I got engaged on Feb. 15, 2014, my 29th birthday. It was a Saturday night. The all-important engagement ring was in my possession for less than 48 hours. The diamond ring, shipped by my dear friend and diamond connoisseur Stuart Samuels, arrived that Friday morning. After a brief scare where I thought I lost the ring, prompting my future father-in-law to run out of the shower and crouch on all fours to join me in looking underneath his bed—a sight that even my love for his daughter did not prepare me for—I was ready to plan the engagement. The ring, by the way, was in my inside coat pocket the whole time. We are all still recovering.
It took me less than an hour to plan the engagement. A quick call to my friend Simcha, and flowers, chocolates, and all the other accouterments were ready to be set up for the Saturday night proposal. Planning a wedding, however, is an entirely different story: We got married four months later and, boy, we needed every minute of planning. The stress of each detail of a wedding can be a lot, especially for a newly engaged couple. Friends become enemies, enemies become friends, and we still don’t have the album our photographer has been promising us.
Given the excruciating details of planning a wedding versus planning an engagement, it is quite surprising to read Tractate Kiddushin. The detailed emphasis on the laws of the “engagement,” known as kiddushin in Jewish law, completely overshadows the details of the actual wedding, known as nissuin. And it is that very reversal that teaches us everything we need to know about relationships, marriage, and the very concept of being holy.
A word of introduction about the Jewish marriage ceremony. A Jewish marriage ceremony has two parts: first, the kiddushin, the betrothal or engagement, and then the actual wedding, known as nissuin. Our tractate is dedicated to kiddushin, the first part. Kiddushin begins by reciting a special blessing over wine—“Blessed are you God,” the blessing concludes, “who sanctifies the Jewish people through chuppah and kiddushin.” Then, traditionally, the groom gives the bride a ring—deliberately one without a stone or fancy jewels—and recites the formulation, harei at mikuseshet li k’daat Moshe v’Yisroel, you are sanctified unto me in accordance with the laws of Moshe and the Jewish people. That is the kiddushin ceremony.
Most weddings have a quick break at this point where the ketubah is read. Historically, the two stages of Jewish marriage would happen a long time apart from one another. Nowadays, maybe because it would just be an absolute fortune to have two wedding ceremonies, we just include a short break to read the ketubah. Then the actual marriage ceremony, which transforms the bride and groom into husband and wife.
So what is that ceremony exactly?
Here is where things get messy. Is it the bride and groom standing under the wedding canopy? Yes, according to some. Is it the bride and groom having a tallit draped over them? Some think that’s it. Maybe it is when they are secluded together following the ceremony? Yes, some say that’s the main event. Because here is the crazy fact: Nowhere does the Talmud actually share the details of the marriage ceremony. Betrothal? That’s what Tractate Kiddushin is all about. Details about the actual marriage ceremony? Nothing. Just a scrum of commentaries, leading to the current state of marriage ceremonies—a little bit of everything.
How do we handle this ambiguity? Let us begin by closing our eyes and imagining what it means to be holy. For many, images of serene monks, or perhaps moments overlooking nature come to mind. Holiness, in Hebrew kedusha, means something very different in Jewish thought. “There is no holiness,” says Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “without preparation.” Not meditation, not a spiritual retreat, but preparation. Holiness emerges from living deliberately, intentionally, and rebelling against the haphazardness of living a passive unprepared life. Kedusha emerges through preparation. As Rabbi Soloveitchik writes in his work Halakhic Man:
The idea of holiness according to the halakhic world view does not signify a transcendent realm completely separated and removed from reality … Holiness, according to the outlook of Halakhah, denotes the appearance of a mysterious transcendence in the midst of our concrete world, the ‘descent’ of God, whom no thought can grasp, onto Mount Sinai, the bending down of a hidden and concealed world and lowering it onto the face of reality … Holiness is created by man, by flesh and blood.
And this is why the Talmud pays an inordinate amount of attention on the first act of marriage, kiddushin. The very name kiddushin, the Talmud explains, derives from the term kedusha. Marriage is an act of holiness, and the source of the holiness is from the preparation, the designation, the sanctification prior to the actual marriage, namely the intimacy between husband and wife.
One-night stands, eloping because of the romantic passion of the moment, Ross and Rachel drunkenly getting married in a shotgun ceremony—these are examples of the chaos that the deliberateness of kedusha comes to counter. The novelty of Jewish marriage, Rambam explains, is that before marital intimacy there must first be the preparatory stage of kiddushin. Preparation for holiness is itself the ultimate entry to being holy.
The second act of the the wedding, the actual marriage, is only captured with allusions—canopies, a tallis, a quiet room for seclusion—because the second act is the relationship itself: intimacy between husband and wife. We need the Talmud to spell out the details of preparation, kiddushin. Intimacy, the final act of marriage, is really the product of the holiness of preparation outlined in Tractate Kiddushin.
The first occurrence of the word holy in the Torah is in reference to Shabbos. And the holiness of Shabbos itself is an exercise in preparation. “Whoever prepares before Shabbos, eats on Shabbos,” the Talmud reminds. Holiness means to be set apart, removed, deliberate. Profane means uncared for, careless, and messy. A commitment to holiness is a commitment to the deliberate, intentional, routinized acts that ultimatly pave the way for the experience of holiness itself. Moments of spirituality, ecstacy, even intimacy, do not provide long-lasting holiness without the preparation for those experiences. Spirituality without religious preparation will never yield a life of sustained holiness. “Performing a mitzvah is momentary,” Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter writes in his commentary Sefas Emes, “preparation, however, is eternal.”
Rudolph Otto, in his classic work The Idea of the Holy, struggles to characterize what holiness is all about. Absent a good description, he invents a word of his own, “numinous.” The holy, according to Otto, is the mysterious, those awe inspiring moments that suddenly overtake, humble, and elevate. He writes:
The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience.
That may be so, but there is a glaring omission in his description of the holy: preparation. The Jewish approach to holiness is not to sit around waiting for the tide to come in, it is not some inexplicable feeling that may or may not hit you while gazing at the beauty of the world. Holiness is a discipline. Holiness is a path, a roadway, a deliberate routine. More than anything else, it is a commitment not to go gently into the vagarities of life, but to live each moment with purpose. Mitzvos bring holiness, preparing for Shabbos brings holiness, and of course the preparatory ceremony kiddushin brings holiness.
Tractate Kiddushin also marks the end of Seder Nashim, the order of the Talmud that discusses familial life. It is as good a time as any to reflect on the program of Daf Yomi, the daily study of a page of Talmud. We are past the halfway mark for completing the entire Talmud. So that’s good news. But with that realization also comes the foreboding thought of all of the pages of Talmud we have rushed through, only glanced at, or forgotten altogether. Daf Yomi can be dispiriting if the focus is on the daf, the page. But Daf Yomi is more about the yomi, the daily practice of study, than the daf, the actual knowledge on the page.
Torah study is described as an act of kiddushin. And like the act of kiddushin, the holiness of Torah study emerges from the preparation—carving aside time each day to study Torah. Whether early in the morning or late at night, a set time, each day, transforms your entire schedule. It is why, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains, the Talmud places such a strong emphasis on having a set schedule for your Torah learning. “Talmud Torah,” he writes, “is not just the acquisition of knowledge but a personal meeting of the Jew with the Torah.” He continues:
At this level, the Jew cannot just walk into the beit ha-midrash unnanounced and unexpected and study Torah in his leisure time. As long as the Torah is an it, an object, one can act vis-à-vis an “it” at random; the scientist opens up the door of the laboratory, walks in and picks up the test tube. If the Torah, however, is a “thou,” one must arrange a meeting, make a date with her. Otherwise she will not wait for him.
And each day, with Daf Yomi, we have a date with our Torah. Each day an act of kiddushin, setting aside and sanctifying our time for Torah study. Each day, like a lovesick bride, the daf awaits.
הדרן עלך מסכת קידושין והדרך עלן
הדרן עלך סדר נשים והדרך עלן