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Jozef Israëls: A Jewish wedding 1903

Judaism traditionally considers marriage to be the ideal state of personal existence; a man without a wife, or a woman without a husband, is considered incomplete.[1]


In Jewish law, engagement is defined as the mutual promise between a man and a woman to have a marriage at some future time and the terms on which it shall take place.[2] The promise may be made by the intending parties or by their respective parents or other relatives on their behalf.[3] This promise is formalized in a document known as the Shtar Tena'im, the "Document of Conditions", and, at Orthodox weddings, is read prior to the badekin. After this reading, the custom is to have the mothers of the bride and groom break a plate, for luck.

In Haredi circles, engagements for marriage may be brought about by a third person, often a professional match-maker ("shadchan"). The shadchan often receives a "brokerage-fee" agreed upon by custom, paid by the parties. In these situations, even though the marriage preliminaries are the concern of the parents, the children are not forced into marriage over their objections, nor may a marriage be blocked as a result of the objections of one's parents. The Shidduchim system is therefore a system of arranged introductions rather than arranged marriages, although in some traditional circles it comes to a system of arranged marriages. Even in cases where a formal shadchan is not used, it remains common for the person introducing the prospective bride and groom to each other to remain involved and act as an intermediary, or informal shadchan, when necessary.

Betrothal and marriage (erusin and nissu'in)

In Jewish law, marriage consists of two separate acts, called erusin (or kiddushin, meaning sanctification), which is the betrothal ceremony, and nissu'in, the actual ceremony for the marriage. Erusin changes the couple's interpersonal status, while nissu'in brings about the legal consequences of the change of status. In Talmudic times, these two ceremonies usually took place about a year apart. The bride lived with her parents until the actual marriage ceremony (nissuin), which would take place in a room or tent that the groom had set up for her. Since the Middle Ages, Jewish weddings the two ceremonies took place as a combined ceremony, and the marriage ceremony started to be performed publicly.

There are three ways for a Jewish couple to effect erusin (Mishna, Tractate Kiddushin 1:1):

  • With money (kesef) or with an object of value, such as a ring or a coin, for the purpose of contracted marriage, and in the presence of two witnesses, and she actively accepts;
  • Through a contract (shtar) in the presence of two witnesses, containing the declaration of erusin (see below); or
  • By sexual intercourse with the intention of creating a bond of marriage; a method strongly discouraged by the rabbinic sages and intended only for levirate marriages.

Though all methods are halachically valid, the favoured practice since ancient times has been for erusin to take place only with kesef (i.e. "with money") - giving an object of value - which is almost always a ring, but can be a coin.

Halachically, a Jewish marriage is a personal act between a man and a woman. The actual marriage is the declaration of marriage (consecration) by the man and acceptance by the woman. The function of the rabbi is to act as the advisor to the couple. The civil law of many countries requires the rabbi also to act as an agent for the State during the marriage ceremony, and for two independent witnesses to sign the wedding certificate.


Marital harmony

Marital harmony, known as "shalom bayit," is valued in Jewish tradition.

Sexual relations

Regular sexual relations are expected between husband and wife. This obligation is known as "onah."[4] In Jewish tradition, sexual relations are the obligation of a man to his wife. Although engagement in sexual relations should be entirely at the discretion of the woman, a wife should not withhold or use sex as a negotiating ploy.

Ritual purity in family life

The laws of "family purity" (tohorat hamishpacha) are considered an important part of an Orthodox Jewish marriage. This involves observance of the various details of the menstrual niddah laws. Orthodox brides and grooms often attend classes on this subject prior to the wedding.

Child marriage

Child marriage in Judaism was traditionally restricted to female children; the earliest point at which a male is permitted to become betrothed (Hebrew: erusin) is when he reaches the age of majority, 13.[5] According to the Talmud, it was permissible for an adult male to marry a girl as young as 3.[6][7]

By age, females were categorised into three groups:

  • a ketannah (literally meaning little [one]) was any girl between the age of 3 years and that of 12 years plus one day.[7]
  • a na'arah (roughly meaning damsel) was the status of a girl starting at the age of 12 years plus one day and continuing for the next six months.[7] In Judaism, 12 years is the usual age of majority for girls, although in certain circumstances the age of majority could be as high as 35 years plus one day, such as a girl who never demonstrated signs of puberty.[7] However, girls remained a na'arah until they had definitely passed the age of majority[7]
  • a bogeret (literally meaning overripe [one]) was any girl who passed the six month mark of her 13th year (i.e., 12 years and six months). At that point she was no longer a na'arah.[7] A bogeret was essentially an adult in all respects[8]

A ketannah was completely subject to her father's authority, and her father could arrange a marriage for her, whether she agreed to it or not;[7] similarly her father could accept a divorce document (get) on her behalf.[9] If the father was dead, or missing, the brothers of the ketannah, collectively, had the right to arrange a marriage for her, as had her mother.[7] In the Talmud, there is inconclusive debate about whether the na'arah should be treated like the ketannah in relation to marriage, or whether she should have the freedom to marry as she wished, like the bogeret.[10][11]

Annulment of child marriage

For a ketannah, the first marriage imposed on her by her father was completely compulsory for her; the standard adult divorce process was necessary to terminate it.[12] However, according to the Talmud, if the marriage did end (due to divorce or the husband's death), any further marriages were optional; the ketannah had the right to annul them.[12] In the Talmud's view, for marriages imposed on a ketannah by someone other than her father (due to the father's absence), the ketannah always had the right to annul them, even the first.[12]

The choice of a ketannah to annul a marriage, known in Hebrew as mi'un (literally meaning refusal/denial/protest),[12] lead to a true annulment, not a divorce; a divorce document (get) was not necessary,[13] and a ketannah who did this was not regarded by legal regulations as a divorcee, in relation to the marriage.[14] Unlike divorce, mi'un was regarded with distaste by many rabbinic writers,[12] even in the Talmud;[15] in earlier classical Judaism, one major faction - the House of Shammai - argued that such annulment rights only existed during the betrothal period (erusin), and not once the actual marriage (nissu'in) had begun.[16]

For a formal declaration of mi'un, the usual procedure was for the ketannah to say I do not wish to live with my husband, in the presence of two witnesses; her annulment would take effect immediately after this was said.[14] In classical times, it was customary to also write a get mi'un, a document recording the fact of the mi'un. The mi'un did not however need to be explicitly declared for the annulment to take effect. If a ketannah merely demonstrated that she disapproved of the marriage, this would constitute annulment;[14] for example, she could betroth (erusin) herself to another man, which for a ketannah would automatically annul her previous marriage[14] (except where the previous marriage was the first marriage imposed on her by her father[12]). However, if the marriage had begun when the girl was at least 6 years old, and she had expressed her consent to it, she was expected to perform any annulment via a formal declaration, unless she had been less than 10 years old when the marriage began, and had not appeared to fully appreciate what was going on.[17][18]

In practice

In mediaeval times, cultural pressure within Jewish communities lead to most girls being married while they were still children - before they had become a bogeret.[19] Boys too, were under cultural pressure; several Talmudic rabbis urged that boys should be married as soon as they reach the age of majority.[20] Indeed, anyone unmarried after the age of twenty was said to have been cursed by God;[21] rabbinical courts frequently tried to compel an individual to marry, if they had passed the age of twenty without marriage.[22] Nevertheless, the classical rabbis viewed study of the Torah as a valid reason for remaining unmarried, although they were only rarely willing to regard lifelong celibacy favourably.[23]

Despite the young threshold for marriage, marriages with a large age gap between the spouses (e.g. between a young man and an old woman) were thoroughly opposed by the classical rabbis.[24][25] In the Middle Ages, many rabbis tried to abolish child marriage altogether; this, however, was due to their distaste for mi'un. Effectively, child marriage became nearly obsolete in Judaism;[12] in modern times, it is an extremely rare event, as most areas with large Jewish communities have national laws against it.

Controversy over intermarriage

According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, 47% of marriages involving Jews in the United States between 1996 and 2001 were with non-Jewish partners. Rates of intermarriage have increased in other countries in the diaspora as well. Jewish leaders in different branches generally agree that possible assimilation is a crisis, but they differ on the proper response to intermarriage.

  • All branches of Orthodox Judaism refuse to accept any validity or legitimacy of intermarriages.
  • Conservative Judaism does not sanction intermarriage, but encourages acceptance of the non-Jewish spouse within the family, hoping that such acceptance will lead to conversion.
  • Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism permit total personal autonomy in interpretation of Jewish Law, and intermarriage is not forbidden. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis are free to take their own approach to performing marriages between a Jewish and non-Jewish partner. Many but not all seek agreement from the couple that the children will be raised as Jewish.

There are also differences between streams on what constitutes an intermarriage, arising from their differing criteria for being Jewish in the first place. Orthodox and Conservative streams do not accept as Jewish a person whose mother is not Jewish, nor a convert whose conversion was conducted under the authority of a more liberal stream.

Marriage in Israel

Civil marriage does not exist in Israel, and the only institutionalized form of Jewish marriage is the religious one, i.e. a marriage conducted under the auspices of the rabbinate. Specifically, marriage of Israeli Jews must be conducted according to halakha, as viewed by Orthodox Judaism. This implies that people who cannot get married according to Jewish law (e.g. a kohen and a divorcée, or a Jew and one who is not halachically Jewish) cannot have their union legally sanctioned. This has led for calls, mostly from the secular segment of the Israeli public, for the institution of civil marriage. There are many people affected by this law. In the Land of Israel today, there are approximately "300,000 Israelis who cannot marry because one of the partners is not Jewish, or his or her Jewishness cannot be determined."

Some secular Israelis travel abroad to have civil marriages, either because they do not believe in the Orthodox view of Judaism or because their union cannot be sanctioned by halakha. These marriages are legally binding in Israel, though not recognized by the rabbinate as Jewish.

While people of different religions may be citizens of the State of Israel, all legal marriages performed in Israel must be sanctioned by religious authorities of one faith or another. Couples of mixed religion, for example a Christian and a Jew, or a Muslim and a Jew, cannot legally marry in Israel.


Halakha (Jewish law) allows for divorce. The document of divorce is termed a get.The final divorce ceremony involves the husband giving the get document into the hand of the wife or her agent, but the wife may sue in rabbinical court to initiate the divorce. In such a case, a husband may be compelled to give the get, if he has violated any of his numerous obligations; this was traditionally accomplished by beating and or monetary coercion. The rationale was that since he was required to divorce his wife due to his (or her) violations of the contract, his good inclination really desires to divorce her, and we are only helping him to do what he wants to do anyway. In this case, the wife may or may not be entitled to a ketuba payment.

Judaism recognized the right of an abused wife (whether physically or psychologically) to a divorce already by around the 12th century.

Conservative Judaism follows halacha, though differently then Orthodox Judaism. Reform Jews usually use an egalitarian form of the Ketubah at their weddings. They generally do not issue Jewish divorces, seeing a civil divorce as both necessary and sufficient; however, some Reform rabbis encourage the couple to go through a Jewish divorce procedure. Conservative and Orthodox Judaism do not recognize civil law as overriding religious law, and thus do not view a civil divorce as sufficient. Thus, a man or woman may be considered divorced by the Reform Jewish community, but still married by the Conservative community. Orthodox Judaism does not recognize Reform weddings because, if they did, the children of a Reform woman who remarried would be considered mamzerim, the children of an adulterous relationship, a personal status that does not allow a person to marry a non-mamzer. This allows Reform Jews to become, and marry, Orthodox Jews should they choose to.


Traditionally, when a husband fled or his whereabouts were unknown for any reason, the woman was considered an agunah (literally “an anchored woman”) and was not allowed to remarry because in traditional Judaism, divorce is initiated by the husband. Prior to modern communication, death of the husband while in a distant land was a common cause of this situation. In modern times, when a husband refuses to issue a get due to money, property or custody battles, the woman who cannot remarry is considered an agunah. A man in this situation is termed a Misarev Get (literally "a refuser of a divorce document").

Within both the Conservative and Orthodox communities there are efforts to prevent the possibility that a woman might not be able to obtain a Jewish divorce from her husband and to deal with such problems post-facto by using various Jewish and secular legal methods. None of the legal solutions address the agunah problem in the case of a missing husband.

There have been reports that in order to prevent their wives from becoming Agunot, Jewish men who realized their fate during the terrorist attacks of 9/11 faxed gittim to their wives from their offices in the World Trade towers.

See also

Judaism's view

Non-Jewish views


  1. Babylonian Talmud - Yebomoth 62b.
  2. The Principles of Jewish Law, Ed Menachem Elon, ISBN 0-7065-1415-7, p 353.
  3. (Kiddushin 9b)
  4. Judaism 101: Kosher Sex
  5. Kiddushin, 50b
  6. Niddah 44b
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Majority", a publication now in the public domain.
  8. Niddah 47a
  9. Ketubot, 64b
  10. Kiddushin 43b
  11. Kiddushin 44a
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 12.6 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Mi'un", a publication now in the public domain.
  13. Yebamot 107a
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Yebamot 108a
  15. Yebamot 109a
  16. Yebamot 107a
  17. Yebamot 107b
  18. Gittin 65a
  19. Kiddushin (tosafot) 41a
  20. Sanhedrin 76b
  21. Kiddushin 29b
  22. Jewish Encyclopedia, Marriage Laws
  23. Yebamot 63b
  24. Yebamot 44a
  25. Sanhedrin 76a

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