Te’naim—conditions—is the popular term for the shidukhin, a mutual agreement between two sets of parents for the date and financial conditions of the forthcoming marriage of their children.

In the times of the Mishnah at the beginnings of the Common Era, betrothal was preceded by the shidukhin, which then was an informally negotiated agreement. The third century authority, Rav, used the following formula: "How much do you give your son? So much and so much. How much do you give your daughter? So much and so much." Whereupon, they proceeded to carry out the betrothal.

The shidukhin was a necessary preliminary to the marriage that gave both families the opportunity to arrange for the material welfare of their children’s union. It also served to discourage hurried and haphazardly arranged weddings, which could make a mockery of marriage and vulgarize the entire institution. This was so important that Rav, with the concurrence of his colleague Samuel, ordered corporal punishment for anyone who did not take the trouble to make these preparations. By the fifth century the orally-negotiated agreements, while still not formalized and reduced to writing, were entered into with such concern and sincerity that although they were only words they were nonetheless binding and considered promises, de’varim ha-niknin be’amirah (matters that are "acquired" by words).

When the betrothal and the nuptials were combined into one ceremony in the eleventh century, there arose an even greater need for preliminary family negotiations, similar to the western concept of "engagement." The agreements were now reduced to writing, and a ceremony was developed that gave it an official character and was enforced through bans and edicts. Breaking the negotiated promises was considered legally objectionable and morally reprehensible.

Standard forms were developed by Sephardim in the eleventh century, and Ashkenazim in the twelfth century. The written document was called te-nai shidukhin (conditions of the engagement) and subsequently te’naim (conditions). They were considered te’naim rishonim (first conditional agreements), while the ketubah was referred to as te’naim acharonim (last conditional agreements). Included in these conditions were all or some of the following items: date; place; dowry; financial obligations of both sets of parents to their children; clauses assuring the efforts of the groom’s father to have his sons provide chalitzah in case the groom died before bearing children; inheritance rights; and penalties for failure to comply with the conditions. The Rabbis strongly disapproved of young men who broke engagements because of dowry disputes, and considered repugnant those who diminished their duties within marriage be-cause of in-law defaults.

The consequences of violating the conditions of te’naim were often harsh. Jewish law did not look kindly upon those who cavalierly broke promises made in public ceremony, and such a breach was nothing less than a criminal act. It was considered not only a violation of law, but a moral transgression; at times the courts not only levied fines, they excommunicated the culprits. If an individual’s word was not sacred, the social fabric of the entire community was threatened. Legal penalties included enforced payment for the elaborate preparations, the return of the betrothal gifts, and the payment of stipulated penalties for the disgrace caused a "precious daughter of Israel."

Of course, punishment was never meted out indiscriminately in Jewish life. Any reasonable argument regarding the complex area of interpersonal relation-ships was considered as a legitimate defense against this liability. The law did not want a couple to go into marriage in order to avoid a scene or a court hearing or public disapproval; indeed, this would be a constraint on the willing consent that Judaism required of bride and groom. But to break the engagement compact on the basis of information known to the parties prior to the te’naim was intolerable.

Because the consequences of broken te’naim were so harsh, they were eventually mitigated by modification of the document and the process. The ceremony was moved as close to the wedding date as possible. Today it is often performed moments before the marriage contract is written on the wedding night, and it is virtually impossible to violate. The legalities were made non-specific. For example, the dowry sum to be provided in the te’naim is most often filled in with the term ki-me’dubbar (as agreed). The penalty for violating the contract is also stipulated as ki-me’dubbar. The date is followed by, "before or after this date as the parties agree." At the present time, outside of Hasidic circles and certain European families, the te’naim is frequently sidestepped altogether. As there are really no conditions left today, the te’naim is virtually devoid of substance and meaning. Those who prefer to use it do so primarily out of sentiment and family custom.

When it is used, it must follow the proper halakhic form; if it is broken, a rabbi must be consulted. The view of the Gaon of Vilna in this regard should not be forgotten. He held that it is a crime to break the contract, and that it would be better to marry and then divorce than to violate the word of the contract. The Gaon’s view was actually written into the ceremony of the te’naim.

Like the wedding, at which a glass is broken, at the conclusion of the te’naim a plate is broken. This teaches the severity of cavalierly breaking te’naim: Like the piece of crockery, the te’naim can never be mended—when it is broken, it is discarded.

The Ceremony

The ceremony is very simple. It includes the writing of the te’naim, the kinyan (the formal acceptance of the contract), the signing, the public reading, and the smashing of the plate enclosed in a cloth napkin. The document should then be given to a third party who represents both sides or, if there are two copies made, one should go to the groom’s representative and one to the bride’s.

The Reading

This should be done in Hebrew and in English translation. Both sets of parents and the witnesses should be present.

The Breaking of the Plate

It is customary for the two mothers to wrap a plate in a cloth and together break it over a table corner or chair. In addition to the symbolism described earlier, some commentaries conjecture that the plate-breaking is a symbol of the verse, ve gilu bi-re’adah, (rejoice in trembling) balancing the joy of the occasion with its seriousness. Others say it is reminiscent, even in the midst of joy, of the destruction of the Temple. Possibly it was designed simply to serve as an auspicious beginning of ceremonies that will conclude with the breaking of the glass at the end of the wedding ceremony, thus bracketing the wedding ceremonies and evoking a chorus of "mazal tovs," beginning and end.