The Berachah Before the Ring

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Beshalach: Even HaEzer 34—The Berachah of Erusin

It would be logical to think the beracha the rabbi makes before a groom gives a ring to the bride is a birchat ha-mitzvah, a blessing on the mitzvah of marriage. Aruch HaShulchan, Even HaEzer 34;1, points out problems with the idea.

The text has us bless/praise God for sanctifying us with His mitzvot, similar to other birchot ha-mitzvah, then add “and commanded us about prohibited marital relationships, prohibited arusot, betrothed women,” along with some more words, before concluding with a berachah. Where most birchot ha-mitzvah have a short form, “Who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to x,” AH wonders why this one has a longer form. He also questions why we would bless God for prohibiting certain relationships, and mention the idea of chuppah, part of the nisu’in ceremony, not the current kiddushin.

(Rosh raised this last point; it reminds us that we combine the two, where Jews kept the two separate until some time after the Gemara).

[Just for fun, let me point out the example AH uses for contrast when he wonders why we speak of God prohibiting arayot. In the berachah a slaughterer makes before shechitah, the mitzvah to kill an animal a certain way to make its meat kosher, he does not bless God for having prohibited pieces of live animals, ever min ha-chai (last week’s mitzvah! I used to learn with someone who loved pointing out serendipity, when things match up seemingly randomly. Here, we studied EMH just last week! Serendipity!)]

Maybe It’s Not a Birchat Ha-Mitzvah

Ran questions the assumption. We only make blessings just before we complete a mitzvah, where kiddushin is only the first step. Even when we do the two parts of marriage together, Ran says, Chazal chose not to set up a separate ceremony for that circumstance.

Perhaps more significantly, Rosh argues the kiddushin and nisu’in aren’t the mitzvah, having children is, and that can be done in other ways (such as with a pilegesh, a concubine, a minefield of a topic I can leave for another time).

A man who has already had children might not be required to marry at all, or marry a woman unable to bear children. Men who are naturally infertile can marry, and in none of these cases is there a mitzvah element of having children.

Marriage is the usual and preferred way to fulfill the obligation to have children, but not the sole one, says Ran. In contrast to shechitah, not required but the only way to access kosher meat. For a birchat ha-mitzvah, indispensability matters.

To Mark the Occasion

In se’if three, AH writes that Hashem didn’t want the mitzvah to happen without being noticed aloud. When calling it a mitzvah, I think he means the prescribed practice to create the usual vehicle to fulfill the obligation of procreation; back in se’if 1 of Even HaEzer, we saw other reasons for marriage, too.

To do so, Chazal articulated a blessing that notes the special sanctity of the Jewish people around marital issues. It starts with God choosing us, teaching us what constitute wrong relationships, showing us how marriage best occurs [this is not the place, but if you think a bit about why Hashem required two-stage marriage for Jews, there is a lesson there in the sanctity of the institution].

For AH, the blessing emphasizes the need for chuppah to be sure people not err and think the wife is allowed right after kiddushin. Shittah Mekubetzet added that now that we combine the two, the mention of chuppah fits even better.

Why a Long Berachah

Once it is not a birchat ha-mitzvah, its longer form is not as much of a problem, but AH offers more explanations as well, in se’if four. First, the several topics we want to mention led Chazal to give it a full closing blessing, although it is really only a short berachah. Also, the language of kedushah, sanctity, appears here as it does in the berachah we make on Shabbat and holidays. Those berachot refer to both Creation and the Exodus, enough to be long berachot, we do the same here, where we mention the sanctity of the Jewish people and marriage.

Ramban suggested the reference to chuppah ve-kiddushin at the end of the berachah (an odd order, since kiddushin comes first) was about the Jewish people’s entrance into the covenant at Sinai, when Hashem gave the Torah.

The chuppah was the mountain Hashem held over our heads, and the actual Giving was the kiddushin. AH likes the idea, because it also explains the reverse order, Hashem brought us under the chuppah, then did the betrothal, as it were, which is what we bless in our berachah.

[He doesn’t go into it, but if our berachah at kiddushin takes us back to Sinai, it seems to go both ways—the Jewish people’s experience at Sinai was like a wedding, and our experience at weddings is like Sinai. Food for thought.]

In se’if six, AH notes a disagreement about the closing of the berachah, with Rambam stopping at mekadesh amo Yisrael, Who sanctifies His nation Israel, the rest of the world adding al yedei chuppah ve-kiddushin, through the vehicle of the chuppah and kiddushin.

When to Say It

Rambam, Laws of Marriage 3;23, nonetheless applies the rules of birchat ha-mitzvah to this blessing, requires it to be said before the kiddushin [I once forgot to; read on for what options an incompetent rabbi such as myself has in that situation. I also just recently was at a wedding where the rabbi made the blessing on the wine after this blessing, I think also an error]. In his birchat ha-mitzvah framework, a blessing not made before is lost, would be a wasted blessing if made after.

Ra’avad and others think the blessing is only properly made after kiddushin, because we make blessings before a mitzvah only where we are the only human actors, so we have more control of whether the mitzvah comes to fruition, Hagahot Maimoniyot points out. Here, the woman might change her mind and reject the ring, wasting the blessing.

In a responsum, Rosh accepted Rambam’s view, which would imply that we see this as a birchat ha-mitzvah despite all we have said until now. Except that we do not follow Rambam’s rejection of saying the berachah after if it was forgotten before. As long as the couple is still under the chuppah, says AH, the berachah can be made, because it’s a blessing on the sanctity of the Jewish people.

Who Says It

Rambam’s certainty this is a birchat ha-mitzvah shows itself also in his view that the groom—the one performing the mitzvah—should recite the blessing (or his messenger). Beit Shemu’el disagreed for a technical reason, we generally do not require people to perform rare ceremonies, to not embarrass the ignorant. Just as we have someone read the Torah on behalf of the person called up for the aliyah and for farmers who bring first fruits—each theoretically supposed to read himself—we have someone else read it here.

AH offers a more conceptual idea, we in fact see it as a blessing on the sanctity of the Jewish people, making others equally appropriate to recite the blessing.

The Drink

In se’ifim 9-10, AH cites the custom to recite the blessing with a cup of wine or beer in hand, as we do to solemnize all sorts of ceremonies (like a berit milah). When we have such a cup, we make the blessing on the cup first, then the kiddushin. If no wine or beer is available, it is not essential to the ceremony, and then we would just recite the blessing itself.

Two unusual issues with this cup: first, we generally expect a person who recites a birchat ha-nehenin, a blessing made before enjoying a physical pleasure, to indulge that pleasure itself. Here, although the person conducting the ceremony recites the blessing on the wine, custom has only the bride and groom drink from it. AH thinks this is fine, because that’s how it was instituted, although he concedes it would be better if the mesader kiddushin, the rabbi performing the ceremony, drank. [When I was in yeshiva, we were told some rabbis would be careful to spill a bit of the wine on their hands as they passed the cup to the bride and groom, and then slurp that. AH thinks it unnecessary.]

Second, there is no need here to drink the majority of the cup, contrary to most situations of kos shel berachah, the cup accompanying a blessing. This is a cup to be tasted, not drunk.

The Crowd

The ceremony of erusin ideally takes place with ten men present, seven aside from the witnesses and groom, and they may be relatives of the couple (they are not there to witness legally, only colloquially/ ceremonially). “Ideally” is the view of Rambam and the consensus, this is a desideratum rather than a requirement, in contrast to She’iltot to Chayyei Sarah, who seemed to think it a necessity.

(Se’ifim 10-12 discuss what to do if the berachah was not recited at the kiddushin at all, a circumstance unlikely enough in our times—and where his consideration is whether it can be said at the much later nisu’in, which is completely not true in our times—that I am going to leave it undiscussed.)

The berachah on kiddushin, a vehicle to consider the mitzvah component of marriage, to think about what we are celebrating with this stage of marriage, a key component of the sanctity of the Jewish people.

About Gidon Rothstein

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