The Talmudic sages mandated an engagement period before marriage. Marrying without engagement cheapens the institution of marriage, for it gives the impression that matrimony is an impulse decision, one which doesn't require much thought or preparation.

Although engagement has no legal significance, once a man and woman have committed to marry each other it is customary to make "tna'im," "agreements" which formalize their commitments to each other. The two parties commit to marrying each other at the agreed upon time and date,1 and to participate in wedding expenses as well as the anticipated startup costs of the new household. Details, such as the groom's undertaking to give gifts to his bride, are also included.

The Contract

The parties commit to marrying each other at the agreed upon time and date and to participate in wedding expensesThe tna'im are written up in a contract known as the shtar tna'im. This document used is usually a standard printed form with blank spaces for the names of the bride, groom, guarantors and witnesses.

The traditional text of the tna'im document is dictated on behalf of the parents of the couple, who represent their children, and take upon themselves the financial responsibilities involved. If the father of the bride or groom is not present, a relative or friend is appointed to represent the groom or bride

Since this document contains financial agreements, guarantors are required. One guarantor represents the groom's side and the other represents the bride's.

The tna'im contract is executed in front of two kosher witnesses who also sign the document.2

The "Kinyan"

In order to for the contract and the agreements to take legal effect, it is necessary to perform a kinyan, a legal act of transaction.

In Jewish law there are different types of kinyanim (plural form of kinyan). Securing commitments is done by way of "Kinyan Sudar," a "Handkerchief Transaction." A Kinyan Sudar is a symbolic barter in which one party gives to the other a token object such as a kerchief in exchange for the object that is the subject of the transaction — in this case, the object is an intangible, a commitment. As the garment is picked up and acquired by one party, the other party is simultaneously granted the commitment in exchange. In an instance such as a wedding engagement where both sides desire to obtain a commitment from each another, both perform the kinyan.

The "kerchief" or any other garment used for the kinyan must be bigger than 2.4 square inches, and must legally belong to the one presenting it.3 A kippah is commonly used for this kinyan.

The Timing

The tna'im contract is completed, witnessed and signed at the engagement party. This party is often called the "Tna'im" or "Vort" which in Yiddish means a "word," referring to the "word" given by the man and woman to each other. Some Sephardic communities call it the "Kinyan Ceremony," a reference to the kinyan that takes place at the ceremony.

It is necessary for a rabbi to be present at this party to supervise the writing of the contract as well as the execution of the kinyan.

It is customary that the groom deliver some Torah thoughts at the engagement party, thus granting the gathering the status of a seudat mitzvah. In Chasidic circles, the groom recites a Chasidic discourse of his choice.

Alternate Custom

It is necessary for a rabbi to be present at this party to supervise the writing of the contractIn certain communities, the tna'im contract is not completed at the engagement party.4 Instead, only a symbolic kinyan is performed by the groom and bride at that time. The tna'im document is only signed on the day of the wedding,5 usually at the pre-chupah reception.6

This kinyan, too, is done under the watch of the two witnesses. One of the witnesses presents the groom with the "kerchief." The groom takes it and lifts it (a minimum of ten inches), and by accepting it he commits himself to marriage. The garment is then returned to the witness who hands it to the bride. The bride accepts the garment, lifts it, and commits herself to matrimony as well.

Where the tna'im document is written on the wedding day, it is usually done under the authority of the rabbi that will be officiating at the wedding.

The Procedure

At the tna'im ceremony — whether it is done by the engagement party or at the pre-nuptial reception — the document7 is filled in under the supervision of two witnesses, who then sign it along with guarantors. Subsequently the document is traditionally read aloud. In many communities the rabbi is honored with its reading.

The kinyan is then performed, also under the watch of the two witnesses. This kinyan is similar to the one described above, except that this time aside for the bride8 and groom the parents of the bride and groom as well as the guarantors also participate — all committing themselves to their respective financial obligations.

Traditionally, a well wrapped china plate is broken after the kinyan have taken place.9 The irreversible act of breaking a plate is symbolic of the finality of the just-read tna'im or commitments. The act also serves to slightly temper the festivities, in accordance with the Psalmist's enjoinder that we recall the destruction of Jerusalem at our happiest moments. Customarily, the couple's mothers break the plate by smashing it on the ground or against any hard surface.

Click here for the actual text of the tna'im document.