In this week’s parsha we are introduced to the first marriage in the Torah. It is contractual, well thought out, based on common values and has consent from those involved. This is in stark contrast to last week’s parsha which gave us a window into some of the most unhealthy relationships, with the promiscuous behavior of the Sodomites, Lot’s daughters’ inappropriate behavior with their father and Avimelech’s attempt with Sarah. Many laws regarding Jewish marriages are learned from this story specifically indicating that this is the ideal way to solidify a union. One of the required marital elements we adopt from this ideal marriage is the need to bless the bride and groom at their wedding. These obligatory blessings have several sources, starting with the blessings that Rivka’s family gave her upon her taking her leave of them and going to Yitzchak.
The Torah describes Rivka’s departure from her family, including the blessings she received from them, in Breishit 24:60:
בראשית פרק כד: ס
וַיְבָרֲכ֤וּ אֶת־רִבְקָה֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְרוּ לָ֔הּ אֲחֹתֵ֕נוּ אַ֥תְּ הֲיִ֖י לְאַלְפֵ֣י רְבָבָ֑ה וְיִירַ֣שׁ זַרְעֵ֔ךְ אֵ֖ת שַׁ֥עַר שֹׂנְאָֽיו:
And they blessed Rivka, and said to her, you are our sister, be you the mother of thousands of ten thousands, and let your seed possess the gate of those which hate them.
These blessings of fertility echo in their familiarity as ones given to the patriarchs, and repeated for generations to come.
Another source that establishes the tradition and obligation for marital blessings is the gemara in Massechet Ketuvot 7a which states:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת כתובות דף ז עמוד א:
אמר רבי חלבו אמר רב הונא א”ר אבא בר זבדא אמר רב: אחת בתולה ואחת אלמנה – טעונה ברכה.
Rav Chelbo said in the name of Rav Huna who said in the name of Rav Abba bar Zavda who said in the name of Rav: Both a virgin and a widow require a blessing.
This gemara expresses the imperative for all brides and grooms to be given blessings at their wedding. Previous marital status is not taken into account, nor are other factors.
Based on this idea, Massechet Kallah even goes so far as to say that a Kallah without a blessing is prohibited to her husband.
מסכת כלה פרק א הלכה א
כלה בלא ברכה אסורה לבעלה כנדה, מה נדה שלא טבלה אסורה לבעלה, אף כלה בלא ברכה אסורה לבעלה. ומניין לברכת חתנים מן התורה, שנאמר ויברכו את רבקה ויאמר לה אחותינו את היי לאלפי רבבה ויירש זרעך את שער שנאיו.
A bride without a blessing is forbidden to her husband as if she were a menstruous woman. Just as a menstruous woman who has not immersed [in a mikve] is forbidden to her husband, so too a bride without a blessing is forbidden to her husband. And from where do we know that birkat chatanim (the bridegrooms’ blessing) is by Torah law? As it is stated: “And they blessed Rivka, and said to her, You are our sister, be you the mother of thousands of ten thousands, and let your seed possess the gate of those which hate them”.
Massechet Kallah here, in stating the prohibition of a bride being with her husband without a blessing, thereby supporting the obligatory aspect of the blessings, quotes the verse from our parsha. Massechet kallah states that birkat chatanim, the bracha of the groom, is from the Torah itself. Most authorities understand from this verse that, while the Torah gives support (assmachta) to the idea of the blessings, they are not an actual biblical obligation at the wedding.
What type of blessing is required then, according to this understanding? Why is this blessing required? And how do we learn it from Rivka’s family’s actions when she leaves them to marry Yitzchak?
One understanding is that the blessing referred to here, birkat chatanim mentioned above, is actually the sheva brachot that we know of today. It seems as if people must bless the bride and/or groom as they complete the marriage, such as is done with the sheva brachot under the chuppah today.
A second understanding of birkat chatanim is that it is a blessing of praise—birkat hashevach; a way of praising G-d for his ability to create such a unit. The Ran says exactly that:
חידושי הר”ן מסכת פסחים דף ז עמוד ב
ולענין ברכת נשואין נהגו שאין מברכין אלא לאחר שתכנס כלה לחופה, לפי שאין ברכות הללו אלא ברכות תהלה ושבח.
In reference to birkat nussin-the marriage blessing, which is not blessed until after the bride enters into the marriage canopy because these blessings are ones of glory and praise.
This bracha, therefore, becomes an acknowledgement of the beauty of marriage. It is an embodiment of the healthy relationship we seek to create when we follow the example set out in the parsha. Marriage carried out as outlined in the parsha is seen as such a marvelous institution that we make a blessing in order to praise Hashem for it.
A third potential understanding of birkat chatanim is that it is a birkat hamitzvah. Perhaps this bracha is a reference to the obligation of the Chatan to say a bracha before he marries the kallah. He is, after all, doing an important mitzvah. The Beit Yosef, when explaining the Rambam, says that birkat chatanim is an example of a bracha that one says before they perform a mitzvah. The mitzvah here is nissuin-marriage, so birkat chatanim is the bracha recited before nissuin (marriage).
A fourth and final understanding of birkat chatanim is that it is a Birkat Hamatir, the blessing that enables an action. Since all things in this world are prohibited until they are permitted, one must say a bracha to allow man to use them. The groom, perhaps, says this bracha as a way of allowing him to marry the Kallah.
After understanding what the bracha is, we now come to how it should be said. Massechet Megilah 23b lists birkat chatanim as one of the institutions that require a minyan. There needs to be a minyan in order to say the bracha. The recitation of the bracha is an obligation of the groom, but the purpose of the blessings is to gather people together to solidify the marriage in public. In fact, this gathering of the people was a necessary step in the marriage process. It must be done in public in order for the marriage to be recognized. The marriage needs to be recognized, not just privately by the two people, but by the larger community. This gives further support to the idea that marriage is a public event and should be celebrated by the community. Ergo, a marriage, within Judaism, must be a public declaration and G-d must be praised for this particular union.
What is the goal and purpose in involving the larger community in the establishment of this marriage?
The community celebrates this couple and their abilities to affect change in this world. The blessing reminds the bride and groom that their union is not only in the private sphere. Marriage is a directive to the couple to use their combined abilities to elevate the community and the world, and to make G-d’s name known in a greater way. As it says, “Be you the mother of thousands of ten thousands, and let your seed possess the gate of those which hate them.” The offspring in the verse can be referring to all that is derived from this couple including offspring as well as good deeds. Therefore, the more people that come to celebrate, the more the couple is bringing G-d’s glory, and the community at large, to a greater place.
In this way the birkat chatanim is just as much about the people who are blessing the couple, as it is about the couple themselves. There is an idea that every marriage can have an impact on, and influence, on the greater community. We believe that this marriage will lead to the continuation of the nation, both in a physical and a spiritual sense. By bringing the celebration and blessings of this marriage out of the private sphere, it is given the potential to positively impact the world. One person living a moral and just life has a small influence on his surroundings, but two people, a unit, can have a much greater influence on society at large.
Rav Soloveitchik furthers this idea where he says that marriage that is just based on love and subjectivity has the ability to be extinguished. The idea around marriage that allows it to exist forever is its place within the community. Marriage enables life to continue to exist, and the community and the Jewish nation the ability to flourish. Thus, the products of the marriage, an actual child or the couple’s contribution to the world, ultimately provide the continuity foreshadowed in the blessings Rivka receives from her family in this week’s parsha.
The words of the Rav himself best give us the key to the goals of our relationships:
Rav Soloveitchik, Family Redeemed p.36-37:
To base marriage on subjective love and the happiness experienced by two individual partners united in matrimony—as the romanticist, with their theory of immanent semantics, tried to do—is a very risky undertaking. Who knows what genuine love is? And who can guarantee that this sentiment will not exhaust itself with the passage of time and with the experience of boredom and fatigue engendered by monotony? In fact, the trouble with modern marriages stems from the overemphasis placed on the element of subjectivity in marriage. In general, to exclude the child from the marriage semantics and teleology is a result of selfishness and shortsightedness. The Halakhah says marriage fulfills a basic need of the human personality, namely, the need for existence in community. However this community can be attained only through the quorum required by God in his original scheme of creation. The quorum consists of three people, and one of the three is a child. In the threefold community, the two original partners find happiness and self-fulfillment.