Thursday, April 23, 2009

In Judaism, marriage is the normal and highly preferable state of life for adults. God’s love for Israel was commonly compared to marital relations. By the way, the same thing is to be found in the Catholic Church, where the relation between God and the Church is like a husband’s love for his wife. The rabbis frequently referred to God’s presense in a good marriage as sort of a third part. Today, Judaism is monogamous. Although nothing in the Bible or even in later Jewish law actually forbade men from having than one wife.

A decree was issued by one Rabbinic sage in Western Europe somewhere in the late 10th century, his name was Rabbeinu Gershom. The decree issued prevented Jews from Western Europe from having more than one wife. This was not accepted at the time by other Jews. There were other areas of the Jewish community where Jews continued to have more than one wife. Up until the 20th century, after the founding of the State of Israel, Jews were brought to Israel and many of them still had more than one wife. This, of course, is totally fordibben today. And today, it is fodbidden not only in the State of Israel, but no Jews today are permitted to marry more than one wife.

The Stages of Marriage

In ancient times, the marriage process and the ceremonies took place in stages. Today, all of these are concentrated and performed at one time, at the marriage ceremony. It used to be a much longer process.

The first stage of marriage was engagement, in Hebrew the word is kiddushin. At this time, the groom would give the bride an object of specific value. In front of two witnesses, he would declare that with this object, you are engaged to me. This ceremony created the initial bond between the two, so the woman could no longer look for a husband elsewhere. The marriage was not consumated. It was not complete yet until they reached a second stage.

The second stage, in antiquity, might had taken place only months later. At that stage, the groom would have written and signed a document known as Ketubah. The Ketubah is a marriage document, which is primarily a comittment to pay the wife a specific sum if he should divorce her in the future. This, of course, was the great guarantee for a woman. A husband would not want to dismiss his wife, because he knew this would cost him a significant amount of money.

The Ketubah also declared that if the husband should die before the wife, the heirs of the husband must continue to support the woman until she may remarry again. The Ketubah is crucial for the status and for the protection of a woman. As a result, it was considered totally unacceptable for a man and a woman to live together unless the woman possesed her Ketubah. Popular custom had it that, after received, the bride would immediately give the Ketubah to her mother.

What is fascinating is that in excavations that were carried out near the Death Sea in recent years, we we have actually discovered Ketubot. These marriage documents were written almost 2000 years ago. This is a practice that goes way back in Jewish history.

The wedding ceremony today puts all of these stages together. The engagement, the signing of the Ketubah, all of these takes place at the wedding ceremony. The Ketubah is signed, and after it is signed, the couple enters under a canopy, a huppah in Hebrew. This symbolizes the house into which the bride is being introduced.

A number of benedictions are recited. The groom performs the kiddushin ceremony to engage by giving his bride a ring, and reciting “behold, you are consacrated to me with this ring in acordance with the law of Moses and Israel”. The Ketubah is read. By the way, the Ketubah is read in the language in which it was written, in antiquity it was Arameic. The idea is that this is a commitment document that everybody should know what said. As a result, in subsequent generations, in the United States there are very often versions written in English.

After the Ketubah is read out loud, a glass is crushed underfoot by the groom. You break something in rememberance of the destruction of Jerusalem. This was an event that was not forgot even in the mometns of joy. In many ceremonies today, Psalm 137 is sung when the groom breaks that glass. Psalm 137 says “if I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill”.