First off, I’d like to acknowledge that this is SixDegreesOfKosherBacon’s 500th blog post. Marc and I started this blog in April of 2015 and have made posts, with the help of some spectacular guest bloggers, almost every week since.
Originally I started this blog as a way to field, what I thought, were skeptical questions about Judaism and the Bible. Then it shifted into insights about the weekly parsha and holidays while Marc explored musings, inspiration, and troubling aspects of our society through the lens of Jewish thought. Over the last year I explored the Jewish idea of bitachon (faith combined with trust). There’s a phrase in Hebrew ללמוד וללמד which translates to learn for the sake of teaching. When you know you are going to need to produce something from the material you read or the lectures you attend, it vastly changes your relationship with that material. That level of mastery is among the many gifts I have received from writing this blog over the last 6 years. I also have a profound sense of gratitude to everyone who read, commented, liked, shared, and even just noticed the work Marc and I have done. Thank you.
But with six years of parsha blogs, I feel compelled to move in a different direction. And being that another milestone is taking place in my life, I’ve decided to focus my blogs for the next while on the Jewish concept of…
Tying the Knot and Breaking the Glass
Anyone who has gotten married knows there is a lot to misunderstand about a Jewish wedding (let alone the actual marriage itself). There’s the chuppah, there’s breaking of the glass, you’ve got this kesuba document, a weird thing where the bride circles the groom seven times (what’s that about?), some couples fast, some couples don’t see each other for a week before!, and of course, dancing! As much as there is, there can be a bit of confusion about what is essential via Jewish law, what is a custom that has developed over the generations, and what has been incorporated due to the secular practices we’ve become familiar with. But before I get to sorting all that out, I want to spend this post mansplaining… er… sharing what I have learned about the essence of Judaism’s concept of marriage.
The modern and secular idea of marriage (as I understand it) is a mutual agreement between two people who love each other to concretize their union for the purpose of sharing their lives together. We get the “in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer,” yada yada yada. What does the Torah say about marriage? For this we look to Devarim/Deuteronomy 24:1, “When a man acquires a wife…” Hmm… acquires… like ownership? That’s troubling…
We like to think of Judaism as humanistic, bestowing dignity to even the least empowered members of society long before the enlightenment period in history ever considered human rights. But buying a wife? Like property? Is that what a Jewish wedding is about?
No… but yes.
A Woman Isn’t a Property
Of all the things that happen at a Jewish wedding, the moment when the choson and kallah (bride and groom) actually become married isn’t, “I do I do, now kiss the bride,” but when a man gives the woman an object of value, usually a ring, in exchange for… her. That is the definitive moment the transaction has taken place. However this is an easily misunderstood concept.
First off, the bride must have consent. Judaism does not allow for a woman to be sold off by a father or brother. She cannot be coerced in any way. She must agree to the process and in fact the moment when she accepts the ring, she’s really accepting the husband. The ring is really just a physical token of that acceptance. Though she’s receiving, it’s actually a proactive receiving as she’s making the final decision to make the marriage take place.
Secondly, the husband doesn’t own his wife. In most acquisitions the owner has dominance over the purchased items. If I buy a car, I am free to repaint it, modify it, drive it as I see fit. I could abandon it by the side of the road I so wanted. That is not the case in a Jewish marriage. Instead, the woman is granted specifically outlined rights while the man must adhere to a contract demanding that he fulfill explicit obligations and responsibilities. The man has no specified rights and the woman has no demanded obligations. “Wifely duties” don’t exist in Judaism.
Thirdly, “ownership” results in elevation. One might say that a concept like ownership is just a man made construct that only has meaning because we say it does. Like in the way the pieces of paper in our wallets only have value because we have decided so. Judaism disagrees with this and holds that there are spiritual ramifications of ownership. Take for example the concept called hekdesh, where a person could donate property to the Temple in Jerusalem. Once that individual decided that their donation was hekdesh, the property now had a holiness imbued within it and it could no longer be used outside the Temple. And even if the person made a mistake and hekdeshed the wrong item, they couldn’t undo that declaration because the item’s being had been inherently changed. Marriage does something similar to a bride, elevating her to an eishet ish. That status can only occur through the act of acquisition.
But… a Woman kind of is Property after all.
All the ideas above are nice, but why do they have to come about through what is essentially a business transaction?
I don’t know if it is because I was born in a capitalist society, but I think there is something inherent in making a big purchase. I remember when I bought my car. I analyzed fuel efficiency, read review after review, test drove dozens of other cars (I’m not saying this is a perfect analogy to marriage), and spent hours on “Carbuyingtips.com” learning how to haggle with salesmen. The point is it was a HUGE endeavor. That’s the sort of involvement, scrutiny, and education we should put into getting married. If that car was $40, I don’t think I would have taken so much care. Maybe I would have gone with the exciting sports car opposed to the low maintenance sedan with the 10 year warranty.
The Gemara asks, “How do we know a man is purchasing a woman?” and the answer it gives is that Abraham purchased the land in Chevron for Sarah’s burial place. Now there are whole volumes of discussions regarding property in the Talmud, why does the Gemara give the purchase of land as an answer? Putting aside from the emotional relevance of a widower buying the final resting place for his wife, there is something categorically different about land ownership over most other pieces of property.
With most purchased items, you buy them and their worth is based on their use. You buy the new iPhone for $900, and upon taking it out of the box, it’s now decreased in value. Drop it a couple of times, the new version comes out, now that phone’s worth is closer to $150. Maybe you bought a collector’s item, so you put it in a case, set it on the shelf, and wait for it to accrue in value. A piece of land’s worth, however, is based on what you do with it.
Land is meant to be worked, cared for, cultivated, and nurtured. It is a responsibility and it is an investment. If you put in the effort and time, you can grow fruits, vegetables, or grapes to produce wine. You can build a mansion, a playground, a school, or part of a highway. But you can also abuse the land, neglecting it to rot, or even salting it. This is the reason marriage is compared to land. Its value and benefit flourish when cared for and its produce yields year after year.
A marriage is something that grows between the husband and wife based off of the commitment and effort put in. However, generally speaking, a woman is more likely to take on the responsibility of the relationship on her own. The man, on the other hand, needs to be contractually obligated (hence the kesubah) and he needs to have some skin in the game (the purchase). For these reasons, Judaism regards marriage as the biggest and best purchase a man can make and the most serious offer a woman can accept. The roles of the two participants in marriage are different (which I’ll get into in later blog posts) and so to represent that, their roles must be different in the acquisition. But that doesn’t mean one is less than the other, nor does it mean one has more power than the other. With this understanding of the inherent nature of the ritual, we can start to understand the other mitzvahs and customs associated with it.
Thank you once again for being with us for 500 thoughts on Torah. Here’s to 500 more.