(photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker)
“You shall make ritual fringes on the four corners [literally wings, kanaf in
Hebrew] of the garment with which you cover yourself. When a man marries
a woman and he cohabits with her…” (Deuteronomy 22:12, 13).
These two commandments – for a male to append ritual fringes on each fourcornered garment he puts on and for a male to betroth a woman – follow each other. Is there a connection? I would like to explain the juxtaposition by analyzing an interesting Sephardi custom which has become part of many Ashkenazi wedding ceremonies, especially in Israel.
The traditional Jewish wedding is composed of two distinct ceremonies:
the betrothal (engagement, or kiddushin), whose major characteristic is
the groom’s giving a ring to his bride in front of two witnesses while
declaring, “Behold, you are consecrated unto me with this ring, in
accordance with the laws of Moses and of Israel.” From that moment on,
the couple cannot enter any other romantic relationship.
In Mishnaic times, and perhaps even beyond, the bride and groom did not
live together after the betrothal. The respective families would get to
know each other, the groom would arrange a home for his bride and the
bride would be busy gathering her trousseau. Generally after one year
had passed, the second ceremony – the marriage itself (nissuin) took
place. The groom would then take the bride into their new home, supply a
feast for family and friends, the seven nuptial blessings would be
recited, and then – in the privacy of their new dwelling – the marriage
would be consummated.
In later Amoraic times (200 – 750 CE) the sages felt it was impractical
to keep a couple apart for an entire year, so both ceremonies were
merged. But in order to retain the separate nature of each, the reading
of the ketuba (in which the husband obligates himself to love and
respect his wife, and provide her with a life insurance and alimony
policy) is read aloud between the giving of the ring and the act of
marriage, in which the seven blessings are recited under the nuptial
canopy. The nuptial canopy symbolizes the new home they are about to
The Sephardi custom is for the bride to give her betrothed a new tallit
with ritual fringes appended to its four corners; the groom is to wrap
himself in the tallit for the first time at the conclusion of the
reading of the marriage contract and just before the recitation of the
seven blessings under the nuptial canopy.
Just prior to his donning the tallit, the groom makes a special blessing
(sheheheyanu), thanking God for granting him the privilege of
celebrating this event. The blessing marks both the acquisition of the
new tallit and the advent of the new marriage. The groom wraps the
tallit around himself and his wife; both stand together under the tallit
and under the nuptial canopy, where they listen to the seven nuptial
blessings which conclude the ceremonies.
Two questions beg to be asked. First of all, one object cannot be used
for two mitzvot – and here the prayer shawl is being used both for a
blessing over a new garment as well as for a blessing over a new
marriage. Secondly, how can one compare the acquisition of a new garment
to the acquisition of a new life partner? The source of the custom of
the tallit is derived from the Scroll of Ruth. When this sincere Moabite
convert has a nocturnal meeting with Boaz in the silo – and in effect
informs him that she is ready to marry him – she makes herself known to
him as “Ruth, your servant, over whom you have spread your wings [or
more literally “corner of protection”], because you are [my] redeemer”
Hence, by means of the Hebrew word kanaf, the ritual fringes are
symbolic of both the 613 commandments – the “wings” which enable every
Jew to soar to supernal spheres – as well as of the protective covering
provided by the Almighty. That’s why Boaz used the same word in praising
Ruth for forsaking her homeland and family in order to come “under the
protective wings [corners] of the Lord God of Israel” (Ruth 2:12).
Now everything should be coming together.
The second part of the marriage ceremony – the nuptial canopy –
symbolizes the new home. But what is truly the new home of a young
couple? In the Jewish tradition it is the 613 commandments, the “wings
of protection” which God provides, the tallit with its ritual fringes,
which must become the spiritual walls of the home and family the bride
and groom are now building together.
Our only true home is the house of God, and this is the home provided by
the tallit and its “wings,” the four corners of the nuptial canopy.
The blessing over the tallit is the blessing over the marriage
relationship; one must define the other. And therefore, the biblical
connection between the commandment of ritual fringes and the commandment
to marry finds a most worthy expression.The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.