Ani Li’Dodi vi’Dodi Li: Towards a More Balanced Wedding Ceremony

by Rabbi Dov Linzer

From the chatan’s tisch, to the chatan’s giving of the ring, to the sheva berachot, men play a more prominent role in the traditional wedding ceremony than women. This can be troubling for couples who, while wishing to be respectful of tradition and community, are also looking for ways to have a ceremony that reflects their vision of marriage as an equal partnership.

In this article, I would like to discuss some opportunities that exist within halakha for creating a more balanced wedding ceremony. As with any area of halakha, there is a range of opinions, and these issues need to be discussed with the couple’s officiating rabbi. Beyond halakha, tradition plays an important role in linking an individual to his or her community and to previous generations. Couples should work to achieve not only an appropriate balance between the sexes, but also the appropriate balance between tradition and innovation as well. 

Tisch and T’naim

In addition to the chatan’s tisch, the kallah can hold a tisch of her own. This is now becoming more common at Modern Orthodox weddings. The kallah’s tisch can be as simple as the kallah and her friends and family singing and sharing good wishes. It can also be an opportunity for the kallah or a friend to deliver a d’var Torah. In addition, some of the wedding documents can be signed at the kallah’s tisch. The marriage license can be filled out there, although it usually cannot be signed until after the ceremony. More significantly, the kallah can sign her part of the prenuptial agreement1 and have it witnessed and notarized by women friends or relatives. To avoid last minute complications, when I officiate at a wedding, I always require that the couple draft a prenuptial agreement and have it signed and notarized at least a week prior to the wedding. In such a case, there can be a reading of the prenuptial agreement at the kallah’s tisch

The t’naim document is a vestige of a time when weddings were arranged by the parents of the bride and the groom. After the match was agreed upon, each father obligated himself to incur financial penalties if his child backed out prior to the marriage, and these obligations were written up in the t’naim document. Inasmuch as the t’naim document relates equally to the bride and groom, its execution can be transferred to the kallah’s tisch. The ceremony can also be divided between the two tisches, with the signing done at one tisch and the breaking of the plate at the other. Finally, there is no reason that the mothers of the bride and groom cannot be the obligating parties in addition to the fathers. The mothers can have their names included in the t’naim and together with the fathers can perform the kinyan (acceptance of obligation).

Unlike t’naim, the ketubah is the central document of the marriage and it consists of the husband’s obligations to his wife. As such, its kinyan and witnessing are traditionally done at the chatan’s tisch. While these formalities cannot be moved to the kallah’s tisch, the ketubah can be executed prior to the tisch or even under the chuppah in the presence of the kallah (see below, The Giving of the Ring). In addition, a rider can be added to the ketubah that contains the obligations that the bride makes to the groom (see below, The Ketubah). If this is done, then the kinyan and witnessing (with kosher, male witnesses) of the rider can be done at the kallah’s tisch as well.

The Bedeken

The tisch is followed by the chatan walking amidst dancing and singing to the kallah, where he performs the act of bedeken, or lowering the veil over the kallah’s face. Couples who would like to make this ceremony more reciprocal, may choose to incorporate a parallel act in which the kallah places a new tallit on the chatan.

The Procession

After the bedeken, the chatan and kallah walk with their parents to the chuppah. The couple may wish to adopt the practice where the chatan leaves the chuppah, greets the kallah midway down the aisle, and the two of them then walk together to the chuppah

In many Ashkenazic communities, though not all, the common practice today is for the kallah to make seven circuits around the chatan. This is not practiced at all in Sephardic communities. A couple can choose to forgo these circuits or add circuits of the chatan around the kallah. Other variations are possible. Recently, I attended a wedding where the chatan and kallah separately circled the empty space under the chuppah, as a way of consecrating it as their space, and then entered the chuppah together.

The Giving of the Ring

The act of kiddushin consists of the groom giving a ring to the bride in front of witnesses and saying הרי את מקודשת לי... Traditionally, the bride’s role is limited to silently accepting the ring. The bride who wishes to play more of an active role may do so in a number of ways:

• The chatan may address the kallah using her name:  ...רבקה, הרי את מקודשת לי. ”Rivka, behold you are betrothed to me...“. This can have a profound personalizing effect.

• The chatan may ask for the bride’s permission to perform the kiddushin, indicating her participatory role in the kiddushin: ...רבקה, ברשותך וברצונך, הרי את מקודשת לי, ”Rivka, with your permission and desire, behold you are betrothed to me...“

• Provided the groom first makes his requisite statement, the bride can respond by verbally accepting the ring, with language such as, הריני מקבלת טבעת זו ומקודשת לך כדת משה וישראל, ”Behold I accept this ring and am betrothed unto you, according to the law of Moses and Israel.“2

Beyond these relatively minor adjustments to the kiddushin, a growing number of couples would like to have an actual exchange of rings. In response to such a query in 1970, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt“l ruled that a bride’s giving of a ring to the groom would not invalidate the groom’s properly executed kiddushin, even if done immediately afterwards (Iggrot Moshe, Even Ha’Ezer, 3:18). Nevertheless, he held that it was still impermissible to perform such a ceremony. Rabbi Feinstein’s primary concern was that to do so would be misrepresentative and mislead people as to what constitutes halakhic kiddushin

As a result of this ruling, rabbis who agree to perform two ring ceremonies insist that the bride give her ring to the groom in a way that makes it clear that it is not part of the kiddushin. Thus, the bride will not be allowed to say any kiddushin—like language, such as וארשתיך לי לעולם, ”I have betrothed you to me forever,“ and in most cases rabbis will insist that the ring be given after sheva berachot, well after the kiddushin has been completed. Some rabbis will allow the ring to be given immediately after the kiddushin, but will make a clear declaration beforehand, along the lines of ”Now that the kiddushin has been completed, Rivkah will give Yitzchak a ring as a symbol of her love and affection.“3

I share R. Moshe Feinstein’s concerns, and insist on similar parameters. However, this continues to marginalize the bride’s giving of the ring. One solution is for the bride and groom to exchange rings after the sheva berachot and make mutual statements of love and commitment, in addition to the ring that the groom gives the bride as the act of kiddushin.

A more elegant solution is possible. The practice in Sephardic communities and in Jerusalem is for the groom to assume his ketubah obligations under the chuppah, immediately following the kiddushin. This obligation is assumed through an act of kinyan, classically performed by the groom taking an object (often a handkerchief or a pen) from the officiating rabbi in the presence of witnesses. However, since the groom is obligating himself to the bride, it is actually more appropriate that the bride, and not the rabbi, give him the object.4 This object can be a ring. 

This is how such a ceremony would look: Immediately after the kiddushin, the witnesses are called, and it is explained that they are to witness the bride giving a ring to the chatan, upon receipt of which the chatan will undertake his ketubah obligations to the bride. The bride then gives a ring to the groom, stating תקבל טבעת זו ותתחייב לי בכל חיובי כתובה כדת משה וישראל, ”Accept this ring and obligate yourself to me with all the ketubah obligations, according to the law of Moses and Israel.“ The groom accepts the ring, and the witnesses sign the ketubah.

Such a ceremony makes it explicit that the bride is not doing an act of kiddushin, but rather initiating the groom’s acceptance of the ketubah obligations. It allows for the bride’s giving of the ring to take place immediately after the kiddushin, to be done with significant ceremony (witnesses and the signing of the ketubah) and to play a central halakhic role. Inasmuch as the institution of the ketubah helped make the wife more of a subject within the marriage (see below, The Ketubah), using the ketubah to create a two ring ceremony is particularly apt and in keeping with the spirit of the halakha

The Ketubah

The ketubah is traditionally read between the giving of the ring and the sheva berachot. The purpose of this reading is to separate the two halves of the ceremony: the kiddushin (formal betrothal) and the nissuin (the chuppah, symbolizing the couple’s shared life together). A woman can be honored with the reading of the ketubah,and this has already been done at a number of Orthodox weddings. In regards to the ketubah text there are more issues. In Ashkenazic communities, the ketubah is more of a ritual object than an actual contract, and its text is considered relatively fixed. In Sephardic communities, the ketubah is a living document whose text has evolved over the years and is more fluid. While it is important not to overly alter the ketubah text, some minor adjustments can be made without difficulty. 

• Use of mother’s names following father’s name (e.g.,יעקב בן יצחק ורבקה). This is a more precise identification, and is no different than the use of family names

• דהנעלת לה מבי אבוה, ”property that she brings in from her father’s house“ can be replaced with , דהנעלת לה מבי אבוה ואמה (that she brings in from her father’s and mother’s house), דהנעלת לה מדנפשה (that she brings in of her own), or with דהנעלת לה (that she brings in), as appropriate. This is already the practice in Sephardic ketubot.

• בתולתא, ”virgin“. It is currently the practice to use this description for the woman’s first wedding, regardless of her personal status. This description is not essential and may be either be totally eliminated, or replaced with a generic phrase such as לכלה היקרה (to the dear bride) 6, 7.

Beyond these minor adjustments, there is the possibility of adding additional stipulations prior to the phrase וכך אמר יעקב בן יצחק חתן דנן, as is the practice in Sephardic communities. The groom can insert a statement that he will not take a second wife or divorce his wife against her will, in accordance with the ban of Rabbeinu Gershom, with language such as:8 עוד התחייב לה שלא ישא ולא יקדש שום אשת אחרת עליה בחייה כחרם רגמ"ה. This space can also be used to insert phrases of mutual love, support, and commitment. Of course, any new language needs to be carefully reviewed by a competent halakhic authority.

For couples who are disturbed by the unequal nature of the financial obligations in the ketubah, additional modifications are possible. For its time, the ketubah was quite progressive, ensuring that the wife was treated as a person and was provided for during and after the marriage. The Rabbis, through the ketubah, obligated the husband to pay specific sums if he divorced (or predeceased) her, thus ensuring that a husband did not treat his wife as property, to be disposed of at will.9 The ketubah also protected the wife’s interests by requiring the husband to provide her with lodging, clothes and food, in exchange for which he is entitled to her earnings. However, these ongoing obligations may be modified, and a marriage contract that speaks of shared earnings and shared financial responsibilities is indeed possible within halakha.

The halakha states that since the husband’s obligations were instituted for the benefit of the woman, the woman is entitled to waive them.10 If they are waived, the wife would be entitled to her own earnings, and be financially responsible only to herself, and the same would obtain for the husband. They could both then obligate themselves to share their earnings and to share the financial obligations of the household. These stipulations are currently being implemented in Israel, in the context of an external rider to the ketubah, with the approval of recognized poskim (religious authorities).11 For the sake of preserving the standard ketubah text, especially in regards to its basic financial obligations, these stipulations are not being inserted into the ketubah text itself. Couples wishing to use such a rider need to review the issue closely with a competent halakhist.

Sheva Berachot

The issue of women reciting sheva berachot under the chuppah and at the meal has already been discussed in the literature.12 Whether the language of the Shulkhan Arukh (Even Ha’Ezer 62:4- 5) allows women to make sheva berachot is debated. The primary conceptual question is whether these blessings are the obligation of the groom or of the community. If they are the groom’s obligation, it is problematic for a woman, who is never obligated in these blessings, to make them on behalf of the groom.13 If it is the community’s obligation, a woman may be able to make the blessings. It seems clear that sheva berachot during the meal are the community’s obligation, and there is a good basis to claim that they can be made by women. Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin rules this way in principle,14 and a number of Orthodox rabbis have begun to allow women to recite sheva berachot at the meal.

In contrast, the sheva berachot under the chuppah have greater halakhic significance than those at the meal15 and there is also more reason to believe that these may be the obligation of the groom. These blessings, then, should be made by men. Women can still participate by calling men and women in pairs for each blessing, with the man reciting the Hebrew text and the woman reciting an English translation.16,17

Conclusion

It is my hope that these suggestions will assist couples in creating a wedding ceremony that reflects their view of marriage as an equal partnership. Nevertheless, it is not the intent of this article to suggest that these variations be adopted automatically or that they all be implemented in any one wedding. Each couple should consider any such changes carefully, working with their m’sader kiddushin to address not only the halakhic issues, but to determine the proper balance between innovation and tradition as well.


1. The prenuptial agreement currently used consists of two parts, the Groom’s Obligation and the Binding Arbitration. The Groom’s Obligation has to be signed by the groom, and can take place at the chatan’s tisch or prior to the wedding. The Binding Arbitration has to be signed by both parties. The groom can sign his part prior to the wedding or at the chatan’s tisch, and the bride can sign her part at her tisch. Both documents needs to witnessed and signed, and should be notarized as well.

2. See Kiddushin 12b, Shulkhan Arukh, Even Ha’Ezer, 27:8 and Otzar Haposkim, ad. loc. See also הנישואין כהלכתם on 7:39, pp. 223-4, where the author indicates that verbal acceptance is preferable to implicit silent acceptance.

3. See Joel Wolowelsky, Women, Jewish Law, and Modernity, Ktav (New Jersey), 1997, p.68.

4. See Shulkhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat, 195:1,3.

5. See Rabbi Yehudah Herzl Henkin, B’nei Banim, III:27.

6. See the Kolech website, www.kolech.org, for an example of a ketubah with the phrase בתולתא removed. The Kolech ketubah was prepared under the direction of Rabbi Eliyahu Knoll.

7. It should be noted that the absence of the phrase בתולתא may raise questions in the future as to whether this was a first wedding for the bride. This would be a concern if she becomes widowed from this marriage and then wishes to marry a kohen. Based on similar considerations, if the woman has been divorced or is a convert, there needs to be some textual indication in the ketubah as to her personal status.

8. This is already the practice in Sephardic communities and has been integrated into the Kolech ketubah.

9. See Ketubot 11a, and P’nei Yehoshua to Ketubot 39b. For a full treatment, see Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice, Westview Press (Colorado), 1998, pp. 62-68.

10. See Ketubot 58b, and Shulkhan Arukh, Even Ha’Ezer, 69:4.

11. An example of such a rider can be found on the Kolech website, www.kolech.org, where additional clauses are inserted so that it serves also as a prenuptial agreement.

12. See Wolowlesky, pp. 66-69 and B’nei Banim, III:27.

13. It is easier, if not unproblematic, to understand how another man might make a blessing for the groom, since he is at least someone who might become or has already been obligated in its recital (the halakhic principles of mechuyav bedavar and misheyatza motzi). A full discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of this article.

14. B’nei Banim III:27.

15. See, for example, Rashi, Ketubot 7b, s.v. shemityached imah, quoting Masechet Kallah, 1:1. See also Beit Shmuel, 62:4; Resp. Noda BiYehuda, Kamma, Even Ha’Ezer 56; and Resp. Heichal Yitzchak, Even Ha’Ezer, 2:28.

16. The English translation would not be considered a vkyck vfrc, see Iggrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim, II:49.

17. In fact, if a woman recites the Hebrew text and a man the English translation (provided that it is an accurate one), the obligation would still be fulfilled through the man’s recitation, as we rule that a blessing made in translation is valid (See Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, 101:4, 185:1. and 206:3). In this case there still would be a concern that the woman’s blessing, if invalid, would be for naught, a vkyck vfrc. This, in turn, would hinge on how one understands that Shulkhan Arukh’s ruling regarding women’s qualification to say sheva berachot, but there would be fewer issues at stakes.

 

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva and Head of Academics of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York (www.yctorah.org). Rabbi Linzer lectures widely at synagogues and conferences on topics relating to halakha, Orthodoxy, and modernity

 

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