The evolving concept of marriage in Judaism


The rabbis changed, or perhaps we should say “updated,” many biblical laws because of a growing sensitivity to what is proper. However, frequently, when changes were made, the rabbis conservatively maintained some of the old practices. Marriage is an example of these two phenomena.

The Torah speaks of marriage as a “taking,” which clearly means that a marriage occurs when a man has sex with a woman with the intention of it being a marriage.[1] Neither a religious leader nor any other person was required in the biblical marriage, or today. In the post-biblical period, when the rabbis felt that an act of marriage should have witnesses so that there would be no questions about the relationship at a later time, they realized that having witnesses of the sex act was revolting. Therefore the Talmudic rabbis added two other ways to affect a marriage: a contract or a gift of money or something that is worth at least the smallest amount of money.[2]

Soon thereafter, Jews began to feel that giving a contract, which turns marriage into something like a commercial affair, and giving a penny to one’s proposed wife to marry her, was demeaning, and the practice arose not to marry with a contract and to give the wife something more precious, such as a wedding ring.

However, while the giving of a wedding ring became ubiquitous and a man could still marry a woman by giving her a contract or a penny, there remained a problem. What do we do with the Torah’s method of marriage, the sex act? There were two possible solutions: (1) ignore the Torah method entirely and (2) incorporate it into the marriage ceremony in some way. The second method was chosen so that the Torah rule would not be forgotten entirely. This is done symbolically in two ways.

First, the marriage ceremony is performed under a canopy, called a chupah in Hebrew. The canopy symbolizes the room or area where the man and woman are having sex. Second, similarly, after the wedding ceremony, many Jews have the bride and groom isolate themselves in a room for enough time to have sex tighter and consummate the marriage in this biblical way. The couple is encouraged not to have sex at this time because this is only a symbolic action. However, many Jews do have two witnesses outside the room who could attest that they (symbolically) had sex. This exclusion of the bride and groom is called in Hebrew yichud, “privacy” and “joining.”

The idea to continue a Jewish practice even though outdated and unnecessary occurs frequently in Judaism. The canopy and the privacy room are not the only ceremonies that continue an outdated practice. In ancient post-biblical times, marriage was performed in two stages: a betrothal, called kiddushin in Hebrew, a ceremony in which the couple promised to marry, which was followed around a year later by the nuptial ceremony, called erusin. The betrothal and the financial stipulations, called tena’im, that were made during the betrothal were solemnized by throwing a glass on the floor and shattering it.[3] This has changed. The betrothal and nuptial ceremonies are performed back to back today. While the breaking of the glass at the betrothal is unnecessary today since the nuptial ceremony follows the betrothal, many Jews do it today anyway.[4]

The custom today is that the wedding ring has no jewels on it to avoid the possibility that the bride may say later – even years later – that she had agreed to the marriage because she understood that she would receive a wedding ring that was valued at a certain amount but now she discovered that the ring is worth far less, and the marriage was based on an error and should be annulled.

In short, today’s marriage customs differ enormously from the biblical concept that a marriage is set when a couple has sex with the intention that they are doing so to form a marriage. Many changes were made, including establishing marriage with a ring. We also saw that while there is no conservative concept in Judaism requiring retaining outdated practices, this idea developed in the post-biblical period and is practiced in the wedding ceremony.


[1] Deuteronomy 22:13. Until 1958, Orthodox rabbis felt it was improper to talk about sex. In that year, my dad, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin, published “Marriage Made in Heaven,” which discussed marital laws and problems openly. Some rabbis criticized him for writing this book. However, the book sold widely and was reprinted both in English and in Hebrew. Dad’s book opened the issue and many books were later published in the Orthodox and other Jewish communities soon thereafter, including one by his brother-in-law, my uncle Rabbi Mendel Lewittes.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 2a and the following pages.

[3] Reminiscent of the groom breaking a glass at the end of the current marriage ceremony. The usual reason given for the breaking of the glass at the ceremony is to remember the destruction of Israel in 70 CE. The reason for the shattering of the glass at the betrothal is said to be a way of sealing the agreement. However, one my wonder: are both a superstitious curse: if you break the vows made today, may your life be shattered as this glass?

[4] Another example of the conservative nature of Judaism, of retaining an ancient practice that is no longer necessary simply because this is “as it was always done,” is the adding of an extra day to the holidays of Rosh Hashana, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.