In traditional Jewish society, from the era of the Talmud up to the enlightenment, social association of the sexes was usually restricted (tzeniut). In Orthodox Jewish communities these social restrictions are still practiced.
The Mishna describes three ways of contracting betrothal:
- With money (as when a man hands a woman an object of value, such as a ring or a coin, for the purpose of contracted marriage, and in the presence of two witnesses, and she actively accepts);
- Through a shtar, a contract containing the betrothal declaration phrased as “through this contract”; or
- By sexual intercourse with the intention of creating a bond of marriage, a method strongly discouraged by the rabbinic sages.
Today only the betrothal ceremony involving the object of value (i.e. the equivalent of “with money”), almost always a ring, is practiced, but the others may be fallen back upon should a halachic dispute occur.
The marriage ceremony is based on the rules for transfer of property or of rights in antiquity. In marriage, the woman accepts a ring (or something of value) from the man, accepting the terms of the marriage. This is called betrothal, or kiddushin or erusin. A ketubah (“[marriage] contract”) is read publicly. Witnesses are required for both the signing of the ketubah and the ceremonies.
At the giving of the ring the groom (chatan) makes a declaration “You are consecrated to me, through this ring, according to the religion of Moses and Israel.” Traditionally there is no verbal response on the part of the bride. She accepts the ring on her finger, and closes her hand, signifying acceptance.
Finally the couple are joined in matrimony under the chuppah, in the ceremony of nissuin, symbolizing their setting up house together. Very often the chuppah is made of an outstretched tallit (Jewish prayer shawl), but it can be any sort of canopy.
The ceremony reaches its climax with both the bride and groom drinking wine. The groom then steps on the wine glass to break it. The origin of this custom is shrouded in mystery, and various understandings of this custom exist. Some Jews believe that the broken pieces of the glass tell you how long the bride and groom’s marriage will last.
Conservative and Reform Judaism have created new customs governing the wedding ceremony. Today most non-traditional Jewish women respond by giving a ring to the groom, and recite an appropriate passage, such as the famous verse from the Song of Songs. Objections to the Talmudic formulation centre around the idea that marriage is the purchase of a wife by a man.
The Reform and Reconstructionist movements use both more equalized versions of the ketubah, and also use documents that are essentially not a ketubah at all, but rather a new form of wedding celebration document.