October 10, 2008
Shtetl engagement custom makes modern comeback
When it comes to Jewish wedding customs, one could say everything old is new again. |
According to numerous how-to-plan-your-Jewish-wedding Web sites, modern couples have resurrected tenaim (a 12th- century Ashkenazic tradition) and -- after retrofitting the ritual -- eagerly add the ceremony to their Big Day.
You're invited to embrace this custom, too. But first, some backstory.
In European shtetls, tenaim (conditions) was a formal engagement ceremony at which parents of the girl and parents of the boy agreed to betroth their two children. During the celebration, a contract was signed, witnessed and read to the assemblage. This document set the date and time of the wedding -- typically many months off -- and outlined prenuptial obligations of each family regarding the dowry, a gift for the groom, plus other financial and logistical matters.
The contract included a proviso that the party who breaks the agreement before the wedding (p'tui, p'tui) must pay a stiff fine to the injured party. To seal the bargain, the future mothers-in-law smashed a dish. Some authorities say this symbolizes the impending breaks in their relationships with their children while recognizing that a new family is created -- a family with lives of their own who now are responsible for taking care of and feeding each other.
Although the tenaim document -- unlike the ketubah -- is not a Jewish legal requirement for marriage, the tenaim had clout. In fact, the 18th century leader of Lithuanian Jewry, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (aka the Vilna Gaon), maintained that breaking the obligations of the agreement -- backing down on one's word -- is reprehensible, far worse than divorce.
The Gaon also weighed in on tenaim plates and demanded they be ceramic, since "just as a ceramic plate cannot be repaired, so the families should be warned not to renege on their commitments." (Word has it that unmarried women will trample over one another for a piece of the broken crockery, because it's considered a talisman that leads to romance and chuppah. Could be....)
While modern tenaim ceremonies are based on the old model, today's couples usually shift the focus from traditional legal formalities to personal conditions and concerns -- both current and future -- that express their love, trust, shared values and commitment to the covenant of marriage.
These conditions often include:
Clearly, modern tenaim celebrations can be original -- even improvisational -- while still including meaningful family traditions that link past, present and future. Additional proof that with Jewish wedding customs, what goes around comes around -- in more ways than just circling the groom.