Jewish weddings — something old, something new

With computer-engraved invitations and e-mail RSVPs, modern brides and grooms often forget that many of the rituals they prize are remnants of old and valued Jewish traditions.

In past times, the matrimonial rituals included a formal engagement, the negotiation of a dowry and the betrothal.

Just as in the distant past, today's marriage cycle begins with a proposal. According to Jewish tradition, a proposal is necessary, even for arranged marriages.

"It's considered very improper to marry without a proposal," said Rabbi Yosef Bechhofer of Bais Tefillah Congregation in West Rogers Park, Ill. "There has to be a proposal and a consent."

And just like today, it has long been customary for the groom to give the bride a gift of value, or for both bride and groom to exchange gifts, like clothing, jewelry and fruit. But in ancient and medieval times, the engagement was actually formalized in a ceremony known as shiddukin, at which the marriage terms, the tenai'm, were formulated.

The tenai'm included when and where the wedding would take place, the terms of the dowry, and other conditions, such as how long the bride's father would support the couple. And, because it was a binding agreement, the tenai'm included the damages either side would have to pay should the engagement be broken.

Breaking an engagement was a much bigger deal in talmudic times than it is today. In fact, the procedure for release was so difficult that it was not unheard of for rabbis to suggest that the wedding take place so that the couple could receive a Jewish divorce.

Today, the tenai'm are normally signed on the day of the wedding, so that problems with damages and dowry are no longer an issue. Yet, in some more observant communities the practice of having a party to celebrate a couple's engagement with a feast and Torah study, has become more common. However, the tenai'm are not signed and the couple is not legally bound.

The next step on the road to matrimony then and now is the betrothal, the erusin, which used to take place a year before the wedding. From the erusin until the wedding, the couple were considered bound to one another in every respect except that they did not live together and the groom was not yet obligated to support the bride.

"Families needed a year to prepare their children for marriage," Bechhofer said. "They had to prepare a trousseau for the bride. They had to prepare a house for the couple."

Today, the need to provide the couple with a home has been passed on to extended family and friends via bridal showers and lengthy department-store registries.

Because Jews around the world constantly lived in turbulent times, the betrothal ceremony eventually became attached to the wedding itself. The decision was made because the possibility that a betrothed couple would be separated was a strong reality, which would leave them both unmarried yet unable to marry anyone else.

So, as it has been since medieval times, the betrothal is now separated from the wedding ceremony only by the reading of the ketubah under the chuppah.