Jewish Weddings 101:

 

In The Beginning…

Shutafim, Partners: A marriage is a blessing, a union decreed at the beginning of time, with each individual being born with a designated Zivug, or soul-mate.

The Torah relates that G-d originally created man and woman as one entity.

“G-d created the human in His image, in the image of G-d He created them, male and female He created them.”  (Genesis 1:27)

Only later did G-d separate part of Adam to create man and woman as two distinct beings.

“So G-d cast a deep sleep upon the man and he slept; and He took one of his sides and he filled in flesh in its place. Then G-d fashioned the side that He had taken from the man into a woman, and He brought her to the man.” (Genesis 2:21,22).

As a separate individual, without Eve, his female partner, Adam was incomplete. Through marriage and the union of the sexes, he became whole again.

Jewish thought says there is a deep-seated memory of man and woman as one unit.  According to this train of thought, marriage is simply a yearning to return to that state.

Another purpose of this division into two beings, male and female, may have been for man to learn to love and take care of another person, much like G-d takes care of man.

Tzelem Elokim, Made in the image of G-d:  On a deeper level, we can see that neither male nor female alone is made in tzelem elokim, “the image of G-d.” Only when they are together, in perfect harmony, do they form “the image of G-d.”

In addition, the only time a human being can emulate G-d as creator is when he comes together with a member of the opposite sex. Then, just as G-d created life, the new couple can also create new life. In this respect, the Talmud says, husband and wife are partners with G-d. Adam realized this as soon as he was separated from Eve.

Said Adam, “Now this is the bone from my bones, and flesh from my flesh…Therefore man shall leave his father and mother and join his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:23,24).

Ezer K’negdo, Wife as Helpmate: It is interesting to note that when the Torah describes Adam’s other half, the Hebrew word chosen is ezer k’negdo, a helper against or opposite him, which is an interesting Hebrew oxymoron.

“And the Lord G-d said: It is not good for man to be alone. I will make him a helpmeet opposite     him.” (Genesis 2:18)

According to Rashi, the most prolific and famous commentator on the Torah, the term ezer k’negeo can either mean a helper as in front of him, or a helper against him. (See Rashi 2:18)

Rashi explains that if man is worthy, the woman will be a helper (ezer); if he proves unworthy, she shall be against him (k’negdo).

Men and women represent two opposites, Rashi says. If a couple are worthy, they will merge into a unified whole. But when a couple is not worthy, the very fact that they are opposites may cause one to be against the other.

Building a Mikdash Me’at, a miniature sanctuary:  As partners, the Torah says, a husband and wife have the ability to form a spiritual foundation of kidushin, the Hebrew word for sanctification. In this sacred state, which is blessed by G-d, a Jewish couple can build a mikdash m’eat, a miniature sanctuary, in which to live and raise a family.

The midrash, Rabbinic exegetical and homiletical literature, says that if their love merits it, the sh’chinah, or the divine presence, will dwell with a man and his wife. If not, a fire will devour them. The midrash explains:

“Adam was called Ish (man) and Eve was called Ishah (woman). If they go in My ways and keep all My precepts, behold, My name is given to them. He shall be called I’sh (man – spelled with the Hebrew letter yod) and she shall be called I’shah (woman – spelled with the letters yod and hay). If they do not walk in My ways I will remove My name (the letters yod and hay) from them and all that will be left will be the Hebrew letters spelling Aish, (fire) a consuming fire. Each will consume the other.” (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 12)

The Jewish idea is that marriage should bring a couple to a complete state in which they can connect with G-d. It creates out of two separate individuals a single perfect being. And although each man and woman is separate and unique with his and her own characteristics, neither is whole without the other.

This doesn’t mean a loss of separate individualities, of course, but rather a position of increased strength. The couple represents a greater force than its two constituent parts. Our sages tell us, “Husband and wife together are greater as a unit than each of them as an individual.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 4.)

Creating a World: Deciding whom to marry can be one of the hardest decisions of your lifetime. It is a decision that has far-reaching consequences that go far beyond the couple themselves.

As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, the late American Jewish thinker and Torah scholar explains, if a couple has at least two children, and each of their descendants also has two children, after ten generations of twenty-five years each, the couple would have 1,024 descendants.

Rabbi Kaplan calculated that after twenty generations there would be 1,048,576 descendants. And after twenty-four generations, about 600 years, there would be 16,077,216 descendants, more than the current world Jewish population. So, says Rabbi Kaplan, the question of whom to marry is not just a personal decision, it is a decision affecting the entire Jewish people.

This is most likely why the Talmud in Masechet (tractate) Sanhedrin says that whoever destroys a single Jewish life is considered as if he has destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves a single Jewish life is considered as if he has saved an entire world.

Like “Splitting the Red Sea”: Finding the perfect mate, one that will be an ezer, a helper, is not easy.  The midrash says that God wants marriages to take place to such an extent, that he himself arranges them, even attending weddings as a witness.  Take, for example, this story written in the Talmud.  It teaches that the task of pairing couples is as intricate as splitting the Red sea.

A Roman matron once asked the great Jewish sage Rabbi Jose bar Halafta how long it took G-d to create the world.

“Six days,” the Rabbi replied.

The woman then demanded to know what G-d was busy doing since the time of creation. The Rabbi said that since the time of creation, G-d was busy making matches. The woman was astonished. “That is his occupation,” she asked. “Even I can do that.”

So the woman, who owned many slaves, took a thousand men and a thousand women, lined them up in two rows, and said, “This one should marry this one, and that one should marry that one.”

The next day they all came before her bruised and complaining. What is the matter with you, she asked the large, bickering group. Each one said, “I don’t want the one you gave me.”

At once the woman sent for Rabbi Jose bar Halafta and said to him, “Rabbi, your Torah is true, beautiful and praiseworthy.”

“Indeed a suitable match may seem easy to make,” Rabbi Jose said, “yet G-d considers it as difficult as dividing the Sea of Reeds.”

Jewish Obligation to Marry: Pru Ur’Vu, Be Fruitful and Multiply:  Despite its apparent difficulty, marriage is considered a required part of Jewish life by the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. It is also G-d’s most fundamental commandment to human beings, “Be fruitful and multiply,” (Genesis 9:17).

“Every man is obliged to marry in order to fulfill the duty of procreation, and whoever does not is   if he had shed blood, diminished the image of G-d and caused the Holy presence to depart from Israel.” (Shulchan Aruch 1:1)

The Talmud (Shabbath 31a) explains that in olam haba, the world to come, the first three questions asked of a person are: “Were you honest in your business dealings? Did you have a set time for Torah study? Did you raise a family?

To fulfill the commandment of procreation, a Jew must bring at least one male and female child into the world.

Torah Views on Love & Marriage

The Torah provides role models and numerous hints for those seeking the perfect marriage.

The story of Isaac and Rebecca, for example, teaches the importance of finding the right marriage partner. Abraham entrusted his servant Eliezer with the job of finding a wife for his son, Isaac.

“and I will make you swear by the Lord, the G-d of heaven and the G-d of earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters  of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.” (Genesis 24:4).

Rather than choose a wife from the many idol worshippers who had converted to monotheism under his guidance, Abraham sent his servant to choose a wife from relatives far away.

Eliezer found a suitable match in Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel, the nephew of Abraham – but first required that she pass a test to determine the quality of her kindness.

Rebecca, often described as the mother of the Jewish nation, demonstrated the vital Jewish trait of chesed, acts of loving kindness, in offering to provide water to Eliezer’s animals and men. The story of Rebecca concludes like this:

“Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebecca; and she became his wife, and he loved her, and Isaac was comforted after his mother.” (Genesis 24;67) We learn from Rashi that Rebecca performed the same good deeds that distinguished his mother.

On the other hand, Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, wasn’t as lucky. The midrash relates the following story. Three years after Abraham had sent Ishmael away he visited him in the distant city of Paran. When Abraham arrived at Ishmael’s tent, he wasn’t there. Instead, Abraham asked Ishmael’s wife for water, but she refused.

Upon leaving, Abraham left the following message. “When your husband comes home, tell him that an old man from Philistia came to see him, but finding him absent offered this advice – the pegs of your tent should be changed.”  Abraham’s message to Ishmael was that his choice in a wife created an unstable home.

The next year, Abraham went again to visit Ishmael. Again, Ishmael was absent, but his new wife, Fatima, greeted him and offered him food and water. Abraham left with the following message: “When your husband returns home, tell him his tent pegs are excellent, and he should keep them.”

From a Torah view, it is far more important to choose a mate based upon inner-beauty and good character, than physical, superficial beauty.  Furthermore, once married, the Torah emphasizes closeness.

For example, a commonly used Hebrew verb to describe sexual intercourse is lishkav, “to lie with.” The Torah, however, prefers the verb, la- da’at, to know, which implies an inherent connection with one’s partner.

“And Adam knew his wife, Eve, and she conceived…” (Genesis 4:1)

“And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son…” (Genesis 4:25)

Love and respect is a much-required element of marriage. The Talmud says, “A man should love his wife as himself and honor her more than himself.” (Y’vamot 62b)

The oneness of genuine love in Jewish thought is seen through g’matria, which stands for the numerical equivalence of Hebrew letters. The numerical equivalent of ahava, love, is thirteen. The numerical equivalent of echad, Hebrew for the number one (1) is thirteen. Together, they equal twenty-six, the g’matria of G-d’s name. This cannot be more opposite to the notion of romantic or courtly love.

In fact, long before troubadours, chazal, our sages, had a term for romantic love – ahava she-t’lyuyah b’davar- love that is dependent on external things. The Mishnah says, “When love depends on the sensual, if that thing ceases to exist, then the love also ceases to exist.” (Avot 5:19-20)

In Judaism, when people allow instinct rather than reason to determine their behavior, they separate themselves from their tzelem Elokim, the G-d-like image, in which both man and woman were created.

This also helps explain why according to Jewish law, sexual intercourse is prohibited between husband and wife during the period of menstruation and seven days afterward. These are days when nonsexual intimacy can grow and further develop. Companionship, not just sexual attraction and desire help form the basis of a Jewish marriage.

Sadly, we learn this lesson from the tragic story of King David’s son, Amnon, and his half-sister, Tamar, which can be found in detail in the Book of Samuel.

Amnon’s love for Tamar was solely based on passion and uncontrollable physical desire, which culminated in rape. Once satisfied, his love quickly turned to hatred and he subsequently drove her away.

However, the Torah in no way denies the legitimacy of physical attraction and love in marriage. The biblical story of Jacob working seven years to marry Rachel (Genesis 29) and the very sexual imagery of the Song of Songs attest to the centrality of love between a man and woman.

“Jacob worked seven years for Rachel, but it seemed like just a few days, so much did he love her,” (Genesis 29:20)

The Midrash states that Jacob loved Rachel with a “love as strong as death.”

Indeed, when Jacob first laid eyes on Rachel, the Torah describes how struck he is with her beauty that he “kissed Rachel and wept aloud.” (Genesis 29:11)

The rabbis wonder why the Torah goes out of its way to say that Jacob wept aloud. Our sages say that Jacob cried out loud out of sheer, unrestrained joy of great love.

Jacob was willing to work seven years for Rachel, becoming a shepherd just to be close to her.

 

The Mishnah, Jewish oral law which was codified at the beginning of the third century, describes the festivities that took place in Jerusalem on the fifteenth day of the month of Av and on the afternoon of Yom Kippur the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar year. On this day, unmarried Jewish young women, dressed in borrowed white garments, would go out and dance in the vineyards.

“What did the women say? “Fellow, look around and see – choose what you want! Don’t look for beauty, look for family: ‘Charm is deceitful and beauty in vain, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised.’ (Proverbs 31:30)

However, besides the celebration on the fifteenth day of Av and trusted family retainers like Eliezer, not every family succeeded in finding marriage partners.

For  hundreds of years, the job of finding young men and women marriage partners was largely left to the local shadchan, or marriage broker, whose role it was to make a shiduch, or match, as they say in Yiddish.

The word shiduch has an interesting derivation. The Aramaic translation of the root word, shiduch, is sheket, meaning quiet. The term shiduch signifies tranquility or peacefulness.

Two connotations come to mind. First, that the shadchan be capable of pacifying anxious parents who were nervous regarding their children’s marital prospects. Second, that the match should prove to be peaceful, and therefore happy.

Before the advent of marriage brokers or matchmakers, families would rely on Talmudic sages and heads of Torah Academies to arrange marriages. These rabbis were in the best position to match the qualities of their students with a complimentary match from the unattached daughters of their community.

After the shiduch was arranged, informal negotiations took place at which the preliminary arrangements were settled. The future alliance was agreed upon along with the bride’s dowry. However, since the agreement was still informal either party could still withdraw without penalty.

It is important to note that even arranged marriages were never forced.  Unlike many religious and cultural groups, the consent of a Jewish young man and woman is a pre-condition to the match. Especially important was the consent of the bride. We learn this from the story of Isaac and Rebecca.

Although Abraham’s servant Eliezer reached an agreement with Rebecca’s family, the matter was not official until Rebecca had given her consent. As it says in the Torah, “Let us call the maiden and ask her.” (Genesis 24:57) This principle of mutual consent was derived from this passage and later incorporated into Jewish law.

As the Rambam or Maimonides said, “A woman cannot be married unless it is of her own free will. If a man should, however, complete a marriage procedure against a woman’s will, she is not married.” (Yad, Ishut 4:1)

The role of shadchan reached its height during the dark days of Jewish exile in Europe. This was especially true during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, after the crusades had wiped out multiple Jewish communites and scattered them across the continent. This of course, made communication between communities difficult if not impossible.

Also beginning to spread across Europe was the popular notion of romantic love, which the rabbis began to fear as it threatened the very sanctity of Jewish love and marriage.

Between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, this notion of romantic or courtly love had spread to the masses. During the Middle Ages, much of the literature that was produced described romantic love as irrational, often comparing it to mental illness.

Troubadours, medieval singers and balladeers traveled widely, singing tales of chivalrous love. Often, their lyrics were touched with sadness that either celebrated fatalism or the idealization of sexual desire. Works like Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, begin with intense passion, but always end in pain for the star-crossed lovers.

In romantic literature there is a close relationship between love and illicit passion, which is actually destructive to the institution of marriage, let alone the Jewish concept of love and marriage. Even the philosopher Plato and the author Shakespeare compared love to madness and even today, we often use the terms falling “helplessly in love,” or  “falling madly in love.”

Jewish leaders would repeatedly remind their communities of romantic love’s dangers, often quoting a popular sage with this dire warning: “He who marries without shiduchin deserves corporal punishment.”

While no Jewish court could actually carry out this threat, it does illustrate the rabbinic fear and distrust of romantic love which swept through Europe.

The shadchan, a sensible solution, ended the long search for a mate, encouraging marriages earlier and lessening the chances of romantic relationships before marriage.

However, by the eighteenth century, the service had become like any other profession, not always attracting the best and brightest, or the most honest.

An old Yiddish proverb says that G-d does not punish the shadchan for telling lies. Even so, the work was considered so important that the village matchmaker remained a crucial part of Jewish life, and remains so to a limited extent even today.

In fact, the Jewish matchmaker has become a favorite character of modern stage and film. “Fiddler on the Roof,” Broadway’s recreation of Jewish life in the European shtetyl and “Crossing Delancey,” Hollywood’s version of life on New York’s lower East Side, both feature matchmakers in central and memorable roles.

Today, the use of professional matchmakers takes place primarily in more observant circles. However, the majority of Jewish men and women meet on their own, through school, camp, college, work, singles’ weekends, Jewish and non-Jewish social or political organizations. Blind dates are still a popular option, often arranged through friends, married and unmarried, who try their amateur hand at matchmaking.

Still, the romantic method of finding one’s mate on one’s own is probably the most prevalent in modern society today.

However, technology has already started to change dating. The growing use of computers and the Internet has also opened doors that had previously been shut.

Single’s chat rooms are now available. Of course, you have to be careful, since you never know who you are communicating with or whom you may ultimately meet.

Still, Shadchanim may be found in urban areas with large concentrations of traditional Jews such as New York, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami. Overseas, there is also Jerusalem, London and Paris.

If you can’t find a matchmaker or the idea is not for you, our Jewish sages have some important and rather famous advice. King Solomon described what he thought it took to be a “valorous woman” in the Book of Proverbs:

Who can find a valorous woman? Her worth is far above pearls. Her husband’s heart trusts in her… She does him good all the days of her life… She extends her hands to the poor and needy… She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of acts of love is on her tongue… She looks well after the needs of her household and eats not the bread of idleness… Her children rise and call her blessed, and her husband praises her: “Many daughters have done excellently, but you exceed them all”… Grace is false, and beauty is but a superficial vanity; a woman who reveres the Lord – she shall be praised…

The sages advise a man who wants to live a long and happy life to marry a good woman.

“Happy is the man who has a good wife; the number of his days are doubled.”

In King David’s Song of Songs, the shepherdess pursues her beloved, but when she is finally in reach, he is out of her grasp. She believes she sees him, but he is not there. She thinks she hears his voice, but he is elsewhere.

The rabbis explain this passage as a metaphor for our search for G-d. As we reach out for the love of G-d, so do we reach out for a man or woman.

The idea of love permeates Jewish literature, life, history and law. Ecclesiastes (9;9): “Enjoy life with the wife whom thou lovest.” The Song of Songs (6:3): “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me,’ and (8;7): “Many waters cannot quench love; neither can the floods drown it.” The prophet Hosea (2:21): “And I (G-d) will betroth you (Israel) to me forever.”

So greatly does the Torah value marriage, it not only allows time for a couple’s adjustment to their new status, the Torah makes it a requirement.

“When a man takes a new wife, he shall be deferred from military duty, he shall not be charged with any business, he shall be free for his house one year, and shall cheer his wife whom he has taken” (Deuteronomy 24:5)

This commandment frees the husband from serious concerns so that he may make time for his wife and their new life together.

Even though this is not realistic or in the majority of cases today, one cannot help but learn from its message.

The Jewish couple represent the survival of the Jewish people.  It is an awesome, yet joyous responsibility.

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