Hebrew Betrothal Customs
A Kosher Hebrew wedding has at its heart two simple, minimal requirements - the bride accepts an object worth more than a dime from the groom and the groom recites a ritual formula of acquisition and consecration. These two acts are witnessed, and that is it. Everything else - the canopy (chuppah), the seven wedding blessings, the breaking of a glass and even the presence of a Rabbi - is a custom usually reflecting the heritage of the families involved.
In those days when a man took a liking to a young woman, he approached her father to ask for her hand in marriage. Due to the prevailing economic conditions back then, it took a long time for a man to become financially stable enough to think about starting a family. When he did, he looked for a bride young enough to bear him many children. So while the man in these cases could be in his thirties, the potential bride would often still be a teenager and would need her father's permission to marry.
Inviting the man into their home, the young woman's parents sat down with him around a table while she brought wine and four cups. After she had poured each of them (but not herself) a cup of wine, she listened while this man, who she was meeting for the very first time, described his assets, skills and other qualities that made him a desirable mate. A brief negotiation followed where the price he would have to pay as compensation for the family's loss of their daughter was determined. It was called the bride price.
If the two men reached an agreeable amount all eyes turned to the daughter who had been listening intently to the entire discussion. She now had to decide if she would take this man to be her husband. If she turned her empty cup upside down, the man went away never to return. But if she filled her cup and took a sip of the wine, she was agreeing to become his wife.
Once the terms of the marriage were agreed upon, the groom could formally "propose" to his prospective bride. He would present her with a ketubah, a beautifully decorated formal document that specified the marriage terms and stated his intent to consecrate himself to his bride-to-be. The groom then offered her a gift of value, a possession symbolic of his esteem for her and his willingness to sacrifice in her behalf. Often this gift was a gold ring because the circle symbolized eternity.
Then the groom made a ritual statement, such as the one found in Hosea 2:19-20, formally consecrating himself to his bride. The use of five virtues in this particular statement - "in righteous, in judgment, and in loving kindness, and in mercies, ...in faithfulness" - speaks of Elohim and invites Him into the covenant being made.
The groom then poured a cup of wine for the prospective bride. Because Hebrew law stated that a woman could not be forced to marry a man distasteful to her, the bride was ultimately allowed to choose whether to accept or reject the groom's proposal. If she drank the cup he offered, the covenant was sealed and they were betrothed. The groom would formally accept his bride with another ritual statement, often "You art set apart (or consecrated) for me according to the law of Moses and Israel." Interestingly, the same word for "set apart" was also used to describe a dedicated temple; the bride was considered a temple now set apart for her husband. From this point on, the bride would wear a veil over her hair in public to indicate her status as a betrothed or married woman.
At that point they signed a betrothal agreement, wherein the man promised on oath to return for the young woman when all the wedding preparations were complete. Now they were officially engaged and the relationship could only be terminated by a divorce. He went away to build a home for them on family property next to his father's house. This could take some time, and the couple rarely met again until the father of the groom pronounced the newly built home fit for habitation. Only then was the wedding date set, and the man given permission by his father to go collect his bride for the wedding.
During this time the young woman was to watch and wait at her parents' home. She and her attendants had to maintain a constant state of preparedness, since the wedding date would not be revealed to her until the bridegroom actually appeared at her door to take her to their new home. For his part, the groom would try to show up unexpectedly to surprise her, carrying her off suddenly "like a thief in the night" when no one would see them. The only advance warning she would get was the sound of his voice shouting her name and the blast of a ram's horn - a shofar.
When the attendants discovered that the bride had been "spirited away" they would organize a great torch-lit procession, going throughout the whole town announcing that the wedding banquet was soon to begin. The banquet typically capped off a seven-day celebration during which the bride and groom were hidden away in their private rooms, consummating their union, while the whole town made merry. Then they reappeared at the banquet to receive the congratulations of their friends and family. The father of the groom paid for all the festivities.