Laws and Customs of Marriage in Judaism
The Jewish way to marital bliss.
See Aish.com's Guide to the Jewish Wedding
Among Ashkenazim, it is customary for the bride and groom not to see each other for the week preceding the wedding.2 This increases the special thrill of their wedding day.
It is customary for the groom to be called to the Torah the Shabbat before the wedding. This is called the aufruff.3 Traditionally the bride will share the Shabbat with her friends in a celebration called Shabbat Kallah.
The wedding day is considered a personal Yom Kippur for the bride and groom, for on this day all their past mistakes are forgiven as they merge into a new, complete soul.4As on Yom Kippur, both the bride and groom fast and say the Viduy prayer at Mincha.5 If the wedding is in the daytime, the fast extends from dawn until after the completion of the marriage ceremony. If the wedding is at night, they should fast till after nightfall.6
Every bride wears a white wedding gown indicating the purity of the wedding day. It is important that the gown reflect the dignity of Jewish women and therefore conform to the standards of modesty.7
Prior to the ceremony, it is customary for the bride and groom to welcome guests separately (called Kabbalat Panim).8 At the groom's reception, the officiating rabbi will usually prepare the necessary legal (halachic) documents.
Subsequently, the groom is escorted to the bride so that he can place a veil over her face.9 This is called badeken, and recalls Rebecca covering her face before marrying Isaac. The veil symbolizes the idea of modesty and conveys the lesson that however attractive physical appearances may be, the soul and character are paramount.10
Traditionally, the groom is then dressed in a long white robe known as a kittel.11 Like the white wedding gown, this too, symbolizes the spiritual purity of the event.
Many have the custom to place a bit of ashes on the groom's forehead, in memory of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.12
Afterwards, the groom is walked to the wedding canopy (chuppah). He is accompanied by either his parents, or by his father and father-in-law.13 The chuppah is a symbolic home in which the groom ushers in his new bride.
The bride is then escorted to the chuppah, accompanied by either her parents, or by her mother and mother-in-law. Under the chuppah, she encircles the groom seven times. Just as the world was created in seven days, the bride is figuratively building the walls of the couple's new home.14 The number seven also symbolizes the wholeness and completeness they will now attain together.
The most important part of the wedding ceremony is the giving of the ring. The rabbi who directs this transfer is called the Mesader Kiddushin.
When the bridegroom transfers the ring to the possession of the bride, the marriage has come into effect.15 If the transfer is not performed properly, the couple is not married. How difficult is it to hand over a ring, you may ask? Aside from dealing with the groom's shaky hand, there are some very important stipulations:
First, the ring must be legally owned by the groom.16 It is insufficient to use a family heirloom whose actual ownership may be difficult to determine. If someone else (e.g. the parents) purchased the ring, they must formally transfer ownership to the groom. Certainly, the ring should not be one that was previously given to the bride, since that would not be owned by the groom at the time of the transfer.
Moreover, the significance of its transfer must be appreciated by both parties. If either of them believes that giving the ring is merely symbolic, the marriage may be invalid. This is why it is unacceptable for the bride to give the groom a ring as well. To do so would equate that to the transfer of the ring from him to her. (She may give him a ring afterwards, but not under the chuppah.)17
Although technically the marriage can go into effect with any object of value, the custom is to use a simple gold ring. It is important that the value of the ring be obvious. Therefore, a gold plated ring must not be used nor should there be any gems attached. The use of a ring is a custom that dates back to biblical times.18 On a simple level, just as a ring goes around endlessly, it conveys a message of endless, unconditional love.19
While putting the ring on the bride's finger, the groom says:
Haray at mekudeshet lee b'taba'at zu k'dat Moshe v'Yisrael.
You are wedded to me with this ring, in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel.
The transfer of the ring must be witnessed by two Jewish men who observe the mitzvot.20 These witnesses may not be relatives of the bride or the groom.
The ketubah is also read under the wedding canopy.21 This is the marriage contract which enumerates the technical obligations of the groom – to provide food, shelter and clothing for his wife, and to be attentive to her emotional needs.22
Under the chuppah, the groom also breaks a glass with his foot, to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.23 And a series of seven blessings (Sheva Brachot) are recited.24
There is an ancient Jewish practice for a bride and groom to celebrate together for the week that immediately follows their wedding. During this week, the newly married couple does not go out to work. They spend the entire week enjoying each other's company and celebrating their new status. (If it is a second marriage for both parties, then the "week" described here is observed for only three days.)25
During the course of this special week, friends and relatives arrange festive meals for the bride and groom. The feasts are filled with songs and Torah thoughts that relate to the bride and groom. At the conclusion of each meal in which a minyan is present, a series of seven blessings (Sheva Brachot) are recited by the assembled in honor of the occasion.26
Every newlywed couple is convinced that their current exhilarated infatuation will last forever. Reality is that few marriages maintain the excitement and thrill with which they began. In fact, many marriages begin to fall apart not long after the wedding. What is the secret to maintaining enthusiasm within a relationship? Moreover, how can a couple utilize marriage to gradually develop a bond that is much more special and meaningful than the newlyweds could ever have imagined?
Psychologists and marriage counselors assert that the key to a healthy relationship is freshness. If the couple does the same thing day in, day out, they will soon become bored. This is perhaps most obvious in the realm of physical intimacy. Therefore, many counselors recommend an on/off schedule of intimacy/abstinence. The novelty of this approach allows the relationship to be reborn as a honeymoon every month.
Amazingly, the Torah prescribed such a concept thousands of years ago: the laws of Family Purity.
One component of the laws of Family Purity is the woman immersing in a mikveh following the cessation of her menstrual cycle and the counting of seven "clean days." This is described as a process of rebirth. Just as the world was entirely water at Creation, and just as a fetus in the womb is immersed in water. In this way the marital relationship is reborn and refreshed on almost a monthly basis.
It is incumbent upon every bride and groom to study these principles before marriage. The bride should find an experienced female mentor who can convey the details of how to make the most out of marriage through family purity. The bridegroom must also seek a rabbi who can teach him the particulars of this important subject.
It is beyond the scope of the essay to discuss the particulars of Family Purity. Interested readers are encouraged to read any of the excellent books in English:
- Total Immersion: A Mikva Anthology by Rivkah Slonim (Jason Aronson Pub.)
- Waters of Eden by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (NCSY Publications)
- The Secret of Jewish Femininity by Tehilla Abramov
- Foundations by Rabbi Yaakov Sprung (Feldheim.com)
- Taharas Am Yisroel by Rabbi Shaul Wagschal (JudaicaPress.com)
- The Laws of Niddah by Rabbi Binyomin Forst
Also read Rebbetzin Faige Twerski's The Intimate Road on Aish.com.
Why did God create the world in a way that requires developing a relationship with someone so different than yourself? You may have different upbringings, different preferences, and different temperaments. More significantly, the two genders often do not see things eye-to-eye.
The Omniscient God knew that this arrangement was for the best – to teach people how to relate to those different than themselves. Marriage is a growth process. By developing sensitivity to the absurd needs of your spouse, by grappling to understand the seemingly incomprehensible perspective of your other half – this is what makes a good person great.
A wealth of excellent articles are on Aish.com, and in these English books:
- Marriage by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin (Artscroll.com)
- The River, the Kettle and the Bird by Rabbi Aharon Feldman (Feldheim.com)
- The Jew and His Home by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, ch. 4-12 (Feldheim.com)
- 10 minutes a Day to a Better Marriage by Meir Wikler (Artscroll.com)
Divorce is the absolute last resort for a flawed marriage.27If a marriage is not working out, it is imperative that the couple seek counseling from experienced Torah-based counselors. But if all else fails and the couple is advised that their marriage really has no chance, they should not shy away from getting divorced.
During the divorce proceedings, it is important that each party be cordial and understanding. Especially, if there are children, they should never be made to suffer as a result of their parents' discord. The Talmud states that when a couple gets divorced, "the altar of the Holy Temple cries."28 Why the altar? Because the children often suffer as the "sacrifice."
The most important part of a divorce proceeding is the Get, a Torah-based bill of divorce that allows the parties to remarry.29
Just as marriage is a metaphysical reality – i.e. two souls fusing together to create one complete soul – so too divorce is a metaphysical reality. Without a proper Get, even though the man and woman have physically separated, they are still bound together metaphysically, and considered as if fully married, even though a civil divorce was procured.
This is true to the extent that if the woman were to have relations with another man before receiving a Get, it would be considered adultery. Without a Get, a woman's remarriage is not valid and children produced from that relationship may be considered mamzerim [bastards].30
A Get must be written in a very very specific way, and can be done only by someone well-versed in Jewish law (i.e. not "just any rabbi").31 For example, the Get must be written specifically for this couple, and a pre-printed document cannot be used.32 There are also specific formulas for the spelling of words and names.33 There are other factors as well, including who may and may not be a witness to the giving of the Get.34 All these factors must be done properly, or else the couple is considered still fully married.
After the proceedings are completed, a tear is made in the Get to indicate that it has been used and cannot be used again. The document itself is retained by the Beit Din and kept in a permanent file. Official letters, called a release (p'[no-glossary]tur) are given to the man and the woman testifying that the get has taken place and affirming their right to remarry.
The woman may not remarry following the get for a period of ninety-two days. The reason for the waiting period is to remove all doubt as to paternity which might be raised should she marry and conceive right away.
Because divorce in Jewish law is complex, it is critical that a rabbi with experience in this field undertakes to supervise the entire procedure.
- Made in Heaven by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (Moznaim 1983)
Photo credit: Yissachar Ruas Photography - www.yruas.com
- Every wedding ceremony is rich with ancient customs, and this should not be considered an exhaustive manual. An encyclopedic wedding guide in English is Made in Heaven by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan [Moznaim 1983], from which much of the material in this article was culled.
- See Yoreh De’ah 192:1
- Magen Avraham 282, quoting Sefer HaLevush.
- Ri M'Bruno 93; based on Jerusalem Talmud – Rosh Hashana 1:3; Yalkut Shimoni – Shoftim 70; Jerusalem Talmud Bikkurim 3:3; Rashi (Genesis 36:3). See Kol Boh 75 that the bride and groom are compared to Adam and Eve, who were newly created.
- Pitchei Teshuva (Even Ha’Ezer 61:9)
- Rema O.C. 573:1 with Magen Avraham; Chochmat Adam 129:2.
- For more on this, see our essay on Kosher Clothes (section on “Dignity”).
- Edut L’Yisrael 8:1
- Talmud – Ketubot 17b
- Mata’amim 55
- Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 147:4
- Talmud – Baba Batra 60b
- Rema – Yoreh De’ah 391:3
- Ta’amei HaMinhagim 961; Talmud – Yevamot 62b with Maharsha
- Even Ha’ezer 27:1
- Even Ha’Ezer 28:1
- Shu”t Igros Moshe (Even Ha'Ezer 3:18; 4:32)
- Da’at Zekeinim (Genesis 38:18); commentary of Rav Sa’adiah Gaon (Nechemia 7:46)
- Made in Heaven (pg. 47)
- Talmud – Gittin 2b, based on Deut. 19:15
- Rema – Even Ha’Ezer 62:9
- Exodus 21:10
- Edut L’Yisrael 5:2; Rema – Orach Chaim 560:2
- Talmud – Ketubot 7b
- Talmud – Ketubot 7a
- Talmud – Ketubot 7b-8a
- Even Ha’ezer 119:3
- Gittin 90b
- Deuteronomy 24:1
- Talmud – Kiddushin 66b
- Talmud – Kiddushin 6a
- Talmud – Gittin 24b
- Even Ha’ezer 129
- Rambam (Eidut 9:1)