One of the common questions that I hear from couples is: “What do people normally say in their vows at a Jewish wedding?”
The ultra-traditional approach
My first answer is that, the most common form for centuries was a very short statement, by only the groom, on placing the ring on the bride’s finger. The ring symbolized a business transaction in which the groom acquired the bride as a possession and had to give something of value in return. The ketubah – the written marriage contract, signed at the wedding, with witnesses – was a promise by the groom to recompense the bride in the event of his divorcing her. (She was not allowed to divorce him.) The groom spoke this short sentence: Harei at m’kudeshet li b’taba’at zo k’dat Mosheh v’Yisrael (‘Behold you [fem.] are consecrated unto me, with this ring, according to the Law of Moses and Israel.’)
Drawing on tradition … and updating it
My second answer is that modern couples often prefer to update the ritual to be more egalitarian. Here are four possibilities:
- Some couples like the bride to add the equivalent wording in response: Harei atah [masc.] mekudash li b’tab’aat zo k’dat Mosheh v’Yisrael. Some purists have suggested this undoes the original contract set up by the groom, as the reciprocal giving of a ring by the ‘second party’ – with the verbal formula – nullifies the binding nature of the first ‘transaction’. Same-sex couples can use the appropriate gender-language for these statements.
- The second partner can say: Ani l’dodi v’dodi li. (‘I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.’) (Song of Songs 7:11, 2:16) Alternatively, both partners can say this to each other.
- Use the words meaning ‘Behold, you are holy to me’: Harei atah mekudah li [to a man] or Harei at mekudash li [to a woman]. This leaves off the explicit reference to Moses or Israel, which fits more easily with an interfaith wedding.
- Use the following: V’erastich li l’olam. V’erastich li b’tzedek uv’mishpat, uv’chesed uv’rachamim. V’erastich li b’emunah, v’yada’at et Adonai. (‘I betroth you to me forever; I betroth you to me with steadfast love and compassion; I betroth you to me in faithfulness.’ (Hosea 2:21-22)
Adding to older traditions
My third answer is to point out that all of the above suggestions favour a very short form of vow, and a couple may wish to explore some further possibilities. Include one of the options mentioned above, and in addition, a personalized ritual that might include one or more of the following:
- Personal statements to each other. These can be of any length, but I recommend brevity … An example of vows: “I Isaac, take you, June, my friend, to be my beloved wife, to love, cherish and trust all my days.” And then on placing the ring on the partner’s finger: “June, I give you this ring as a sign of our covenant with each other, and so that all may know of our love for one another. With my body, heart, mind and spirit, I will honour you, cherish you, and stay with you all my days.”
- A contemporary reframing of the idea of the ketubah [lit. ‘a written document’] in which the couple writes out a declaration of their core shared values and aspirations for their marriage (see below). This can be read out in the ceremony, and signed by the couple and chosen witnesses.
Ketubot (plural of ketubah) – making new traditions
The ketubah, originally a legal contract protecting the wife financially, can be reconceived as a loving statement of mutual commitment and aspiration, that can become a continuing source of inspiration to a couple throughout their lives. Reading the ketubah out at the wedding draws everyone into the meaning of the event. The couple might want to consider having the guests sign as well.
Writing your ketubah together helps preparation for the day, how you feel and what happens for you under the chuppah, and in the years after your wedding (Wiener, p.44). Adriana Saipe has written ‘Ketubah Texts – How to write your own!‘ a short online guide to help couples get started with this. In addition to her suggestions, couples could consider the following:
- What expectations do you have of yourselves, each other, and the marriage? What do you intend to give to the marriage? What will help you get through the hard times? How high a priority will you give to intimacy and maintaining the health of your relationship alongside the multiple demands of daily life? What do you need to negotiate and agree on with each other before you marry?
- Take time to make contact within yourself with whatever you might call your highest, best self, that is wise, honest and loving – verbalise the pledges that you wish to make to your partner, and the partnership from that place within yourself. The ketubah can be written as a joint statement of intent. Crafting it is in itself a deep revealing of the partners to themselves, and each other, and a way of taking the relationship deeper – and higher.
Here are two examples of ketubot that I have helped write for couples:
Ketubah – Example 1
“On the [number] day of [month], in [venue, county], [first partner’s full name] and [second partner’s full name] declared before the witnesses assembled: “With hearts full of joy and awe we stand before God, under the heavens and under the chuppah, linking our past to our future and uniting our lives. We consecrate ourselves to one another, entering into a sacred covenant of love, trust and commitment. We promise to cherish, honour and support each other, striving ever to be loving, tolerant, patient, honest, fair and loyal partners. Respecting our differences and sharing our strengths, may we together meet life’s challenges. May we always remember our sense of humour and may laughter be ever present in our lives. Nurtured by this marriage, may our souls blossom, our talents flower, and our dreams bear fruit. United in body and spirit, we will weave a tapestry of celebration, sanctifying the cycle of our years and the seasons of our lives. As we work for tikkun olam, repairing the world, may God protect and guide us on our life’s journey, blessing our hearts with happiness, our minds with wisdom, and our home with abundance and peace. May we always share these blessings with our loved ones and all those whom we meet.”
Ketubah – Example 2
“On the [number] Day of the week, the [number] Day of the month of [Jewish month] in the year [Jewish year], corresponding to [Gregorian / conventional date], this covenant of marriage was entered into in [venue, county] between the beloveds [first partner’s full name] and [second partner’s full name]. Surrounded by family and friends, and witnessed by God, we enter into this holy union with joyful hearts. Whenever we look up, may we be there for each other; may we stand by each other always, laughing together, listening to and caring for one another, being patient and sensitive to each other’s needs, sharing each other’s joys, sorrows, and challenges, supporting each other to grow. May our home be a place of warmth, trust, clarity, and generosity of spirit. May we build a sense of family shaped by our respective heritages, respecting and bridging differences, treating others how we would wish to be treated.; may love transform the most commonplace into beauty and splendour, and sweetness and grace; And when we grow old, may we walk together hand in hand, still feeling the sweetness of our devotion. We give ourselves without reservation to our union; may our lives be entwined forever.”