The holiness of marriage



Parashat Vayigash
Genesis 44:18-47:27
Parashat Vayigash Genesis 44:18-47:27


The d’var Torah for this issue would normally be on this week’s Torah portion, Yitro. However, the theme for this special issue is weddings. How might those two be combined? As we know, a rabbi can find a connection between the weekly portion and practically any given topic! Yet, the portion Yitro actually lends itself to talking about the Jewish idea behind marriage. At the heart of the portion stands the Ten Commandments, one of the grand pillars of the Torah. As is familiar to most people, the seventh commandment forbids adultery. However, I would like to look at that commandment not in its negative formulation, but as expressing a positive Jewish value – the value of the sanctity of marriage and the holiness of an exclusive relationship.

The wedding ceremony itself celebrates this core value. The traditional wedding ceremony actually telescopes two ancient rituals which, during the talmudic period, were held a year apart. The purpose of separating the two ceremonies was to provide the couple an opportunity to gather the necessities and belongings for their new household. Later in history, it became impractical to separate the two ceremonies, so they were joined together, as is our current practice. Each ceremony had its own distinctive blessings, and both were combined with the blessing over wine – which represents the joy of every celebration.

The first ritual was called erusin or “betrothal,” and the second nissu’in, “marriage,” after which the couple began living together in their own home, symbolized by the huppah, wedding canopy. Another term for the betrothal ceremony was kiddushin, meaning “sanctity” – the very theme we want to emphasize. The unique blessing for the kiddushin ritual emphasizes the exclusiveness of the relationship the new couple is about to enter. In it, we praise God for adding holiness to our lives and sanctifying this special exclusive and intimate relationship. The giving of the ring is part of this first erusin/kiddushin ceremony.

The second part of the wedding ceremony, nissu’in, has its own set of seven blessings for the bride and groom. These blessings (known as the Sheva B’rakhot) can be seen as a kind of toast to the bride and groom (much like our modern toasts during the wedding feast) and provide an opportunity for the entire community to join in celebrating the marriage.

Originally, there were probably several local versions of the sheva b’rakhot, which, over time, became canonized into the seven blessings recorded in the Talmud (Tractate Ketubbot 7b-8a). The theme of creation and the concept that humans are created in the image of God are the dominant focus of the three blessings that follow the blessing over wine. Then comes the fifth blessing, expressing the hope that Jerusalem, as a symbolic mother, will gather her children. The sixth blessing asks God to  “Grant perfect joy to these loving companions as you did for your creatures in the garden of Eden. We praise you for creating the joy of bride and groom.”

The final, long beautiful blessing thanks God for creating “joy and gladness, bride and groom, pleasure, song, delight, laughter, love and harmony, peace and companionship.”

Rashi, the great medieval commentator, noted that the closings of the last two blessings are almost identical. The sixth praises God “who causes the groom and bride to rejoice,” while the seventh blessing ends by praising God “who causes the groom to rejoice with the bride.” The first of those, “groom and bride,” says Rashi, is really wishing the couple, as a unit, success and material goodness throughout their lives. That is a blessing for them as a household.

By contrast, the final blessing, “groom with the bride,” expresses the hope that they will have joy with each other, as two individuals who now come together, joining in love and happiness, in the marital bliss of their special relationship. In this way, the final blessing of the nissu’in ceremony echoes the idea of the opening blessing of kiddushin, namely, this is a special sacred relationship between two people who have come together to share their lives in sanctity.

This final blessing brings us back to our opening point: both the seventh commandment and the wedding ceremony emphasize the value and treasure of a caring, loving, special and exclusive relationship. How appropriate that the term for the marriage itself became kiddushin, reflecting the highest Jewish value of marriage – sanctity.

Rabbi Alvan Kaunfer is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Providence. He is on the faculty of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College in Newton.