Project Genesis

The Jewish Legal System

Marriage Laws

Ancient Marriages

Question: When were wedding ceremonies first recorded in the Torah and what was the process leading up to the ceremony?

Answer: The Talmud (Tractate Eruvin 18b) says that God made a wedding processional, complete with wedding attendants (Shushvinin) for Adam and Eve. The Midrash says that the attendants were angels.

It is not clear exactly what the ceremony involved in the Garden of Eden. The commentary of Rashi on Genesis 6 mentions that even before the Flood, well before there were any Jewish people, the Chuppah (wedding canopy) was used in the wedding ceremony, and the term “like a groom going from his chuppah” is found in the Bible in Psalm 19.

Rashi also writes that Jacob wrote a Kesubah (or Ketubah, a marriage contract) for his wives, Rachel and Leah, but not for his concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah.

Maimonides says that before the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, any man could meet a woman, have intimate relations, and that would automatically make them married – no ceremony required. Technically speaking, that is what the Torah recognizes as a legal marriage for a non-Jew (or child of Noah). Once the Torah was given, the Jewish people were bound to follow certain laws in marriage and divorce.

The Talmud says that there are three ways to get married (only one of them need to be done). These methods must be done in the presence of two valid witnesses.
1. Kesef - Money – the Groom gives some item of monetary value to the Bride
2. Shtar - Document – the Groom gives a document saying he wants to marry her to the Bride
3. Biah - Intercourse – the witnesses of course don’t see the intercourse, rather they see that the couple goes into a room alone and locks the door.

Before these acts, a blessing is recited, ideally over a cup of wine (with the blessing over wine first followed by the marriage blessing). After the act, there are seven blessings recited over another cup of wine (the wine blessing and six more wedding blessings), in the presence of 10 men (a Minyan). In ancient times, these two parts, or ceremonies, may have had a lot of time between them, even up to a year.

Today, the only method we use is Kesef (exchange of money), and we usually use a ring as the Kesef, the groom saying “behold you are sanctified to me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel”. We only have a short break between the first and second ceremony during which we read the Kesubah which is then given to the bride. The giving of the Kesubah is pretty important as the Sages decreed that a man should not be with his wife without one (it’s a document of protection for the wife stating her entitlements during and after the marriage) but the reading of it is only a custom.

In ancient times, they would either do what we do today or use a document with the statement “behold you are sanctified to me with this document according to the laws of Moses and Israel” written on it. Before intimacy the groom would say “behold you are sanctified to me with this intercourse according to the laws of Moses and Israel”. The Talmud says that it was not ideal to use intercourse as the marriage ceremony except in an emergency, and today only the Kesef (money) method is used. If the Rabbi officiating decides that there is a legal concern with the ring being used he will suggest using a coin of discernible value.

There have been many more customs added to the ceremony through the ages, most of them with ancient sources.

All the best,
Rabbi Joseph Kolakowski

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