Erusin: The First of the Two Ceremonies

Erusin, the ancient betrothal ceremony, includes two blessings and the ring ceremony, and is followed by the reading of the marriage contract.

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Formalizing the Marriage With a Ring

At this point in the traditional ceremony, the groom performs the specific act that formalizes the marriage. Today it is customary for the groom to place a ring on the index finger of his bride's right hand and to recite in Hebrew a phrase that means, "Behold, by this ring you are consecrated to me as my wife according to the laws of Moses and Israel." Once again, the words "according to the laws of Moses and Israel" suggest the themes of covenant and community, central throughout the ceremony.

This phrasing, now standard in virtually all Jewish communities, was not the only one suggested by the tradition, however. Other known versions include "Behold, you are reserved to me... " and "according to the laws of Moses and the Jews."

Instead of a ring, it used to be permissible for the groom to give the bride a detailed deed, and he could then recite the phrase "Behold, you are consecrated to me with the deed.... " As long as the bride accepted the deed with the intention of becoming his wife, the marriage was valid. Even the act of sexual intercourse was at one point a valid means of marrying a woman. In front of two halakhically acceptable witnesses, a man could say to a woman, "Behold, you are consecrated to me with this [following] act of sexual intercourse according to the laws of Moses and Israel," whereupon he took her to a private place to consummate their union. Although this process led to a valid marriage, for obvious reasons the sages of the Talmud condemned it, calling it prostitution; they insisted that anyone who employed this method of kiddushin should be flogged.

In earlier times, too, various items, including fruits and a prayerbook, could be used to symbolize the betrothal, though today a ring is the most common token. Even so, the nature of that ring is still regulated by Jewish law. It must belong to the groom, and it has to have at least some value, since it substitutes for money that might also have been given to the bride. Tradition requires that the ring not have gems on it, which would make its value difficult for the bride to assess. Similarly, while the ring may be decorated, the decorations should not be cut out of the ring, for the circularity and solidity of the metal suggest the permanence of the relationship now being created.

Egalitarian Approaches to the Ring Ceremony

In recent decades, the bride's role during the ring ceremony has been much discussed. Should she remain silent and relatively passive, as was the case in the traditional ceremony and continues to be the practice in Orthodox circles, or can she also "betroth" her future husband in some sense?

From the strict point of view of Jewish law, the bride cannot betroth the husband; traditional communities, therefore, do not permit the woman to say to the groom, "Behold, you are consecrated to me.... " But it is not uncommon, particularly in Conservative circles, for the bride to say something to the groom, usually quoting a biblical verse that speaks of love, relationship, or commitment. In such cases, the bride may also present the groom with a ring, for as the Talmud explains, it is permissible for the bride to give the groom gifts under the huppah.

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Rabbi Daniel Gordis

Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis is Director of the Jerusalem Fellows program and a member of the Senior Staff of the Mandel Foundation Sector on Jewish Education and Continuity. His most recent book, on the demise of peace in Israel, is entitled If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches from an Anxious State; other books include God Was Not in the Fire: The Search for a Spiritual Judaism.