In talmudic times the bethrothal period or erusin was a stage in the halachic process of marriage that required a formal divorce to dissolve. Consummation and cohabitation were prohibited until after the marriage rituals or nissuin under the chuppah. Typically, betrothal/erusin was permitted to last for up to twelve months. (However, I have read that when involving a widow or widower, the maximum was reduced to thirty days.)
The custom of contracting a binding betrothal/erusin period fell out of practice some time in the early mid-ages. Instead, non-binding engagement celebrations began to emerge during which couples often signed tenaim (conditions) which stated their intention to marry and the conditions to be met in the event that one of the couple broke the engagement. Incorporating teniam into engagement celebrations is gaining popularity in progressive Jewish circles.
A Reconstructionist approach to Jewish law looks to halacha for guidance, if not governance. In contrast to restrictions on length of betrothal/erusin, in our case of modern-day non-binding (tenaim-type) engagement, there are no halachic restrictions on duration.
There are however, many practices that have become customary to observe during this period. And to my mind, these can be useful in guiding couples to determine the length of their engagement.
Jewish engagement customs are primarily meant to be ways of preparing individuals and couples for married* life. Allowing that intent to have a voice in their decision-making, length of engagement would then ideally emerge organically as the couple prepared themselves for marriage.
Ideally, the couple would be able to determine together when they are prepared – or prepared enough(!) – to stand under the chuppah together.
For me, engagement customs are like wedding gifts from Jewish tradition to modern couples. Every traditional custom (whether we practice it or not) invites a different series of questions for reflection and growing together as a couple.
Though in today’s world, many couples have asked themselves these questions before they get engaged, an engagement period is an incredible opportunity to turn up the volume on these questions – to intensify individual kavanah and galvanize more direct conversations about them. In a time when you’re busy planning wedding details, this can be a welcome and very grounding break.
Custom: Studying Family Purity laws as a way to prepare for Jewish married life.
Guidance: Prepare for Jewish married life. Reflect on what having a Jewish home will mean to you. What will be different after you get married, in terms of how you live out our Jewish lives together? What are your Jewish commitments - to our Jewish community, to the global community, to religious practice, to our potential children?
Custom: Exchanging gifts with one another
Guidance: Consider the gifts (of time, focus, resources) you commit to bring to your partner once you’re married. How much are you ready to give of yourself? What are your limits? What are the gifts you bring in terms of who you are and how you function in a relationship? What are you prepared to work on in terms of how you relate to your partner? What are you afraid of having to sacrifice, and how can you best address that fear independently or together? What are the gifts your partner brings to you? How does that make you a better, happier, more whole person?
Guidance: What does it mean to enter into this time together in good faith? What does an engagement period signify to you as a couple?
Are you ready to work together to determine when to get married? Are you prepared to take one another’s feelings concerns about this as seriously as our own? Are you committed to going though wedding planning with as much patience and good humor as you can garner?
How will you deal with wedding finances and other decisions?
If you’ve done a lot of spiritual and emotional preparation, and you’re still not taking the plunge, you may want to ask yourself to look honestly at what’s holding you back. You may want to consider whether extending the engagement period is doing the right and the good toward your partner by Jewish standards. If you haven’t done any personal or interpersonal preparation, you may want to ask yourselves – what re we loosing out on as individuals and as a couple and as Jews by not doing that?
Of course, every situation is unique. Health or any number of imaginable considerations can affect a decision on how long to be engaged. I have put those important particularities aside for the sake of offering some general suggestions guided inspired by ancient Jewish life and wisdom. I do that I hope they will be useful
*I use the term “Married” for simplicity. I mean it to be applied to the formalizing – legal or not (yet) – of relationships of all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, sex or gender identification of partners. May the day come soon when no distinction is made in the eyes of American civil law.
L'Shalom (Towards Peace),
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