It’s wedding season. Most of my Sundays these days include a wedding. Each one is unique. An outside observer might think they are the same – chuppah, white dress, rings, ketubah, breaking of the glass, hora. But I know each one is distinct from all the others, because that is the very definition of Jewish marriage.
The Talmudic term for marriage is “kiddushin.” Like the words “kadosh” or “kiddush” or “kaddish” – its root meaning is “kedushah,” that is, “holiness” or “sanctity.” At the centre of the vow spoken by the wedding couple is the verb “mekudash/mekudeshet.”
Everything hinges on this little word. “By this ring you are sanctified to me as my wife/husband, according to the law of Moses and the People of Israel.” The vow is a legal formula. When accompanied by a ring, when spoken and heard by two witnesses, this vow is what makes the couple married. This is the moment when they marry one another. By Jewish law, it is not the rabbi who “marries” them; they marry each other. (Ironically, by civil law, it IS the rabbi, an officer of the province, who “marries” them.)
I usually meet with couples four times in advance of their wedding day. They seem relieved when I steer the conversation from the wedding to the marriage. The multi-billion dollar wedding industry exhausts them; and they are usually grateful to be in a quiet corner of the synagogue to talk about what matters most, to talk about the one who now matters most to them. Highlighting the language of the marriage vow, I ask: “How is she sacred to you?” How is he holy for you?” This isn’t our every day language; most brides and grooms are stumped by the question. I’ve learned to give them time. They take it away to think about and return a few weeks later, ready and enthusiastic about sharing their answer.
Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh
One aspect of holiness is distinction. We make Shabbat holy by separating it from the other ordinary days of the week. We call the Torah a “holy book” and treat it differently than all the other books. Times can be made sacred. Objects can be made sacred. And relationships, too, can be made sacred by how we elevate them, make them distinct from the others. There may be a divine spark in everything, but we each see it shining a little more brightly in different places.
The moments when the bride and groom seem most focused are during the rituals of distinction – when the groom lovingly brings the veil over his bride’s face, when the bride walks circles around her groom, when they carefully place the ring and carefully speak the vow. By these rituals, they single one another out from all the other loving relationships they treasure. The chuppah physically demarcates the Jewish home now established. The parents are nearby, but not in the house. They also now see right before their eyes, a new and distinct family unit of two.
The first cup is raised high under the chuppah. We call attention to the Guest whose Presence is not seen, but certainly felt between the silhouettes of those
standing under the chuppah. The Cantor leads the blessing in a joyful voice: “Baruch Atah… Praised are You, Eternal God, who sanctifies the People of Israel with chuppah, the wedding canopy, and kiddushin, all that is sacred in marriage.” Amen.