Tenaim: The Conditions of Marriage

Contemporary couples are reinterpreting an old ceremony that set the financial and logistical arrangements for an upcoming marriage

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The celebration of your decision to marry doesn't "require" that anything be put on paper at all, but some couples have used this occasion to formalize decisions about their married life, including some regarding very specific subjects, such as money management, job decisions in a two-career household, moving to another part of the country or making aliyah (settling in Israel), raising children, and agreeing to counseling in case of difficulties. While this may sound very nontraditional, in fact, tenaim documents have historically included clauses and amendments that reflected current and personal concerns.

A modern document can be written in English or in Hebrew and English and can draw on the language and execution of traditional tenaim. It can be calligraphied, witnessed, and formalized by the act of kinyan, a symbolic exchange of some object that seals a contract and effects a change in personal status. Or tenaim can be handwritten or typed and entirely original. You can read your "contract" before a community of family and friends at a party or keep it private. Written tenaim might simply consist of letters the bride and groom write and perhaps exchange at their engagement celebration. These could be read the night before the wedding ceremony or on another occasion--a wedding anniversary, for example.

A party to announce the news of a Jewish wedding can be simple or elaborate, formal or casual.

Modem tenaim celebrations often involve improvisational rituals, sometimes structured around recognizable Jewish symbols, sometimes rooted in family traditions, and sometimes altogether original.

A Havdalah Tenaim

Barbara and Brian knew that circumstances would prevent them from being together for quite a while. They decided to make an agreement, in the presence of witnesses, that they would marry "in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel" within 12 months of their residing in the same household. They promised that until such time they would support and care for each other, visit and communicate as often as possible, and in case of a serious personal problem, they would attempt a reconciliation. They wrote this agreement in Hebrew and in English, with room for their signatures and the signatures of two witnesses.

They sent invitations to friends and family to come and celebrate their tenaim. The invitations included an explanation of the ceremony and a quote from Hosea 2:21: "I will betroth you forever. I will betroth you with righteousness and justice and with goodness and mercy." Their tenaim was structured around havdalah, the ceremony on Saturday evening that separates Shabbat [Sabbath] from the rest of the week and that celebrates distinctions. After Barbara explained the history of tenaim, she lit two separate candles rather than the customary braided havdalah candle.

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Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.