Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Ki Teze

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
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Parashat Ki Teze 5758/1998

Understanding the Betrothal Benediction

Dr. Jacob Gartner

Department of Talmud

The verse in this week's reading, "A man takes a wife( ki yiqah ish isha)..." (Deut. 24:1), has been interpreted by some who have compiled lists of the commandments in the Torah as indicating that the Torah commands us to betroth a woman before marrying her.[1] In accordance with this view we can understand the custom of reciting the following blessing before betrothal or kiddushin:[2] "Blessed art thou,..., who hast hallowed us by thy commandments and commanded us concerning forbidden marriages; who has disallowed unto us those that are betrothed (ha-arusot), but hast sanctioned unto us such as are wedded to us (ha-nesuot lanu) by the rite of the nuptial canopy and the sacred covenant of wedlock." This is a benediction belonging to the class of those recited prior to performing a commandment, like the benedictions said before laying tefillin or eating in the Sukkah.

The formulation of this benediction raised several questions among the early halakhic authorities (Rishonim). For example, Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel (Rosh), 1250-1327, asked (Ketubbot 12):

The formulation of this benediction raises several questions. Why does one not say "who hast hallowed us by thy commandments, and commanded us to consecrate (lekaddesh) a wife"? Moreover, where else is a benediction recited over what the Lord has forbidden us? For example, we do not make a benediction on being forbidden to eat live animals but permitted that which has been slaughtered. Moreover, why mention forbidden marriages here? Moreover, why mention the bridal canopy here (al yede huppah ve-kiddushin), since the canopy is the next phase of the ceremony, the nissuim, and is not related to the betrothal or erusin/kiddushin?

This is the explanation of the Rosh's words: If this is a benediction over performance of a commandment, Rosh points out that one would expect it to specify the commandment to take a wife, but this item is surprisingly lacking in the benediction. Moreover, the things said in the benediction are themselves obscure. Why mention the proscription against forbidden marriages and taking a betrothed woman, and why, at the time of betrothal, mention the bridal canopy which is the next stage in taking a wife and is not part of betrothal itself?[3]

Rosh therefore concludes, "This benediction is not a Birkhat ha-Mitzvot, on performing a commandment, since being fruitful and multiplying [and not the marriage] is the fulfillment of the commandment... This benediction was made to praise the Lord [Birkhat Shevah ve-Hodaya] for sanctifying us by His commandments and setting us apart from other peoples, commanding us to marry those women who are permitted to us and not those who are forbidden us." Since it is difficult to understand the full intent of Rosh in these brief remarks, we shall supplement them with the comments of R. Menahem ha-Meiri in his novellae on Tractate Ketubbot:

The main point of the benediction is about marriage, which is one of the positive commandments. Be that as it may, the benediction expands on praise and thanksgiving to the Lord since mating is a matter of supreme sanctity, and we are not to be alone with a woman without betrothal, as was the custom prior to receiving the Torah. Therefore we give praise and thanksgiving to G-d for sanctifying us and keeping us away from forbidden relationships, which include living with a woman without betrothal, a Rabbinic injunction... The benediction is not over the prohibition [to live with one's betrothed] but over the sanctity that devolves on us from the proscription, ... we praise G-d for increasing our sanctity, since ultimately even our betrothed are forbidden to us until the nuptial knot is tied in the rite of the nuptial canopy and wedlock (huppah ve-kiddushin).

This explains the purpose and content of the blessing, but its conclusion remains perplexing. Why does it mention huppah, the bridal canopy, before kiddushin, contrary to the order of the rites in taking a wife? This was discussed by Rosh and ha-Meiri, but before we get to their comments it should be mentioned that the original conclusion of the benediction, according to the practice in the land of Israel, appears to have been simply "who hallowest thy people Israel," without the added words, "by the rite of the nuptial canopy and the covenant of wedlock." But even in our text, the formulation of the betrothal blessing should not pose a problem, since the Talmud itself says (Ketubbot 7b), " who hallowest his people Israel by huppah and kiddushin."

It is not quite so simple, however. The full complexity of the problem can be seen from the response of Rav Hai Gaon to the question whether the conclusion of the betrothal blessing is simply "who hallowest Israel" or "who hallowest Israel by huppah and kiddushin"? Rav Hai answered this question as follows (Ginzei Kedem, 4, p. 47):

The conclusion in the gemara is explicit: Rav Aha son of Rava, in the name of Rabbi Judah, concludes "who hallowest Israel." That has also been the concluding formulation in the two yeshivot [in Babylonia] from the time of the earliest sages to this day. The addition that you have been making only detracts, since the sanctity of Israel is not dependent on this. Therefore you should go back to the original halakhah and our minhag agreed to by all.

We see from here that according to the Rosh, the Talmud did not read as it does in our versions-- it had the closing "who hallowest Israel" and no more!

The conclusion of the benediction posed a problem not only for the person who addressed the query, but also for R. Isaac Alfasi (Rif, a great halakhic authority of the 11th century). Nahmanides notes in his insights on Tractate Ketubbot: "In the rulings of Rif I found the formulation 'who hallowest Israel by huppah and kiddushin.' But in his own handwriting, the Rif erased the words huppah and kiddushin and this is the true version."

Indeed, there is evidence that this was the accepted formulation in Spain. The French talmudic scholar R. Moses of Coucy notes (SeMaG mitzva 48), "In western cities the concluding formulation is none other than, 'who hallowest Israel.'" About fifty year later R. Aharon ha-Cohen wrote in Orhot Hayyim (p. 64), "It is the practice (to conclude with 'who hallowest Israel') in all the provinces of Catalonia." All this attests to the version in Spanish manuscripts on the question in Tractate Ketubbot dealing with the betrothal blessing.

Light is shed on the conflict between this Spanish version and the version we have in Tractate Ketubbot ("who hallowest Israel by huppah and kiddushin) by an interesting passage in R. Menahem ha-Meiri's Magen Avot. This book was written to defend certain practices in Provence against criticism by Nahmanides' disciples. Ha-Meiri wrote there as follows ( Y. Cohen ed., p. 69):

I was told in the name of that Rabbi (Nahmanides), that he instituted the practice of concluding with the benediction "who hallowest Israel," without "by huppah and kiddushin." I answered them, how mighty you are, that you add and detract, changing formulations as you wish!? Is the question not made clear in the first chapter of Ketubbot, "What is the blessing?... and we conclude with "who hallowest Israel by huppah and kiddushin"? So, too, in Tractate Kallah, ... Be that as it may, later I found their version of the conclusion written in the Sephardic halakhot of R. Alfasi. Nevertheless, we hold by our view for the reasons given.

The version, "who hallowest Israel by huppah and kiddushin," which Ha-Meiri preferred was the accepted formulation in France and Ashkenaz in the time of the rishonim (early halakhic authorities),[4] and this is the formulation given by R. Moses Isserles in the Shulhan Arukh.

Now we return to the explanation given by those who accepted the version, "who hallowest Israel by huppah and kiddushin," as to the order of the words huppah and kiddushin. Would not kiddushin and huppah match the order in which these rites are performed?

Rosh, continuing the remarks we cited above, addressed this q: "It mentions forbidding us the betrothed and permitting us those wed by huppah and kiddushin, so that a person not make the mistake of saying that the blessing of kiddushin was instituted to make her permissible to him. Therefore huppah is mentioned to say that it is precisely the benediction [of nissuin] under the bridal canopy that makes her permitted to him as a bride.

"For this very same reason, huppah is mentioned before kiddushin, to indicate that we are permitted those who are wed to us by the rite of huppah, which comes after the benediction of kiddushin." According to Rosh, after the Sages saw fit to establish a benediction of praise to the Almighty about the sanctity of kiddushin before the act of betrothal, there was the danger that the public in general, including the bride and groom, might think that betrothal benediction alone was a Birkhat Ha-Mitzva and sufficed to permit the couple to live together as man and wife; but this contradicts the ruling of the Sages that huppah and the seven blessings recited under the bridal canopy are what permit married life. To avoid this pitfall, the benediction notes, "who has disallowed unto us those that are betrothed," and adds the words, "hast sanctioned unto us such as are wedded to us by the rite of the nuptial canopy and the sacred covenant of wedlock," to emphasize that only the rite of the nuptial canopy allows us to live in matrimony. That is why the word huppah comes before kiddushin, indicating that we are permitted the betrothed by means of the nuptial canopy, which comes after kiddushin.


[1] Cf. Maimonides, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, 213; Sefer ha-Hinukh, 552; SeMaG, Mitzvat Aseh, 48; SeMaK, 183; Rashbatz, Zohar ha-Rakia, Aseh 210. For the opposing view, that betrothal is not commanded in the Torah, cf. Yeruham Perlov, Perush le-Sefer ha-Mitzvot le-Rav Sa'adiah Gaon, Aseh 69.

[2] Erusin, or "betrothal," in the Halakhah is not the same as modern-day "engagement." Rather, it is the first stage in taking a wife, namely kiddushin, consecrating the woman in one of three ways of taking a wife and reciting the formulation, "Behold, you are consecrated unto me." Sometimes the word kiddushin is used instead of erusin.

[3] In the Talmudic era betrothal (kiddushin or erusin) was not performed together with marriage under the bridal canopy (huppah), as we do today, rather the two ceremonies were held several months apart.

[4] Cf. S. Assaf, "Halifat She'elot u-Teshuvot ben Sepharad u-ven Tzarfat ve-Ashkenaz," Tarbiz 8 (1937), pp. 162-170. The origins of this version need further investigation.