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On several occasions I have been asked to be a witness at a wedding, to sign my name on a wedding contract, or ketubba. One memorable instance was in the United States in the late 1970s. A colleague was getting married, and after the wedding, she and her husband were planning to spend a year in Israel. The officiating rabbi was a well-known figure in American Jewish life. Otherwise, upon arrival, I knew almost no one among the guests. Soon, however, I heard my name called; I was being summoned to play a role in the ceremony.

The rabbi, knowledgeable about life in Israel, was concerned that the marriage be recognized there if a question ever arose among the Israeli rabbinic authorities. The couple had some thoughts about living in Israel and, as a Conservative rabbi, he envisioned the possibility that his credentials or the version of the ketubba he used might be questioned.1 Israeli law did not give the rabbinate the power to challenge the personal status of Jews married abroad, but the rabbi wanted the contract to be as free of objections as possible. He therefore sought two male witnesses who could sign in Hebrew and be identifiable to Israeli authorities. Apparently, I was the only one present aside from himself fitting this description, and I was called to a small room to be the second witness on the document.

After affixing my signature to the ketubba, the rabbi asked me to stand next to him under the huppah (wedding canopy) so as to be an eyewitness to the part of the ceremony in which the bride accepts a ring from the groom and he declares her to be consecrated to him "according to the law of Moses and Israel." According to the Mishna, the transfer of something of monetary value is one of the ways in which a man "acquires" a woman. In order to witness this transaction, I found myself walking down the aisle with the rabbi, with my thoughts turning to the ceremony about to unfold.

A traditional wedding contains various features, in addition to the "acquisition" of the bride by the groom, which reflect a society in which a woman's position was weaker than a man's. This hardly fit the two people in question, both of whom were educated professionals. In fact, the year they were about to spend together in Israel constituted a step forward in her career, rather than his. At the same time, other aspects of the ceremony struck me as uncannily contemporary. The last of the seven wedding blessings praises God for creating "joy and gladness, bridegroom and bride, mirth and exultation, pleasure and delight, love, brotherhood, peace and fellowship." I realized that wedding rituals are very complex and even contradictory constructions, bringing together not only a man and a woman but other differences and opposites as well. They merge ancient practices and attitudes with present social concerns, attachments to tradition with hopes for a future, and ideal visions of human relationships with a recognition of the problems arising in everyday marital life. A consideration of wedding rituals entails all these subjects and more.

It has been remarked that marriage is "the most elaborate ceremony in Judaism,"2 but the salience and intricacy of weddings are features of all traditional societies. The Jewishness of a wedding celebration intermingles with many panhuman features. Marriages permanently change the personal situation of individuals, set the social stage for biological reproduction, constitute occasions for the movement of wealth, and also call upon the representatives of religious authority. While often relying upon the legitimacy offered by ancient traditions, people expect marriage rituals to speak to current notions and sensibilities. These various facets of Jewish weddings, and how ancient rites, customs, and texts have been interpreted to make sense in new situations, are the subject of this chapter.

Marriage, Women, and Menstruation: Ideals and Reality

Marriages create a special social bond for both women and for men, but often weddings are viewed as the celebration in the lives of women. As discussed earlier, giving birth itself was only minimally marked in traditional Jewish societies, and not in a way that linked it to the learned culture.3 Similarly, the fact that girls were only occasionally provided with a Torah education, and then only as a result of the initiative of individual families, meant that there was no communal recognition of their advancement through life's early phases. From this perspective, marriage was a woman's first and central ceremonial appearance in a publicly valued status. Detailed accounts of marriage celebrations figure prominently in the life stories of Jewish women from Mediterranean countries.4

The centrality of women in marriage also stems, of course, from their indispensable part in procreation. The fourth of the seven blessings recited at a wedding (see below) praises God for making man in God's image, and for building out of him a mechanism for perpetuating himself ("hitqin lo mimenu binyan {ay}adei {ay}ad"). This refers to sexual reproduction in the human species. The use of the term "build," which appears in the creation account in Genesis 2:22, is one aspect of that reference.5

Given the fact that procreation depends on women and has been a major value in rabbinic culture, it is puzzling that Jewish tradition pays almost no attention to the onset of menarche.6 A contemporary effort to compose a prayer appropriate to the occasion cites no precedents, and minimal attention is paid to the topic in the ethnography of Jewish communities.7 A portrait of the Polish shtetl states that when a girl reports the appearance of blood to her mother, "she will be roundly slapped on both cheeks." It will later "be explained that this is in order to make her rosy and beautiful."8 Esther Schely-Newman reports that in some Tunisian communities, there was a ritual use of oil when a girl first noticed vaginal blood: it was smeared on her face, or she was made to look at her face in a bowl of oil. In both instances, positive comments were attached to the gesture: "so things will always be smooth," or that the girl "will always be shiny and good-looking as she was at that time." In Yemen, according to Alana Suskin, a mother took melted butter and poured it on the hands of a newly menstruant daughter. The explanation was that "blessing will flow from her hands."9 None of the gestures or statements cited connects to traditional texts or to formal normative practice.10 In all cases, other parts of the girl's body become the focus, perhaps directing attention away from the perplexing genitalia and providing reassurance at what might appear as a troublesome juncture. Ambivalence over menstruation on the occasion of menarche also appears within the world of men. A remedy for epilepsy that entails ingesting the blood of a first-time menstruant has made its way into the writings of rabbis.11

Menstruation, of course, has not been "unnoticed" in Jewish tradition.12 A tractate of the Mishna, Niddah, is devoted to the subject, focusing on identifying the situations that constitute menstrual flow and specifying the rules leading to purification and the resumption of sexual contact between a man and his wife. The topic of niddah has been open to differing interpretations. Some recent views contrast the devalued blood of menstruation, which may symbolically invoke death, with the valued blood of circumcision, which in rabbinic writings brings salvation and life.13 It should also be noted, however, that menstrual impurity is not a permanent state; it always comes to an end. This leads to a restoration of purity and the ability to procreate, which should figure into an overall understanding of the topic as well. Moshe Idel, for example, discusses a rabbinic idea in which sexual relations between a couple in purity have a positive impact on the Divine Presence.14 In general, one rabbinic tendency is to highlight the implications of niddah for the relations between a man and wife, rather than to link it to woman's "essence" or general status in society. A variety of messages, which sometimes compete with one another, may be drawn out of time-honored texts.

In many cultures there are symbolic associations linking women and the moon. The perceived likeness between lunar cycles and women is evident in the term menses. This association was elaborated later in Jewish history in the special attachment of women to New Moon observance, which became a minor festival for them.15 A symbolic connection between women and the moon may be hinted at in the Bible. In the creation story, the sun is called "the great luminary" and the moon "the small luminary" (Gen. 1:16), probably to avoid the standard names of these heavenly bodies, which pointed to the polytheistic mythologies of surrounding cultures. Nevertheless, former mythological symbols of gods and goddesses may resurface in mundane guise in biblical literature and be utilized for the Bible's purposes.

In Genesis 1:16-18, the two heavenly luminaries are given "dominion over" the day and the night respectively. The word "dominion" here is a translation of the Hebrew stem mashol. That stem reappears twice in subsequent narratives in the beginning of Genesis, and a third time in the story of Joseph. After woman disobeys God by leading Adam to eat from the forbidden tree, both are punished; part of her punishment is that "your desire will be towards your Man, and he will have dominion over you" (Gen. 3:16). Almost identical wording appears soon thereafter in the story of Cain and Abel. There, in a phrase that grabbed the imagination of John Steinbeck in East of Eden, Cain is told that he may have dominion over sin (Gen. 4:7). Despite this warning, he murders his brother.

Later in Genesis (37:8), the stem mashol appears in Joseph's dreams that suggest that he will have dominion over the members of his family.16 In the second dream, his mother and father are explicitly compared to the moon and the sun. The dissimilarity between the sun and moon is thus linked to several themes: human beings' rule over one another, disobedience to God, the shedding of blood, and the difference between men and women. The texts struggle to project a vision of an ideal humanity while recognizing the reality of how the world seems to operate under "normal" conditions. Later generations envisioned the messianic era as entailing the expansion of the moon so that it is equal in brightness to the sun (Isa. 30:26).17

In considering laws related to menstruation, or any other topic seen as indicative of the status of women, it is possible to focus on ideal formulations of rabbinic culture, or on actual historical trends, to the extent that they are known. To anthropologists seeking to understand a religion and its ideals in concrete contexts, both are important. In the absence of direct historical or ethnographic evidence, comparative examples are often cited. With regard to menstruation, Nissan Rubin states that understanding the religious rules of antiquity should take into account the biological and demographic realities of the era, as suggested by studies in parts of the world where patterns of family life in peasant societies have been observed. On the basis of this comparison, it is possible that because of long periods of nursing, which suppresses menstruation, and because of the tendency to become pregnant again soon after a child is weaned and lactation ceases, women in talmudic times did not experience menstrual bleeding as frequently as we might imagine.18 If this is correct, the rabbis' interest in the topic might relate to the symbolic features of the elaborate laws of niddah, as much as to their concrete regulatory functions in daily life.

In the Mishna and Talmud, one finds strict demands for the separation of "a niddah," along with opinions that restrain those demands.19 An example is the expectation that women be confined to a special room or hut during periods of menstrual impurity. This practice was not incorporated into rabbinic norms, but the physical separation of menstruants from normal domestic routines is found in groups on the margins of Jewish life. For example, Ethiopian Jewish women moved to a menstrual hut, where they were provided with food and visited by female friends. Their migration to Israel entailed a major reorientation with regard to this institution. Among the Samaritans in Nablus, a menstruant refrains from preparing food or engaging in other domestic work, including touching her own children. Her tasks are taken over by her mother-in-law or sisters-in-law. This is only possible because of the extended-family structure characteristic of the group. At the same time, the menstruant-avoidance rule makes it indispensable to Samaritan life for related nuclear families to reside in the same household.20 Jews in Kurdistan in the middle of the nineteenth century also provided a hut for menstruants, but no further information is available about this.21

Other local practices developed in connection with niddah. Mordecai Ha-Cohen reports, with regard to the Jews of the Nefusa mountains in Libya, that the men "are very careful to keep their distance from a woman during her menstrual period. A man may not even step on the straw mat that she has walked on, nor may he look upon her face."22 It is not clear whether this reflects a very strict separation of men and women in other realms, because the same author notes that the women of the region opposed rabbis in the city of Tripoli who wanted to impose greater seclusion on them generally.23 This may be a case of differing perspectives on the part of men and women with regard to menstruation.24

Ha-Cohen entertains the possibility that the Nefusa customs derive from Karaite influence, as Karaites are known to have stricter rules of menstrual avoidance than rabbinic Jews. He then rejects his own hypothesis, but the comparison with Karaite rules is illuminating.25 Karaite women do not enter a synagogue while menstruating.26 This custom arose among Jews in some regions in the Middle Ages, but many rabbinic authorities did not accept it and ruled that women may touch a Torah scroll while in a state of niddah.27 On the other hand, menstruating women in a Tunisian community separated themselves from the preparation of matzot before Passover, while within the popular North African practice of visiting the graves of a sainted rabbi, the norm was that menstruating woman could not enter the tomb of a tzaddik.28 In Baghdad, there was a custom of women wearing special garments during their menstrual periods.29

This scattered information on actual practice shows that the theoretical understanding of rabbinic literature must be placed side by side with specific historical developments. It has been said that the Mishna "demoted" women in relation to the Bible, because the former focuses on the impurity of niddah as a subject in itself, while the Bible treats the impurity of flow from sexual organs of both men and women within the same textual framework. In other ways, however, the Mishna may be seen as elevating the place of women in comparison to the Bible. Judith Hauptman notes that the mishnaic texts seem to address an audience that includes women, while much of biblical literature speaks to men about women.30 She also points out that "the Mishna invented the halakhic category of bogeret, a mature woman (over twelve years) who has the power to agree to or refuse entering a marriage, while no such category exists in the Bible."31 The ketubba, or marriage contract, that guarantees rights for women is also a postbiblical institution.32 The extent to which these powers and rights were actually exercised in specific communities is a matter that only can be determined by research. In considering Jewish weddings and marriage celebrations here, I shall first outline the formal structure of the ceremony and then elaborate upon variations in the ways in which marriages were arranged, planned, and took place.

The Marriage Ceremony

Jewish marriage, as stated, has been based on the notion that it is men who acquire rights with regard to a woman, while a woman agrees to his acquisition of those rights. Wedding ceremonies, as now structured, consist of two phases, which in antiquity were separated in time. The first phase is called kiddushin or erusin, and the second is called nesuin. Nesuin is normally translated as "marriage," while the term erusin is used in modern Hebrew for "engagement." Kiddushin or erusin in the context of formal marriage procedures, however, do not mean "engagement" in the contemporary sense, but refer to the part of the ceremony that establishes a ritual and legal relationship setting a woman aside exclusively for a man who performs the act of kiddushin. The term kiddushin resembles the Hebrew word kadosh, holy, and the Talmud interprets it as implying that a woman has been "set aside" or devoted to a single sacred purpose; after that no other man may have sexual access to her.33

Once the ceremony of kiddushin takes place, a permanent relationship is established between a man and a woman. If there is a decision not to continue with the marriage, it entails writing a get, a formal bill of divorce according to rabbinic law.34 In antiquity, some time passed (typically a year) between kiddushin and full marriage, after which a woman began to live with her husband permanently. This created a complex and somewhat contradictory state for couples during the period between kiddushin and full marriage. In eleventh-century France, it became the practice to have a single ceremony, beginning with kiddushin, followed immediately by nesuin. This practice was widely adopted in Europe and later became common in other parts of the Jewish world.35 In several Middle Eastern communities, the separation of the phases continued until much more recent times.36

The word kiddushin comes from a tractate in the Mishna with that name. The opening chapter in that tractate, however, does not use the word kiddushin, but mentions three modes of how a man's rights with regard to his wife are established.37 These are through money; through a written document; or through sexual congress. According to the Mishna, an appropriate act in any of these modes, initiated by a man and agreed to by a woman, can bring about acquisition. As the wedding ceremony developed in postmishnaic times, aspects of all three acts were included in it, so instead of being alternate modes of creating a relationship, they were included in a total sequence of marriage ceremonies and thereby reinforced one another.

The feature of transferring money is typically expressed in the ring the groom gives the bride (see appendix 4 for the basic structure of the ceremony). The use of a ring is a posttalmudic development, and the Jews of Yemen preserved the practice of utilizing a coin in the ceremony.38 Aleppan Jews, in Syria, used both a coin and a ring.39 The ring has to have a minimal ascertainable monetary value, and two witnesses must be on hand to testify that the man put the ring on the finger of the bride. They also should pay attention to the fact that when the woman received it, she knew its value and accepted it for the purpose of kiddushin. When the ring is given to the bride, the groom recites: "Behold, you are consecrated [mequddeshet] to me with this ring according to the law of Moses and Israel." It is common practice that a wedding ring be plain, without any gems. There may have been magical reasons for this in antiquity, but rabbinic tradition reinterpreted the practice as making clear the value of the ring, so that the monetary issue not be clouded by "extraneous" jewels.40

Two blessings introduce the kiddushin phase of the ceremony.41 The first is the blessing over wine. The second relates to the institution of kiddushin and praises God "who has sanctified us by his commandments, and has commanded us concerning forbidden unions, and has forbidden to us those who are betrothed [to other men], and has permitted to us those who are married by the rite of the nuptial canopy [huppah] and kiddushin." The blessing is read by the rabbi, but its language represents the point of view of the man in relation to the woman whom he is "marrying" while she is "being married." Similarly, in the subsequent act of giving the ring and reciting: "Behold, you are consecrated . . . ," the man is the initiator of the marriage link. There have existed other rabbinic versions of "Behold, you are consecrated . . . " in which women also pronounce a statement of relationship. These, however, do not alter the basic ritual/legal logic of kiddushin. There does appear a degree of mutuality in some of the customs of drinking wine after the first two blessings are recited. Both the bride and groom drink: sometimes the rabbi gives the cup to the groom and then to the bride, and sometimes the groom hands wine directly to the bride after he drinks. Other permutations, including drinking of the wine by the parents of the couple, are known as well. An unusual custom found both among the Georgian Jews of the Caucasus and the Cochin Jews of India involves placing the ring of kiddushin in the cup of wine to be drunk.42

Often, with the conclusion of the betrothal phase of the ceremony, the wedding contract, or ketubba, is read. The basic purpose of the ketubba is to record the economic obligations of a man to a woman if the marriage relationship terminates. It is a socially sanctioned contract between the parties, and its precise contents have varied over time and place. For example, it specifies the dowry brought into the marriage by a woman, and during much of Middle Eastern Jewish history, it included a list of personal and household items and the value of each. The ketubba is not the same as the written document that can bring about kiddushin according to the Mishna, but it does include a paragraph corresponding to the statement of the man acquiring the woman. The ketubba is signed by two witnesses, who should also witness the actual giving of the ring and the following parts of the marriage ceremony.

Some aspects of the ketubba reflect changing historical circumstances, but other features are relatively invariant. For example, marriage contracts are still written in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jews at the time of the Mishna and the Talmuds. A historical variation is provided by Sephardi ketubbot, which may stipulate that if a woman has no children, a man may take a second wife, albeit only with her permission.43 It is not required that the whole ketubba, written in an ancient language and containing much legal terminology, be read as part of the ceremony. Very often part of it is read, and/or its contents are summarized and explained by the rabbi.

One variable, and potentially attractive side of the ketubba is the way it is decorated. Because they are essentially secular contracts, ketubbot can be written plainly, or can even be produced in a standard printed form, upon which the details of a given wedding are filled in. At various periods, however, traditions of elaborate ketubba illumination developed. Historical illuminated ketubbot are favorite items in museums and books of Jewish art.44 In recent times in North America, the practice of having an individually designed and highly decorative marriage contract has become widespread. Typically, such ketubbot are prominently displayed in the homes of young couples as an expression of their joint and mutual commitment to marriage. This is very different from the traditional disposition of these documents, in which a ketubba might be hidden away in the home of the woman's father to be retrieved if life's fortunes brought her to make the economic claims guaranteed in them. Rabbinic literature typically talks of the sum mentioned in the document as "her ketubba," because it gives rights to a woman and places obligations upon a man.

After the ketubba is read or summarized, the next phase of the ceremony is nesuin, entrance into the full status of marriage. In antiquity, the hallmark of this stage was the movement of a woman from her parent's home into the home of her husband. Standing under the wedding canopy has come to symbolize that act, the image of a canopy perhaps deriving from a tent into which a bride entered in ancient times. The canopy as we know it today, however, has not always been in use. In some places, both in Europe and the Middle East, it was customary for the groom's prayer shawl to be spread over the bride as she stood next to him.45 Frequently, the statement of Ruth to Boas, that he should "spread his wing" over her (Ruth 3:9), has been invoked with reference to this custom, as has a parallel phrase from Ezekiel 16:8 in which God affords protection to abandoned Jerusalem.

Entering the huppah also is seen as standing for the third form of wife-acquisition mentioned in the Mishna—sexual congress. The act of being together under one roof is taken as a sign of full conjugal life. Another gesture expressing that association developed in Ashkenazi tradition—the custom of yihud. Yihud means being together alone "as one," and the practice evolved of the bride and groom going into a room by themselves immediately upon the conclusion of the ceremony under the huppah. Witnesses are stationed to see that the couple in fact entered a room and stayed there for a few minutes. According to strict moral and religious norms, only a married couple are allowed to be alone in such a manner, and the fact that they do remain by themselves in a closed room becomes evidence of the "consummation" of a marriage. In most instances these days, the couple simply relax for a few minutes or, if they have followed the tradition of fasting all day until the time of the ceremony, they take the opportunity to have a bite to eat. In Israel today, where Ashkenazim and Sephardim live side by side and about one-fourth of all marriages that take place are between men and women from those two backgrounds, it is common for yihud to be part of many ceremonies.

The nesuin phase of wedding ceremonies also has its own blessings. These are now known as "the seven blessings." In the Talmud, they are known as the "blessings of the grooms" (birkot hatanim). Some claim that they are a list of blessings appropriate to the occasion of a wedding, and that the Talmud did not envision all of them having to be said on the occasion of every wedding. At the same time, it is possible to see a certain logic in their sequence. One way of highlighting their overall structure is the following ordering (see appendix 4):

  1. The blessing over wine
  2. Three blessings citing God's creating humanity and humanity's power of procreation
  3. A blessing over the ingathering of Jews from the Diaspora to Jerusalem
  4. Two blessings citing the joy of the bride and groom
The blessings move from the most inclusive category of humanity through the mentioning of Jewish peoplehood and conclude with a focus on the single couple. Another movement may be discernible if the Hebrew ha-adam in the third and fourth blessings is translated as "mankind" rather than "humanity." This would involve the presentation of blessings with male resonance (mankind), followed by one with female echoes (Jerusalem is pictured as a woman), and concluding with a stress on the couple.

Both the fifth and the last blessing refer to the return to Zion and Jerusalem. This theme is also associated with the well-known feature of Jewish weddings of breaking a glass. In many Sephardi communities, it was standard to break a glass between the kiddushin and the nesuin part of the ceremony, while among Ashkenazim it took place as the very last act under the huppah. Breaking a glass is a custom; it in no way affects the legal and religious transition from being single to being married. How it became central in the Jewish imagination will be discussed below, after considering other features of marriage in which rabbinic rules and interpretations intermix with both diverse social conditions and popular practices and understandings.

Hoary Texts and Local Practices

Marriage has always been highly valued in Jewish culture. This continues to be the case in contemporary Israel, which has one of the highest marriage rates found in a Western-oriented industrial society. The centrality of marriage goes back to the stories in Genesis 24, which spells out in detail how Abraham's servant found a wife for Isaac, and the tribulations of Jacob stemming from his love for Rachel (Gen. 29:17-21). A legal discussion of kiddushin asserts that one can take it for granted that a man will prefer to be married rather than live alone.46 The value of marriage is also expressed in the legend of a Roman matron who challenged the religious belief of Rabbi Yose ben Halafta, asking him how God spends his time now that he has finished creating the world. Yose's answer, that God spends his time in deciding on matrimonial matches is greeted with mockery by the matron, who claims that she is capable of doing the same thing, and more quickly. She proceeds to line up 1,000 male and female slaves and pairs them off, assigning them to marry one another. The next day, the matron finds all these couples engaged in physical fights and consequently acknowledges the truth of the Torah and Rabbi Yose's wisdom.47

Genesis 24 also forms part of wedding-linked liturgy in many Sephardi communities. Among them, it is customary for a groom to be called to the Torah in the synagogue on the Sabbath after his wedding. A special reading takes place in his honor, from the narrative of Abrah