Between Original Betrothal and Contemporary Engagement

The sages mandated that there be an engagement period before marriage.1 The rationale is that marrying without engagement cheapens the institution of marriage, and a physical union that is formed instantly is somewhat comparable to a promiscuous relationship.2

Known as erusin or kiddushin, this betrothal was originally meant to be the first step in the two-step process of marriage. It was a legally binding union that could only be undone by a get (bill of divorce) or death. However, the couple did not yet live together as a single unit.

Nowadays, due to various concerns, the erusin is rolled into the marriage ceremony under the chuppah. So although there are customs related to the engagement period, the couple-to-be are not legally bound to each other and their halachic status remains unchanged until the wedding.3

Let’s explore the various customs and laws that surround the engagement period.

The Name of the Party

After the engagement, it’s customary to have a small celebration party. This celebration is sometimes called a tena’im (“conditions), named after a contract that was drawn up specifying the date of the wedding and other considerations.

Many have the custom of not writing the tena’im at this point,4 and they simply make a verbal agreement. The celebration is thus called a vort (“word”) in Yiddish.

Some Sephardim call it a kinyan, since the verbal agreement is accompanied by a formal act of acquisition (more about that later), in which both parties obligate themselves to prepare for the wedding in good faith.

In some communities, it’s also called a l'chaim, since the agreement to marry is finalized over a toast.

The Agreement

The kinyan used to formalize the engagement is known as kinyan sudar (“kerchief kinyan”), a symbolic barter in which one party gives the other a token object such as a kerchief in exchange for the subject of the transaction—in this case 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 other, both perform the kinyan.

The "kerchief" or any other garment used for the kinyan must legally belong to the one presenting it.5

In the presence of two kosher witnesses, one of the witnesses or the rabbi gives the sudar or other item of value to the groom, who lifts it up to express his intentions and then returns it. The officiant then repeats the same procedure with the bride.

Breaking the Dish

Many have the custom to break a china6 plate after the engagement is formalized through the kinyan.7 Typically done by the mothers of the bride and groom, this act symbolizes the finality of the agreement, much like a shattered plate cannot be reconstructed.

Words of Torah

In many circles, it’s customary for the groom and others to share some words of Torah at the celebration.8 In Chabad, the groom also customarily recites a Chassidic discourse.9

The Engagement Period

It’s important to keep in mind that from a halachic perspective, the couple is not yet considered a couple. Thus, all of the restrictions of yichud (not being alone together) and physical contact between men and women apply to them.

In fact, since they are more familiar with each other, extra precautions in this area should be taken. An engaged couple may not live together in the same house even in situations when there would be no question of yichud.10

The Rebbe strongly encouraged that weddings be held as soon as possible after the engagement to minimize these concerns.11

What Kind of Gifts to Give?

The exchange of gifts between bride and groom during the engagement period is a time-honored Jewish tradition.12 While jewelry is often chosen, it’s important that the bride does not receive a ring—a universal symbol of marriage—until the wedding itself.13

As the couple embarks on establishing a Jewish home together, it’s customary to give Jewish gifts, such as sacred books. For example, grooms traditonally give their brides prayerbooks, and brides may gift their husbands-to-be Talmuds.14

Additionally, it is traditional for the bride or her family to purchase a tallit (prayer shawl) for the groom.15 In many communities, the groom or his family provides the bride with candlesticks, which she will use to illuminate their home every Friday night.16

Presenting a charity box underscores the couple's commitment to establishing a home rooted in charitable values.17

Read: 19 Ritual Items Found in a Jewish Home

Learning Pertinent Laws

Spiritual preparation for the wedding is even more important than material preparation. Contact your rabbi or rebbetzin soon after you get engaged, as you’ll need to make time to learn the special laws of Family Purity (mikvah). The bride will need to put this learning into practice before the wedding, as she immerses in a mikvah to ensure ritual purity.18

Read: Family Purity

Unique Customs for the Final Week

In some communities, including Chabad, the following customs are observed:

  • During the final few days before the engagement19 (and also for seven days after the wedding20), the bride and groom should always be accompanied and should not go out alone.21
  • The bride and groom do not see or speak to each other during the week preceding the wedding.22

For more on this, see The Week Before the Wedding.

The Shabbat Before the Wedding

The Shabbat before the wedding, the groom is called up to the Torah. The congregation sings, rejoices, and pelts him with nuts and candies as a symbolic blessing for a fruitful and sweet life together.23 This ceremony, known as the aufruf, is typically followed by a special Kiddush sponsored by the groom's family.

Read: What to Expect at an Aufruf?

On this Shabbat, the bride has her own festive gathering with friends, known as the "Shabbat kallah."

Read: What to Expect at a Shabbat Kallah