A Few Words on Kiddushin

June 14, 2010
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Danya Ruttenberg

The traditional wedding ceremony has two parts: kiddushin (betrothal) and nisu’in (the finalization of the marriage). Though nisu’in and its seven special blessings that are recited under the wedding canopy merit much discussion, this essay and issue of Sh’ma will focus on kiddushin.

Within the kiddushin part of the ceremony, the groom hands the bride a ring and indicates explicitly that he is doing so with the intent to betroth her and thus performs an act of acquisition, of kinyan. The Mishnah (Kiddushin 1:1) explains, “A woman is acquired [in marriage] in three ways…She is acquired by money, by writ, or by intercourse. ‘By money,’ the House of Shammai maintains, ‘a dinar or the value of a dinar.’ The House of Hillel rules, ‘a p’ruta or the worth of a p’ruta.’” This idea is developed in the Gemarah (talmudic discussion) on this mishnah, when it asks,

How do we know that money effects betrothal? By deriving the meaning of “taking” from the field of Ephron. Here it is written, “A man takes a wife” (Deuteronomy 22:13) and there it is written, “I give you money for the field; take it from me” (Genesis 23:13). Moreover, “taking” is called acquisition, for it is written, “the field which Abraham acquired” (Genesis 49:30). Or, alternatively, “They will acquire fields with money” (Jeremiah 32:44). Therefore, it is taught, “A woman is acquired”… The mishnaic voice initially uses the language of the Torah [that is to say, of acquisition] and at the end uses the language of the rabbinic tradition [that is to say, of kiddushin]. And what does the language of the rabbinic tradition connote? That he [the groom] makes her forbidden to all [men] [miKuDeSHet] like something that is heKDeSH. (Kiddushin 2a-2b)

The text tells us that a woman is acquired in the betrothal ceremony, which is now performed as part of a wedding, in very much the same way that one might acquire a field — using the same means: money. This text also makes explicit the meaning of kiddushin. Contrary to popular sentiment that kiddushin derives from kadosh, to sanctify and render holy, [l’KDSH], the betrothal ritual is a way of dedicating the woman (making her hekdesh), rendering her forbidden to other men, just as an object dedicated (made hekdesh) to the Temple is forbidden for all other purposes.

In contemporary practice, this acquisition is generally executed by kinyan kesef [acquisition through money], most commonly by the groom’s placing of a ring (worth the value of a p’ruta or more) on the bride’s finger and reciting a formula of dedication/acquisition. The bride need not utter a word, as her silence is understood to be consent.

What is this acquisition? Some argue that the groom purchases the bride, noting the Mishnah and Talmud’s parallels to the acquisition of a slave, animal, or land. Others argue that he acquires not her entire being, but rather her sexuality, the right to monogamy. Still others argue that he acquires not her, but rather the obligations of husband to wife, including those to feed, clothe, and have intimate relations with her. (There is no parallel acquisition by the wife of the husband.)

Even in the best possible scenario, this process is decidedly unequal. The groom is actor and agent, acquiring responsibilities, and while the bride’s consent is required, her speech is not; she can be entirely passive. Few would agree that the husband’s acquisition of a wife is in accordance with our contemporary understanding of what marriage is or should be. Needless to say, the ritual also presumes the heterosexuality of the partners — their gender roles are necessary and built into the mechanisms at hand.

This issue of Sh’ma highlights some of the recent work on the kiddushin problem. Is there any way to have an egalitarian wedding ceremony in which nobody is acquired or, possibly, both partners acquire each other? What about a ceremony where both partners are actors, where gender is not the defining feature of the relationship or the ritual meant to formalize it? What recognizable features of the wedding ceremony might be adapted? How, and to what extent? At this point, there is no standard, no authorized formal ritual that a couple might undertake under the wedding canopy; we’re early in this process of study and experimentation. And given the range of ideas and attitudes about Jewish law, there may never be such a standard.

In rabbinical school, I became interested in this question and began cataloging through a blog* some of the approaches I was hearing and reading about and stumbling upon in my research; it was a way to make space for discussion and debate, to air the pros and cons, the problems and the potential applications of the various ideas being proposed. This, after all, is the age-old process through which Judaism grows, evolves, and reveals itself again and again.

*Her online notebook on kiddushin can be found at http://alternativestokiddushin.wordpress.com

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Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a Sh’ma Advisory Committee member, is senior Jewish educator at Tuft’s University Hillel. She is the author of Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, which was nominated for the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. She is editor of The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism and Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism, and co-editor, with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, of three books on Jewish ethics. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and son.

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