By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
“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 four-cornered garment he wears 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 that has become part of many Ashkenazi wedding ceremonies, especially in Israel.
The traditional Jewish wedding is composed of two distinct ceremonies.
The first is 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 gather 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 enter.
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 that 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” (Ruth 3:9).
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.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.