"I was at an Orthodox engagement party. What was the significance
of the lifting of the handkerchief? Why didn't he give her a ring? Isn't
that a Jewish custom?"
Certainly a ring plays a central element in a Jewish marriage ceremony,
where the groom must give the bride something of clear monetary value.
Its use is not one of our oldest customs though; we can trace it back
only about a thousand years.1 Maimonides mentions the giving of
a ring as an established custom in his time (800 years ago) for publicly
marking the consecration of a relationship, yet it does not seem to have
been the object employed for that in the Talmudic period. But in any case,
a ring should not be presented at the "engagement" party; the
proper time is at the "betrothal."
These two terms are placed in quotes, because even though their current
meanings in English are nearly identical, I'm using them as loose translations
for specific referents in Jewish law. All in all, there are four distinct
steps in the Jewish progression from match to marriage, although sometimes
two or even three of them may take place concurrently.
The first stage is shidduchin ["marriage negotiations"].
Colloquially, the term shidduchin has come to refer to the process of
meeting and serious dating for the purpose of exploring the possibility
of marriage. Nevertheless, its original usage is the negotiations that
precede the contractual agreement between the two sides.
At this plateau, the man and woman have mutually pledged to marry, but
this agreement is not yet legally binding. Of course, such a pledge has
strong moral force, but if one or both sides should decide to break it
off, there are no legal penalties. This would correspond to what we today
call "engagement," even one that is announced to be "official."
After this comes tenayim [agreed terms], where economic agreements
between the two sides are written down and witnessed.
The next stage is called kiddushin [consecration] or erusin
[betrothal]. It is intermediate between "engagement" and "full"
marriage as we know it. Although during this betrothal stage the man and
woman still live apart, they are considered married to the extent that
if they subsequently decide not to wed, a formal divorce is required to
sever their relationship and the woman usually receives the full value
of her ketubah [marriage contract]. All the strictures relating
to adultery also apply to this stage, just as in marriage.2 In
the old days, it was this state of betrothal that was implied by the expression
"engagement." There is no secular equivalent.
Finally there is nissuin [marriage],3 after which the couple
lives together in a full state of marriage.4
In ancient times, and until just a few hundred years ago, there was
often a waiting period of at least a year between betrothal and the wedding,5
ostensibly to allow the bride sufficient time to arrange her trousseau
and otherwise prepare herself. It is because of this time gap that we
tend to confuse today's long engagements with yesteryear's betrothals.
The giving of the ring in front of two qualified witnesses at "betrothal"
publicly consecrates the relationship as legally binding. That is why
we do not have a ring-giving ceremony (or any other public exchange of
presents) at "engagement," since to do so could cause a legally
binding relationship to be established, and this could turn out to be
premature and undesirable. Any exchange of gifts between the couple at
this stage should be done in private, and perhaps even indirectly, through
Then, however, most people married at a younger age than now, usually
as teenagers. Nowadays, when people marry much later, a long waiting period
is not practical. Therefore, the betrothal ceremony is usually conducted
under the chupah [wedding canopy], just before the wedding celebration.
That is when he puts the ring on her finger and announces: "Harei
aht mekudeshet li b'taba'at zu l'fi dat Moshe v'Yisrael"--"Behold!
With this ring you are sanctified for me according to the law of Moses
In contrast, the only ceremony at most engagement celebrations is the
raising of a handkerchief6 between representatives of the respective
families and the prospective bride and groom. This corresponds, roughly,
to a firm handshake. Even without any formal ceremony, the accompanying
festive meal in itself constitutes an "official" announcement
of the engagement.
In some circles, tenayim takes place together with shidduchin.
Most, however, prefer to avoid anything of a formal contractual nature
at this early stage. They usually wait to conduct the tenayim on
the same day as the wedding, when both extended families are getting together
anyway. Then, it usually takes place either much earlier in the day, or
else at the very beginning of the reception, before the signing of the
ketubah7 and the veiling of the bride.
All this should not be construed as a license to make engagements lightly
or to break them unilaterally, just because they lack the status of "betrothal."
If for some reason it is necessary to dissolve the relationship, it should
be done as amicably as possible, and with mutual forgiveness on both sides.
By the way, the festive meal at the engagement party is officially considered
a mitzvah occasion, so mazal tov, you scored another good deed!
Interestingly, there are certain periods of the year that are so joyful,
such as festivals, or so somber, such as the Nine Days of Av, that we
don't allow weddings during them so as to not detract from the theme of
the day. Even so, no day is so special that you cannot finalize an engagement
"Even Yom Kipur?" you may be wondering. If so, you will be
amazed to learn that in biblical times specifically Yom Kipur,
along with Tu b'Av [15th of the month of Av], was considered a
prime date for making matches!8 I hope you find all these ideas
inspiring, but please don't let them interfere with your concentration
on your prayers in shul this Yom Kipur!
1. We do not generalize from the episode where the matriarch Rivka received
a nose-ring [Gen. 24:22], as that involved a complicated set of unique
2. Kiddushin can also be translated as "separation"--for
each other, no longer an available single.
3. lit., "elevation."
4. Happily ever after (with G-d's help)! The root meaning of shidduchin
in Aramaic is "tranquility"
[Shidduchim & Zivugim (Rabbi Yehudah Lebovits, Targum Press),
5. Gen. 24:55 and major commentaries.
6. Chassidim will often use a gartel [prayer sash].
7. Notarization of the ketubah by certified witnesses also legally
binds the relationship, as does testimony by qualified witnesses that
the couple was alone for a while together in a closed room. It is rare,
however, that either of these two methods is conducted with the same sort
of public fanfare as the giving of the ring.
8. Taanit 4:8.