Two Stages in Marriage
According to Torah law, marriage is a two-step process. The first stage is called "kiddushin," and the second step is known as "nisu'in." Kiddushin is commonly translated as betrothal, but actually renders the bride and groom full-fledged husband and wife. After this point, if, G‑d forbid, they decided to part ways, a "get" (Jewish divorce) would be required. However, the bride and groom are not permitted to live together as husband and wife until the second stage, the nisu'in, is completed.
According to Torah law, there are three ways to betroth a woman: a) A money transaction. The man gives to the woman money or any object of value. b) A document. The man gives the woman a marriage document which states his intention to marry her. c) Sexual intercourse with the intention that it consummates the marriage.
In ancient times, the two stages of marriage were done on separate occasionsThe rabbis forbade betrothing though intercourse, making it a punishable offense.
In order for the betrothal to take effect, the transaction must be witnessed by two kosher witnesses.
The common custom is to betroth by means of a money transaction, using the traditional wedding band to effect the kiddushin. Aside for the kabbalistic reasons for this tradition, there is also a practical explanation -- a ring serves as a constant and highly visible reminder of the couple's wedding commitment. Additionally, most possessions owned by husband or wife end up belonging to the "family" and are enjoyed by all members of the household. Using a ring to transact the marriage assures that the item will belong exclusively to the wife.
The nisu'in is accomplished through "chupah" -- the husband uniting with the wife under one roof for the sake of marriage. See Chupah for an extensive discussion on this topic.
In ancient times, the two stages of marriage were done on separate occasions, often separated by a full year which the groom would devote to Torah study. Both the kiddushin and the nisu'in were accompanied by celebratory feasts. By the twelfth century this practice had ended, and it became customary to do both kiddushin and nisu'in, successively, beneath the chupah. One of the reasons given for this change of custom is the poverty which prevailed in the Jewish communities. People simply couldn't afford the expense of the two celebrations.
The Souls of the Soulmates
The two-stage marriage is more than a technical nuance of Jewish law, it is expressive of the uniqueness of a Jewish marriage. Marriage is more than two people who choose to share their lives with each other, it is the fusion of two souls -- or to be more precise, two halves of one soul which was severed in two before being catapulted from its heavenly abode into the bodies of a man and woman.
During the kiddushin stage the couple is married, with one minor caveat -- they cannot physically express their union. So in the absence of any practical tangible connection, what binds the two? Their soulful connection. Only after the connection of the souls has manifested itself during the kiddushin period, laying the foundation for a soulful marriage, can the couple proceed with the nisu'in, the physical aspect of their relationship.
If matrimony started with nisu'in, the physical relationship could permanently overshadow the spiritual connectionIf matrimony started with nisu'in, the physical relationship could permanently overshadow the spiritual connection, resulting in a marriage whose priorities and ideals are skewed.
G‑d and Us
All we experience in this earthly realm is merely a reflection of a higher spiritual super-reality. Marriage between man and woman follows the model of a cosmic marriage -- that between G‑d, the groom, and Israel, His beloved bride. This wedding, too, consists of two stages:
G‑d descended on Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah and its commandments. He took His most precious and treasured possession, the Torah, and used it as a wedding band on His wedding day. From that moment onwards, we are His and He is ours. Nothing can ever change that fact. The union, however, had not yet been consummated. For that we need the...
The Jew who studies Torah or fulfills a Divine commandment is uniting with G‑d, creating the most perfect unity possible.
On a deeper level, the entire period which started with the giving of the Torah is one long betrothal. We are committed to G‑d, and He to us, but this marriage has never expressed itself in full glory. The Messianic Era will usher in the age of nisu'in, when our relationship will be tangible, fully enjoyed, and revealed for all to see.