“The Mitzvah of Marriage, Kiddushin and Ketuvah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Kee Teitzei is a fascinating parasha, containing the largest number of mitzvot of any parasha in the Torah–27 positive mitzvot and 47 negative.

It’s interesting to note that, in some instances, positive mitzvot that are not explicitly enumerated in the Torah text are derived instead from the wording of negative mitzvot. So, for instance, the positive mitzvah of marriage is derived from the negative mitzvah that is known as “Mo’tzee Shaym Rah,” the man who defames his wife, falsely accusing her of having been unchaste before marriage.

In Deuteronomy 22:13, we read: “Kee yee’kach eesh eesh’ah, oo’vah ay’leh’hah, oos’nay’ah,” If a man marries a woman, and comes to her and hates her. From this verse, the rabbis deduce the positive biblical mitzvah of marriage. The Hebrew term for marriage, kiddushin–literally sanctification–underscores the fact that Judaism, in effect, demands that the physical union between a man and a woman be based on a hallowed partnership. It is expected that love, respect, decency, and understanding serve as the bond that links the two lives together. This special bond is actualized through the kiddushin–-the marriage ceremony–as well as the ketubah.

In ancient times, there were three ways for a man to marry a woman. In the presence of two witnesses, the man could 1) present his future wife a gift of a specified amount of money, 2) present her with a document certifying the marriage, or 3) have sexual intercourse with the woman for the expressed purpose of marriage. Though it was legally valid, this final method was strongly discouraged, since it was considered immodest. In fact, any person who cohabited in this manner was subject to punishment by lashes. If any of these three methods of marriage was performed, the woman gained the status of arusah–a betrothed woman. For legal purposes the man and woman were considered husband and wife, but they would not live together until the second part of the wedding–nisuin (uplifting)–took place. If after the betrothal any man beside her husband cohabited with the woman, she was considered an adulteress.

There was usually a waiting period of about eight months to a year after the betrothal, before the final part of the wedding took place. During this time the husband and wife would return to their respective parents’ homes to prepare their trousseaus. Only after this period concluded was a nisuin ceremony performed and the woman considered an ayshet eesh, a fully married woman.

The contemporary marriage ceremony incorporates all three of the elements of the ancient marriage. The ring represents the money, the ketubah (the marriage contract) is the document, and the yichud ceremony, where the bride and groom enter a private room for about 6-7 minutes after the conclusion of the marriage ceremony, is reminiscent of the time when the husband and wife would literally consummate the marriage.

In contemporary times, both the erusin and the nisuin are performed together on the same day. The reading of the ketubah separates both parts of the wedding ceremony. One reason for combining both parts of the ceremony and doing away with the waiting period was the precarious state of Jewish life in medieval times. It was feared that the husband might be attacked by roving marauders or anti-Semites and the woman would be left an agunah, an anchored wife. Understandably, an additional consideration was the challenge of keeping the bride and groom physically apart, when they felt that they were virtually married.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) suggests that the reason weddings are conducted publicly in the presence of a minyan–-a quorum of ten–is so that the public may be aware of the union. This would eliminate any attempts to arrange short-term but “legal” marriages for men who desire a quick liaison with a woman and are unwilling to make a long-term commitment.

The author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) underscores the centrality of the ketubah, noting that it represents the husband’s commitment to love, honor, cherish and support his wife in truth. Even though the intrinsic monetary value of the ring may be very small, the fundamental financial commitment is considered to be of great importance.

The ketubah, which is the oldest known document designed to ensure women’s rights, is a fascinating document. Although it states in the ketubah that the woman agrees to be married, the entire document is fundamentally a unilateral document designed to ensure the woman’s rights. The man not only promises to fulfill his marital obligations to his wife of love and support, he in fact obligates himself to set aside 200 zuz, a sum of money that would pass to his wife upon his death or termination of the marriage.

It might seem odd that at the time of marriage, the moment of the highest joy, the husband diverts his attention from the wonderful occasion to make provisions for a “life insurance policy” and “alimony payments” for his new wife. Herein lies the unique brilliance of the Jewish marriage ceremony. At the time of marriage, the husband states to his wife, in effect, I love you so much at this moment that, G-d forbid, if I fall out of love with you, I will make certain that you are properly provided for. He further states that I love you so much at this moment, that if, G-d forbid, I die, I will make sure that you are properly cared for. In effect, the husband says to the wife, I not only love you with my whole heart and my entire being, I am actually placing my money where my mouth is, thus raising the level of love and commitment to extraordinary heights.

Once again we see how a simple document of Jewish life, one that is often regarded as quaint, or even, at times, primitive, raises the level of love in marriage to a degree that would otherwise be unattainable.

May you be blessed.