is thought this practice of having a gap between betrothal and marriage was to ensure that any children born of the marriage were legitimately the offspring of the husband, and therefore marriage usually took place 10 to 12 months after betrothal. If either party is widowed, then this time could be reduced to 30 days.
Because of the influence of the peoples amongst whom Jewish people lived, there was pressure to make this time as short as possible; it got reduced to 7 days, and now in modern Judaism, betrothal and marriage are part of the same ceremony. I suppose with the advent of DNA testing, a long gap is no longer required. I suggest a symbolic minimum period of 7 days between betrothal and marriage, simply to remind people of ancient custom – that this distinction existed. However, each sect should decide what will be the custom within their communities; it is not a matter that is covered by Torah.
At the marriage ceremony, the husband comes to his father-in-law’s house to take his wife home.
Consent to Marry (shidduq)
At the time of betrothal, there must be a formal consent between the two parties to marry. If either party refused, there could be no marriage.
It was customary to make out a formal contract to marry, which included the stipulation that a penalty should be imposed upon either party should either fail to fulfil his or her part of it. The shidduq was very much like the modern pre-nuptial agreement – what the parties brought into the marriage, what the parties expectations and obligations would be, and so on.
Several Biblical passages refer to the negotiations requisite for the arranging of a marriage (Gen. 24; Song of Songs 8:8; Judges 14:2-7), which were conducted by members of the two families involved, or their representative (shadqan), and always required the consent of the prospective bride. Betrothal does not have to have both parties present, but marriage does.
Gifts formed an important feature of betrothal and marriage customs. These were of several kinds. The gifts which the groom sent to his bride were called “massa” or “masset.” It was also customary for the male friends of the groom to send gifts, which sometimes took the form of donations of money, and were useful in assisting the groom to defray the expenses of the wedding festivities. These presents were termed “shoshbinat” (friendship-gifts), from the Aramaic “shoshbina” (friend or neighbour), or perhaps alternatively from shoshba, the myrtle-bearing companions of the bridegroom (since after the betrothal ceremony, the groom’s friends waved myrtle branches).
As part of the betrothal gifts, the groom gives the gift of a ring to his bride. The shidduq is signed, at which point the couple are legally husbamd and wife, and there is then a small feast given in honour of the groom or his representative. A ring (without a stone or inscription) is placed on the wife’s forefinger. After the feast, a cup of wine is drunk, and the husband leaves, with a promise to return.
Between betrothal and wedding, the couple do not see each other.
Marriage and hometaking (nisu`in)
Bride and groom are symbolically king and queen of the day, especially of the marriage feast. They are dressed like an Israelite king and queen. This would include white garments, red mantles, and crowns. Both man and woman have their heads covered (a shawl over the crown), to show that they are married.
On the night of the wedding, in the middle of the night, the husband returns in his wedding carriage (Hebrew afiryon, Aramaic afurya), to fetch his wife, announced by a shofar blast. The shout goes out: “Here’s the groom! Come out to meet him!” As the husband approaches the house, the wife veils her face.
The wife is carried in her own wedding carriage or palanquin, accompanied in procession by her bridesmaids carrying lamps or torches. In ancient times other bridesmaids would clap, or play tambourines and ululey (a sound made by moving the tongue rapidly side to side in the mouth while calling out a single note). The ‘Song of Solomon’ is sung along the way of the procession.
In ancient times, the groom’s afurya was made of cedar, and the bride’s was made of acacia.
At the husband’s new home, a ketubbah (marriage contract) is signed before 2 witnesses, and read aloud in Aramaic. A cup of wine is drunk, and a blessing is said as a sign of rejoicing. Then a further six blessings are said over husband and wife underneath the chuppah:
ii. we bless God for creating the world and at the same time honour those assembled at the wedding
iii. we acknowledge God’s physical creation of humanity
iv. we acknowledge God’s spiritual creation of humanity
v. we pray for the restoration of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple
vi. we express the hope that the bride and groom grow in their love for each other, focussing their love as exclusively as Adam and Eve, when there was no one else in the world.
vii. we pray for the fulfilment of God’s kingdom on earth, so that peace and tranquility will reign over the whole world.
As the couple leave for the bridal chamber, the groom’s friends hold myrtle branches over the couple as they leave, and nuts, flower heads and barley grains are showered over them.
Later in the day there is a wedding feast. It was considered an insult to refuse an invitation to a wedding feast in ancient times. Then, on seven consecutive nights, friends or relatives of the couple invite them to a meal in their homes.
Please note what we don’t do :
The couple don’t fast before the wedding
They don’t break a glass.
These are later additions to the ceremony, both in mourning for the Temple; we should not mourn at a wedding. Also note that the modern Jewish wedding ceremony is a mixture of the betrothal and marriage ceremonies; that is why at the modern rabbinical ceremony, there are two cups of wine. Originally the ring was put on the bride’s forefinger at the betrothal ceremony, and then a cup of wine drunk.
The Essential elements of an Israelite wedding ceremony
There are several things that have to be present for a wedding to constitute an Israelite wedding ceremony:
1. A token exchange of an object of value (symbolised by the rings)
2. The presence of 2 witnesses
3. that the ceremony be conducted underneath a chuppah
4. that there be a ketubbah (marriage certificate)
The chuppah originally represented the room where a couple were to be left alone before the wedding ceremony, and symbolised the fact that the two belonged exclusively to each other. It has now also come to represent the Israelite home that will be built by the couple. During the ceremony, only the couple to be married stand under the chuppah.
A marriage is a contract between the two people involved. What makes it a contract in the sight of God, is the presence of an officiating minister, the inclusion of blessings in the service, and the ketubbah. It goes without saying that the two parties involved should be in love with each other; a forced marriage, or one which is entered into where one or both parties do not intend to remain faithful to each other, invalidate the marriage contract. In other words, a forced wedding, a marriage which is conducted where one or both parties do not love each other, invalidate the marriage.
The marriage customs of ancient Israel are divided into two parts. First Betrothal:
1. the groom, or more often a representative (shadqan) of the groom, goes to seek out a bride.
2. gifts are given to the prospective bride, sometimes including wedding clothes
3. a shidduq is made – a formal consent to marry, signed before two witnesses.
4. a ring is placed on the wife’s forefinger. The couple are now legally man and wife according to religious law.
5. there is a meal for the groom or his representative to seal the agreement.
6. after the meal, a cup of wine is drunk (by the bride and groom; if only the representative is present, then only the bride drinks from the cup).
7. the groom departs and returns to his father’s house to prepare a place for the wedding and his new Bride, giving a promise to return.
Between betrothal and wedding, the couple do not see each other. Between the two, there is an interval of 7 days, 30 days, 10 months or 12 months (according to the custom of the community).
The wedding ceremony:
At the wedding, the bride and groom (actually, now legally husband and wife) are dressed as king and queen, including the wearing of crowns and white robes.
1. The husband returns to fetch his wife, announced by a shofar blast. Traditionally this is done in the middle of the night.
2. The shout goes out: “Here’s the Bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
3. As the husband approaches the house, the wife veils her face.
4. The wife is carried in an afiryon (wedding carriage or palanquin; accompanied in procession by her bridesmaids. The Song of Solomon is recited along the procession.
5. A ketubbah is signed before 2 witnesses, and read aloud in Aramaic
6. A cup of wine is drunk, and a blessing is said; 6 further blessings are said over man and wife underneath the chuppah
7. The groom’s friends hold myrtle branches over the couple as they leave
8. The couple retire to the bridal chamber
9. Later in the day there is a wedding feast
10. On 7 consecutive nights, friends or relatives of the couple invite them to a meal in their homes.
I would encourage all Talmidi sects to follow ancient Israelite marriage customs as closely as possible, as a witness to the nations that our God is with us. The customs and traditions of Israel are very beautiful, and in my opinion, we should try and reflect them as much as is practical and possible.