Author Archives: Hayyim Schauss

About Hayyim Schauss

Hayyim Schauss taught for more than twenty-five years at the Jewish Teachers Seminary in New York and at the College of Jewish Studies and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He was the author of many books and articles on the Jewish religion and its customs, ceremonies and folklore.

Ancient Jewish Marriage

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 Giftold wedding ring

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.

History of Bar Mitzvah

Schauss traces bar mitzvah from biblical and talmudic times, when it meant simply reaching the age of majority, through later ceremonial observances of the occasion. Particularly interesting is his focus on customs surrounding the bar mitzvah ceremony, both in Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions. He also suggests why it became traditional for the bar mitzvah to read the maftir, the last of the section of the Torah portion on a Shabbat. Adapted with permission from The Lifetime of a Jew Throughout the Ages of Jewish History (UAHC Press, now out of print).

In the Bible, a man reached the age of majority at age 20, when he was eligible for war and taxation. In talmudic times, the age of majority was moved to 13, and in recognition of the son’s change in status, the father pronounced a blessing in which he praised God for relieving him of responsibility for his son’s conduct. But no celebration marked the occasion. 

Talmud Allows Ritual Involvement of Minors

During the talmudic era and early medieval times, a ceremony made no sense, because a minor was permitted to participate in all religious observances as soon as he was considered mentally fit [to do so]. He was called up to an aliyah to say blessings over the Torah and was supposed to wear tefillin, or phylacteries. The minor was even encouraged to fast on Yom Kippur. Two years before he turned 13, a child fasted until noon, and a year before his majority, he fasted the whole day.

history of bar mitzvahThe distinction between a minor and one who had obtained his majority was theoretical. The latter did as a religious duty what a minor did optionally. The majority was not distinguished by additional religious duties and privileges, and therefore the attainment of majority could not be marked by any special observances. Until late in the Middle Ages, the attainment of majority was an uneventful date in the life of the Jew.

As Minor’s Religious Rights Give Way, Age of Majority Gains Importance

Gradually, during the later Middle Ages, this situation underwent a change. The religious rights that the Talmud accorded to the minor were now restricted. He was deprived of the right to be “called up” to the reading of the Torah. He was no longer permitted to wear tefillin. The attainment of majority gained new importance as an attainment of new religious rights, and the ground was prepared for a ceremony around the bar mitzvah, as a boy 13 years old was beginning to be called.