There’s been a lot of discussion this past year about marriage--what it is and what it means to different people. Since my son, Avichai, gets married to Linda Benrimon this week, I thought it would be an appropriate topic.
What defines a Jewish marriage? It is true the Bible talks about a man "acquiring" a woman. But since he Talmudic era, we have called the ceremony "Kiddushin", sanctification, which literally means making something or someone special. Two human beings dedicate each other to each other within the context of the Jewish tradition.
The nuts and bolts of the wedding ceremony we have nowadays is the same one the Talmud describes nearly two thousand years ago. It is a combination of two processes mentioned in the Bible. First, the betrothal, Eirusin, which was a far more formal and strict process than our current concept of "engagement", that could and sometimes did take place years before the couple actually got to consummate the relationship and move in together. Then came the Nissuin, where the bride and groom physically set up house and home. This part is celebrated in the Seven Festive Blessings, the "Sheva Brachot".
The first part of the ceremony is contractual; the agreement to establish an exclusive relationship through a religious and civil obligation. This includes the ring and the Ketubah. Then, over a second cup of wine, come the seven blessings which are more poetic, romantic and theological. The Chupah adds another element, that of the symbolic house that the groom takes his bride into. In some communities instead of a structured Chupah they simply spread a tallit over the heads of the bride and groom to the same effect. Like "Kiddushin", the term "Chupah" is often used generically, to describe the whole marriage process in a legal and spiritual sense.
It is the mystical tradition that initiated the custom (now quite commonly adopted, but not essential) of the bride walking around the groom seven times. Walking seven times around is how one dedicates something to a spiritual purpose, such as land for burial. Solomon walked around the Temple seven times to dedicate it, and wits will remind you that Joshua walked around the walls of Jericho seven times and then they collapsed! But it is a symbolic way of the woman dedicating her husband, to mirror the way he dedicates her by putting a ring on her finger. The two sections of the ceremony actually echo the twin aspects of marriage; the physical material commitments and obligations on the one hand, and the romantic emotions of love on the other.
To most Jews, blessings are dry formulaic routines with little spirituality. In fact, they are very carefully constructed. They all include an invocation of God, which is a declaration of caring, as when parents bless their children. Then there is a specific reference to the act we are about to perform that describes it and invites us to think about its significance. The genius of the formulators was to find a simple accessible language that everyone could understand to express this relationship, the physical with the spiritual.
I am particularly fascinated by the seven "romantic" blessings that the rabbis composed. Not only is the language beautiful in its simplicity, but it contains a series of ideas that really underscore what "Kiddushin" should mean.
The opening blessing over wine is how all religious ceremonies are celebrated. It is something special and different, and places it within the world of physical pleasure and joy and the need to be grateful, to thank the Divine.
Then comes the invocation of life, creation. That’s where it all starts, and in this ceremony we are contributing to it. If we have been privileged to be part of the universe, we also have an implicit responsibility to appreciate it, develop it, and protect it.
The apogee of creation is humanity. There follow two blessings that concern humanity. There is the simple fact of life, but there is also a life well and fully lived. One can live a physical life very fully if one is fortunate as well as wise. But without a spiritual dimension there is something lacking. The two blessings celebrate our physical and our spiritual potential--two blessings, with the same "human" message.
Humanity, however, does not exist in a vacuum. One has to find one's place within a community. The next crucial ingredient of Zion represents our religious and social identities. Simply to be part of the human race is too inchoate and vague. We humans need to live within smaller economic, cultural, and religious subdivisions, to be aware of others beyond our own immediate selves and to be loyal to shared causes and ideal.
These blessings establish one’s position in relation to God and the universe. Then they turn to the most profound and creative relationship of one’s life. The final two blessings specifically refer to the bride and groom. The first blesses "the groom and the bride". The second blesses "the groom together with the bride". It is a subtle and intentional distinction that first emphasizes the individuality of each partner, the need to recognize the differences and needs of the other, then in the second blessing uses all the words we have for joy to celebrate the ultimate partnership, which is greater than the sum of the parts, in which the individual is encompassed within the marriage.
I find it quite amazing that these blessings were conceived and written so long ago by rabbis whom one normally associates with the dryness of law and authority, rather than the romance of poets. Genuine commitment involves the intellectual as well as the emotional, the obligations as well as the pleasures of romance. The texts of these blessings combine scholarship, theology, and poetry.
In no other Jewish ceremony are so many blessings recited. The idea of a blessing is the expression of our good wishes and hopes for the couple, together with God’s blessings that they should succeed in life. That is, after all, what all parents hope for when they stand with their children under the Chupah.
Every religious tradition has its own rituals, ceremonies, and favored phrases. There are other Jewish customs, like breaking a glass to recall the sad moments, personal and historical, which are present at any happy occasion. These rabbinic ideas are what make "Kiddushin" much more than what we in the West call "marriage", and are, for me, a constant source of admiration and pride in our heritage.