Adapted with permission from The Lifetime of a Jew Throughout the Ages of Jewish History (UAHC Press, now out of print).
In biblical times, people were married in early youth, and marriages were usually contracted within the narrow circle of the clan and the family. It was undesirable to marry a woman from a foreign clan, lest she introduce foreign beliefs and practices.
Negotiating a Match
As a rule, the fathers arranged the match. The girl was consulted, but the “calling of the damsel and inquiring at her mouth” after the conclusion of all negotiations was merely a formality.
In those days a father was more concerned about the marriage of his sons than about the marriage of his daughters. No expense was involved in marrying off a daughter. The father received a dowry for his daughter whereas he had to give a dowry to the prospective father-in-law of his son when marrying him off.
The price paid by the father of the groom to the father of the bride was called mohar. In the stories of Genesis, Shekhem [Dina’s suitor] said to Dinah’s father and her brothers: “Let me find favor in your eyes, and what ye shall say unto me I will give. Ask me never so much mohar and mattan, and I will give according as ye shall say unto me; but give me the damsel to wife.” “Mattan” was the Hebrew word for the gifts given by the groom to the bride in addition to the mohar.
The mohar was not always paid in cash. Sometimes it was paid in kind, or in service. The book of Genesis relates the story of the servant of Abraham, who, after his request for Rebekah [to marry Isaac] was granted, “brought forth jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment, and gave them to Rebekah; he gave also to her brother and to her mother precious things.” The servant thus gave mattan to Rebekah, and mohar to her brother and mother.
The Bible does not specify what was to be done with the mohar in case the marriage agreement was broken by either of the two parties.
Mohar as Purchase and Gift
The mohar was originally the purchase price of the bride, and it is therefore understandable why it was paid by the father of the groom to the father of the bride. In ancient days, marriage was not an agreement between two individuals, but between two families.