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The Witnesses

The Witnesses

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Their Function

The Sages extrapolated from the words of the Scriptures1 that all matters pertaining to the transacting of marriage and divorce must be effected in the presence of two witnesses. These witnesses will be able to testify regarding the marital status of the couple, if doubt in this area ever arises; but more importantly, they actually effect the marriage (or divorce). According to Jewish law, the two witnesses play the most pivotal role in the marriage ceremony.

The involvement of witnesses is needed several times during the course of the wedding ceremony. The same two witnesses can perform all the different functions,2 or different sets of witnesses can be used -- which is traditionally the case, due to the desire to bestow honors on as many individuals as possible.

The following parts of the ceremony require witnesses:

  • According to Jewish law, the witnesses play the most pivotal role in the marriage ceremonyThe tena'im (engagement contract) must be signed by two witnesses.3
  • The ketubah (marriage contract) must also be signed by witnesses.
  • The witnesses who actually effect the marriage are the ones who stand beneath the chupah and witness the kiddushin (betrothal) -- which occurs when the groom places the ring on the bride's finger -- and hear the betrothal words which he utters at that moment.
    After the chupah, these two witnesses follow the bride and groom to the Yichud Room, where they ascertain that there is no one in the room besides the bride and groom, and observe the door being shut and locked. They then wait outside the room for the amount of time halachically necessary for the couple to remain secluded.

Qualifications

For all the aforementioned functions, male, Torah-observant adults over the age of bar mitzvah are required.

Relatives of the bride or groom cannot serve as witnesses. The following relatives of either the bride or groom are disqualified from being witnesses: a father or step-father; grandfather or step-grandfather; great-grandfather, etc.; sons and sons-in-law; grandsons and grand-sons-in-law; brothers and brothers-in-law; uncles and great-uncles (by blood or marriage); cousins (by blood or marriage); and nephews or great-nephews (by blood or marriage).

By the same token, the two witnesses cannot be related to each other.

Because the wedding ceremony is attended by family members and others who are not qualified to be witnesses, the officiating rabbi or master of ceremonies customarily announces the names of the two selected witnesses; while emphasizing that only these two are serving as witnesses, to the exclusion of all others in attendance.

Footnotes
1.

Talmud Sotah 3b, based on Deuteronomy 24:1; 19:15.

2.

According to certain halachic opinions, the kiddushin (betrothal) witnesses should not be the same ones who sign the ketubah (wedding contract).

3.

In many communities, this document is completed and signed before the wedding, sometime during the engagement period. Click here for more information on this topic.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Simcha Bart for Chabad.org November 30, 2016

Officiating Rabbi as witness If there is only one Kosher witness available the Rabbi will fill the role of one of the two witnesses needed.

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Anonymous November 29, 2016

Officiating Rabbi as witness Can the officiating Rabbi be considered as one of the two witnesses? Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for Chabad.org June 14, 2016

Re: Witness The function of the witnesses at the wedding is similar to giving testimony in any type of civil case tried before a court. For the reason women are generally precluded from this, as well as judging cases, see this essay: Why Are There No Female Judges in Torah? Reply

Anonymous June 14, 2016

Witness Why are only men allowed as witnesses, and why can't the honour be given to a woman as well? Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for Chabad.org June 5, 2016

Re: Cousin Technically a cousin of the bride of groom's parent is acceptable as a witness. However, some prefer not to have any relatives, just to be safe. It is up to the officiating rabbi to determine who is acceptable. Reply

Geoff London June 3, 2016

Re: Cousin Is the (husband of) first cousin of bride's father allowed to be a witness? Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org January 21, 2015

Re: Hank For an explanation on what that admittedly brief and cryptic statement means, see Yichud Room Reply

Hank Bayer Seagate, NY January 20, 2015

Please explain the line, "The witnesses wait outside of the room for the amount of time halachicly necessary for the couple to remain secluded". I am baffled by this statement. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org July 27, 2014

Re: Step Brother In general, specific questions should be discussed with the Rabbi marrying you, but yes, a step-brother is indeed disqualified from testifying (see Talmud Sanhedrin 27b). Reply

Anonymous Seattle, WA July 25, 2014

Step Brother Is a step brother disqualified? We were told yes but everything we've seen online none list step brother? We are limited on torah observant members that are not related aside from the Rabbi marrying us. We figured step there is no blood relation therefore he should be fine but now we're stuck. Reply

Anonymous June 12, 2013

Question regarding marriage I was taught while living in Israel there was a tradition of sorts. With no Rabbi or any other witness besides G-D a Jewish man & woman could marry by reciting a particular phrase. Where did this come from? Is it still valid under Jewish law? If so please assist me. Do not have any intention I just want to understand. Thank you Reply

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