"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"I was at an Orthodox engagement party. What was the significance of the lifting of the handkerchief? Why didn't he give her a ring? Isn't that a Jewish custom?"


Certainly a ring plays a central element in a Jewish marriage ceremony, where the groom must give the bride something of clear monetary value. Its use is not one of our oldest customs though; we can trace it back only about a thousand years.1 Maimonides mentions the giving of a ring as an established custom in his time (800 years ago) for publicly marking the consecration of a relationship, yet it does not seem to have been the object employed for that in the Talmudic period. But in any case, a ring should not be presented at the "engagement" party; the proper time is at the "betrothal."

These two terms are placed in quotes, because even though their current meanings in English are nearly identical, I'm using them as loose translations for specific referents in Jewish law. All in all, there are four distinct steps in the Jewish progression from match to marriage, although sometimes two or even three of them may take place concurrently.

The first stage is shidduchin ["marriage negotiations"]. Colloquially, the term shidduchin has come to refer to the process of meeting and serious dating for the purpose of exploring the possibility of marriage. Nevertheless, its original usage is the negotiations that precede the contractual agreement between the two sides.

At this plateau, the man and woman have mutually pledged to marry, but this agreement is not yet legally binding. Of course, such a pledge has strong moral force, but if one or both sides should decide to break it off, there are no legal penalties. This would correspond to what we today call "engagement," even one that is announced to be "official."

After this comes tenayim [agreed terms], where economic agreements between the two sides are written down and witnessed.

The next stage is called kiddushin [consecration] or erusin [betrothal]. It is intermediate between "engagement" and "full" marriage as we know it. Although during this betrothal stage the man and woman still live apart, they are considered married to the extent that if they subsequently decide not to wed, a formal divorce is required to sever their relationship and the woman usually receives the full value of her ketubah [marriage contract]. All the strictures relating to adultery also apply to this stage, just as in marriage.2 In the old days, it was this state of betrothal that was implied by the expression "engagement." There is no secular equivalent.

Finally there is nissuin [marriage],3 after which the couple lives together in a full state of marriage.4

In ancient times, and until just a few hundred years ago, there was often a waiting period of at least a year between betrothal and the wedding,5 ostensibly to allow the bride sufficient time to arrange her trousseau and otherwise prepare herself. It is because of this time gap that we tend to confuse today's long engagements with yesteryear's betrothals. The giving of the ring in front of two qualified witnesses at "betrothal" publicly consecrates the relationship as legally binding. That is why we do not have a ring-giving ceremony (or any other public exchange of presents) at "engagement," since to do so could cause a legally binding relationship to be established, and this could turn out to be premature and undesirable. Any exchange of gifts between the couple at this stage should be done in private, and perhaps even indirectly, through agents.

Then, however, most people married at a younger age than now, usually as teenagers. Nowadays, when people marry much later, a long waiting period is not practical. Therefore, the betrothal ceremony is usually conducted under the chupah [wedding canopy], just before the wedding celebration. That is when he puts the ring on her finger and announces: "Harei aht mekudeshet li b'taba'at zu l'fi dat Moshe v'Yisrael"--"Behold! With this ring you are sanctified for me according to the law of Moses and Israel."

In contrast, the only ceremony at most engagement celebrations is the raising of a handkerchief6 between representatives of the respective families and the prospective bride and groom. This corresponds, roughly, to a firm handshake. Even without any formal ceremony, the accompanying festive meal in itself constitutes an "official" announcement of the engagement.

In some circles, tenayim takes place together with shidduchin. Most, however, prefer to avoid anything of a formal contractual nature at this early stage. They usually wait to conduct the tenayim on the same day as the wedding, when both extended families are getting together anyway. Then, it usually takes place either much earlier in the day, or else at the very beginning of the reception, before the signing of the ketubah7 and the veiling of the bride.

All this should not be construed as a license to make engagements lightly or to break them unilaterally, just because they lack the status of "betrothal." If for some reason it is necessary to dissolve the relationship, it should be done as amicably as possible, and with mutual forgiveness on both sides.

By the way, the festive meal at the engagement party is officially considered a mitzvah occasion, so mazal tov, you scored another good deed! Interestingly, there are certain periods of the year that are so joyful, such as festivals, or so somber, such as the Nine Days of Av, that we don't allow weddings during them so as to not detract from the theme of the day. Even so, no day is so special that you cannot finalize an engagement on it.

"Even Yom Kipur?" you may be wondering. If so, you will be amazed to learn that in biblical times specifically Yom Kipur, along with Tu b'Av [15th of the month of Av], was considered a prime date for making matches!8 I hope you find all these ideas inspiring, but please don't let them interfere with your concentration on your prayers in shul this Yom Kipur!

Yrachmiel Tilles

1. We do not generalize from the episode where the matriarch Rivka received a nose-ring [Gen. 24:22], as that involved a complicated set of unique circumstances.
2. Kiddushin can also be translated as "separation"--for each other, no longer an available single.
3. lit., "elevation."
4. Happily ever after (with G-d's help)! The root meaning of shidduchin in Aramaic is "tranquility"
[Shidduchim & Zivugim (Rabbi Yehudah Lebovits, Targum Press), p.2].
5. Gen. 24:55 and major commentaries.
6. Chassidim will often use a gartel [prayer sash].
7. Notarization of the ketubah by certified witnesses also legally binds the relationship, as does testimony by qualified witnesses that the couple was alone for a while together in a closed room. It is rare, however, that either of these two methods is conducted with the same sort of public fanfare as the giving of the ring.
8. Taanit 4:8.

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