The Jewish tradition speaks of marriage in three ways: as a contract between two individuals, as a social phenomenon, and as a sacred status.
The Contractual Element in Jewish Marriage
In biblical society, as in the ancient Near East generally, marriage was an agreement not between two individuals but between two families. The newly married couple usually took up residence in the groom's father's house. The family of the groom thus gained, and the family of the bride lost, a valuable member to tend the flock, draw water from the well, grind flour, bake bread, and assist in household tasks. It is not surprising, therefore, that marriage was viewed as the acquisition of the woman by the groom and his family from the family of the bride. Biblical stories indicate that the consent of the woman to her marriage was sought, but only in a perfunctory way.
Originally the acquisition was instantaneous. The father of the groom paid the father of the bride a bride price, and the groom gave the bride gifts. As time went on, though, Jewish marriage increasingly took the character of a contract, with greater emphasis on the two elements that characterize a contract, in contrast to an acquisition: futurity and consent. During the difficult economic circumstances of the late second century and early first century b.c.e., many Jewish men did not marry because they simply could not afford to. Simeon ben Shetah, head of the Pharisees at that time, devised an ingenious scheme that simultaneously encouraged marriage and discouraged divorce. He transformed the bride price into a lien against the husband's property that would have to be paid to the woman (not her father) in the event he divorced or predeceased her. This made marriage easier, for the man did not need cash on hand for the bride price. It also discouraged divorce, for the lien would become due in the event of divorce.
The gifts that the groom originally gave the bride at the time of marriage were also transformed into a lien against the groom's property. Moreover, by this time the explicit agreement of the woman to the marriage contract was required.
The contractual nature of Jewish marriage has several important implications. First, like any contracting parties, the couple may modify the terms of the standard contract, the ketubbah. Second, because marriage is a contract, the parties are free to terminate the contract at will, without showing grounds to any public authority; indeed, only the writ of the husband, not that of the court, can dissolve a marriage (Deuteronomy 24:1–4).
The ketubbah contains clauses indicating the liens on the groom's property mentioned above. It also stipulates that the document is "according to the usage of Moses and the People Israel," thus invoking the social and sacred aspects of Jewish marriage. Among American Jews, the Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform movements have altered the language of the standard contract in a variety of ways to make it more egalitarian. In some, both parties acquire each other, but in others, the language of acquisition is dropped altogether. The Conservative movement has also developed language, inserted either in the contract itself or in a separate codicil, to ensure that if the couple divorces in the civil courts, they both will take the steps necessary in Jewish law for each of them to remarry. Jewish communities in other parts of the world rarely use these American innovations.
The Social Element of Jewish Marriage
Marriage is a social institution in several quite different connotations of the word "social." Marriage is social in that it is especially vital to group self-perpetuation. Since Jews have lacked common land and political sovereignty for most of their history, geography could not be the determining factor in Jewish identity, as it is for most nations. The rabbis did not define Jewish identity in terms of ideological convictions either. Instead, one is a Jew by either being born to a Jewish woman or through conversion. Endogamy (i.e., Jews marrying Jews) is thus a crucial element of Jewish group survival. Especially since Jews now number only 0.2 percent of the world's population, the high rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in recent times demographically threatens the future of Jewry and Judaism. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis will not officiate at the wedding of a Jew to a non-Jew; some Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis will. Even when an intermarriage has occurred, every effort is made to convince the couple to raise their children as Jews, but only 10 percent of intermarried couples do. That makes endogamy all the more crucial.
Marriage is also social in that it defines social status. It establishes entitlements and obligations regarding the distribution of goods and services among spouses, parents and children, and siblings. Noneconomic forms of social status, such as honor, respect, and position, are also defined at least in part through marriage. Jewish law spells out the expectations that men and women may have of each other in marriage in areas as diverse as food, clothing, shelter, medical expenses, redemption from captivity, household chores, and sex. For example, there are two independent commandments in the Torah regarding sex, indicating that it is both for procreation (Genesis 1:8) and for the mutual enjoyment and bonding of the couple (Exodus 21:10).
Marriage creates a new social unit of husband and wife, a third social dimension of marriage. Indeed, Jewish sources put great emphasis on the importance of marriage, to the point of claiming that without marriage a person is incomplete. The stories of Genesis stand out among nations' foundational literature in the extent to which they depict marital interactions. Another aspect of the social unit in this sense is children, who are seen as a great blessing and who learn the tradition within the family. According to Jewish law, the couple should, if possible, have at least two children, and preferably more. This is especially imperative in contemporary America, where every 2 Jews statistically produce only 1.6 children, far less than the 2.3 rate needed for a population simply to sustain itself.
Finally, weddings are social occasions in yet another sense: They are public occasions. Even Jews who are not particularly religious in other areas of their lives overwhelmingly want to be married in some form of the traditional ceremony to link themselves to Jews of the past, present, and future. Moreover, recitation of the seven blessings that constitute the core of the wedding ceremony requires a communal quorum of ten (a minyan) to help the bride and groom celebrate their marriage and to give communal reinforcement to their marital bond. The rabbis maintained that even God likes to attend weddings!
The Sacred Element in Jewish Marriage
God wants people to marry because marriage enables some forms of divine activity to take place. Marriage advances the work of creation and the fulfillment of the covenant as each couple participates in making new lives and in passing on to their seed the promise and responsibility received from their ancestors. Moreover, in Jewish theology, God works in the world through love: We are to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5), and God loves us by giving us the Torah and entering into a covenant with us. Thus through their experience of love, humans learn about the nature of God. God is so committed to marriage that, according to rabbinic lore, he spends a portion of each day matching husbands to wives! The sacred element of Jewish marriage is clearly evident in the blessings and the theological themes of the Jewish wedding ceremony. God is blessed for creating humanity, the genders, and this particular husband and wife. God is also praised for enabling the bride and groom to rejoice with each other. The blessings link the couple to, and make them symbolic of, ideal times: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the messianic future. They are thus an expression of our hope—and God's—for a future, perfected world.
Dorff, Elliot N., and Arthur Rosett. A LivingTree:TheRoots and Growth of JewishLaw. 1988.
Lamm, Maurice. The Jewish Wayin LoveandMarriage. 1980.
Elliot N. Dorff