BIRCHAT ERUSIN

 

I. INTRODUCTION

As we have discovered over the course of the past several Chaburas, a typical Jewish wedding is composed of a wonderfully complex collection of laws and customs, rife with symbolism and significance. Having discussed much of the peripheral and more custom-oriented aspects of the procedures, we will now be covering the ceremony itself.

Before beginning with our study of the evolution of our current practices, a quick rundown of the terminology involved and the basic "game plan" of a Jewish marriage ceremony as it is commonly practiced in Ashkenazic circles today. The "mesader kiddushin" takes a cup of wine and says a "borei pri ha-gafen" on it. Before anyone drinks from the cup, he then says the birchat erusin (blessing of betrothal this week's focus), and then both the groom and bride are given the cup to take a sip. The groom then turns to the bride, and, in the presence of two valid witnesses, says "behold you are betrothed to me with this ring as per the law of Moses and Israel." He then slips the ring onto her finger, and the erusin (or kiddushin) segment is concluded.

It has become virtually a universal practice to have a break at this point to separate between the erusin and the nisu'in. This is generally accomplished with the reading of the ketubah (marriage contract) and possibly a speech. Neither of these procedures is necessary to effect the marriage, although it has become the custom for the groom to hand the ketubah to the bride (see J. David Bleich's article in Tradition 31:2 for more on this topic). The nisu'in, or formal marriage procedures, then occur. Seven blessings (sheva berachot next week's topic), beginning with borei pri ha-gafen on another cup of wine, are recited. After the final blessing is recited, the groom and bride are once again given the cup to sip from. This drinking marks the formal end of the ceremony, although it is generally followed the breaking of a glass as a memorial for the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem.

 

II. STAGE ONE BIRCHAT ERUSIN

As noted above, our focus this week will be the first half of the ceremony, known as the erusin, or betrothal. In the times of the Talmud, this took place roughly a year before the nisu'in and functioned a manner somewhat similar to our engagements. However, the couple was considered to be married to some degree, although the continued to live separately. Today, both the erusin and nisu'in are done together, an arrangement which, as we will see, will help to smooth over some of the trickier aspects of the blessing that is recited.

The gemara in Ketubot 7b cites a braita which states that "birchat chatanim (a.k.a. sheva berachot) are recited in the groom's house, and birchat erusin in the place of the erusin." The gemara then asks what the blessing recited by erusin is and responds with the following formulation: "Blessed are You...who made us holy and commanded us in the forbidden relations, and forbade to us betrothed women, and permitted to us married women via chupah and kiddushin." The gemara then relates a view that the blessing should be concluded with "Blessed are You...who sanctifies Israel via chupah and kiddushin." However, the gemara notes that it was not the universal practice to conclude with a second formulation of "Blessed are You."

This last point is crucial to our understanding of the blessing. The gemara says that one who does add such a closing formulation does so in a manner similar to kiddush on Shabbat, which ends with a second blessing. As Rashi notes, as both kiddush and kiddushin discuss the sanctification of the Jewish people, they are viewed in similar ways and the blessings are affected accordingly. However, one who omits this ending places the birchat erusin on par with a regular blessing, such as the ones made on fruit or on the performance of a mitzva, such as putting on tefillin. Rashi explains that since there is one singular thanks being given here to Hashem, no second blessing is needed.

This issue gets to the heart and soul of our topic. What kind of blessing are we dealing with here? In general, blessings are divided up into three categories: those said before performing certain mitzvot, those said in praise of Hashem, and those said before deriving pleasure from something such as food. Where does the birchat erusin fit in? This question is raised by Rosh, who assumes at first that we are dealing with a blessing on a mitzvah. However, if that is the case, he asks, then why do we make a blessing on something that has been forbidden to us? Furthermore, why do we mention the chupah at this point, if the chupah is not really a factor until the nisu'in (the fact that it all occurs under the chupah nowadays is merely a result of the fact that everything is done at once)? Rosh answers that this is not really a blessing on a mitzva, since the mitzva that is involved here is really that of procreation, which is not occurring at this moment and is not one for which a formal marriage is needed (since one could fulfill his obligation in this regard via a concubine when they were permitted). Instead, what we are dealing with here is a blessing of praise for Hashem for separating us from the other nations by commanding us to marry only certain women who are not deemed to be forbidden to us, and furthermore to only marry them via the process of chupah and kiddushin (this links to Rashi's statement at the beginning of Vayikra 19 that the term "kedusha" means being separate from forbidden relationships).

Mordechai approaches this issue from a slightly different angle. He raises the question of why we do not simply bless "who commanded us to betroth the woman," similar to the formulation used by lighting Chanukah candles and reading the Megilla on Purim? He answers that since the betrothal is not the conclusion of the mitzva, there is thus no regular birchat ha-mitzva recited on it. What is notable here is the fact that Mordechai seems to assume that the appropriate blessing here would be of the category of blessings said upon performing commandments. Rashba adds that even though this is not actually the mitzva, since marriage is a concept that has its roots in the Torah, it is considered to be important enough to merit its own blessing. Ritva offers two perspectives on this point. He suggests, like Rosh, that there is no birchat ha-mitzva to be said here. Alternatively, he cites Ramban who says that there should be a birchat ha-mitzva here but since this is not the conclusion of the mitzva it is not said. He also cites Rabbeinu Yonah, who rules that the birchat ha-mitzva is left out since the completion of this act depends on both parties, and since the one making the blessing cannot be sure that both will carry through with the betrothal until it is done, no birchat ha-mitzva is said (a similar logic is employed to explain why there is no blessing said on the giving of tzedaka).

 

III. WHERE IS RING FINGER?

Another issue connected to the mitzva status of the birchat erusin is when it is done in relation to the erusin itself, i.e. the placing of the ring on the finger of the woman. We have a general principle that all blessings made on mitzvot are made immediately before the act is done ("oveir la'asiyatan"). If that were to be the case here, then we would expect to first say the blessing, and then perform the formal erusin. Rosh brings down a debate on this point. He cites one view that this should be viewed as a regular birchat ha-mitzva and thus it must be said before the ring is placed on the woman's finger. However, he also cites a second opinion which worries that the woman will refuse the ring and thus the blessing will turn out to be a false invoking of the divine name. Thus, this opinion rules that the blessing should be said only once the ring has been given over to the woman. This view can be seen either as a relaxation of the general rule of "oveir la'asiyatan" due to our fear of a worthless blessing, or it can be seen as viewing the birchat erusin as less that a full-fledged birchat ha-mitzva. While Rambam and Ramban hold that the blessing should come first, Ritva and Rashba assume the approach that the birchat erusin is not a birchat ha-mitzva at all, and thus can come after the erusin.

 

IV. TWO'S COMPANY, TEN'S A CROWD

Finally, there is the issue of how many people are needed to be present for the birchat erusin. We know that ten men are needed for the saying of sheva berachot do we have the same requirement here, or do we need only the two witnesses to the act? Rav Shmuel HaNagid rules that in fact ten are not required for erusin, and thus two valid witnesses will suffice. The Sheiltot argues and claims that ten men are needed for the erusin. While the Tur brings down both views, Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch both rule that it is preferable to have a minyan for the erusin, although they note that the groom counts as one of the ten. The Be'er Heitev cites the Maharam Mintz who rules that relatives count as well, even though they would not be valid as witnesses.

Finally, the Beit Shmuel and others note the practice of having what we now call a "mesader kiddushin," namely a person other than the groom to say the birchat erusin. This practice arose as a means of avoiding embarrassment for those who were unable to say the blessing on their own. While it does not come up in earlier sources, it is mentioned in many of the commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch and is the common practice today.

As would be expected, I have not finished all that there is to say on the topic of birchat erusin. Much of what remains are issues that relate to the text of the blessing itself. There are several debates in this area, all of them revealing with regard to what people feel the blessing means. Unless there is a strong protest, I will discuss those issues next week and hold off on the issue of sheva berachot until after Chanukah.

 

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