Tenaim: The Conditions of Marriage

Contemporary couples are reinterpreting an old ceremony that set the financial and logistical arrangements for an upcoming marriage

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The author provides a historical context for the Jewish tradition of tenaim where the families of prospective bride and groom would meet to set primarily financial and logistical "conditions" for an upcoming marriage; in a small number of communities, tenaim are still practiced this way. In the spirit of the contemporary trend toward developing new Jewish ceremonies, the author then describes how a modern "tenaim" ceremony might work. The contemporary version is, for all practical purposes, a new ceremony based broadly on the notion that certain "conditions," albeit primarily personal ones, are set in anticipation of the upcoming marriage. Excerpted with permission from The New Jewish Wedding (Simon & Schuster, Inc.).

The decision to marry is one of life's momentous choices. Some couples have made it the occasion for a celebration based on the Ashkenazic custom of tenaim--literally, the "conditions" of the marriage.

Every engagement announces that two people are changing their status; the public declaration of their decision instantly designates them bride and groom. Tenaim kicks off the season of the wedding, officially and Jewishly.

An Old Ceremony

From the 12th to the early 19th century, tenaim announced that two families had come to terms on a match between their children. The document setting out their agreement, also called tenaim, would include the dowry and other financial arrangements, the date and time of the huppah [the actual wedding ceremony], and a knas, or penalty, if either party backed out of the deal.

After the document was signed and read aloud by an esteemed guest, a piece of crockery was smashed. The origins of this practice are not clear; the most common interpretation is that a shattered dish recalls the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and it is taken to demonstrate that a broken engagement cannot be mended. The broken dish also anticipates the shattered glass that ends the wedding ceremony.Broken plate

In some communities it was customary for all the guests to bring some old piece of crockery to smash on the floor. There is also a tradition that the mothers-in-law-to-be break the plate--a symbolic rending of mother-child ties and an acknowledgment that soon their children will be feeding each other. After the plate breaking, the party began.

Possibilities for Celebration of Tenaim Today

Tenaim is not required by Jewish law, and as family-arranged weddings became a thing of the past, the ceremony lost much of its meaning and popularity. The signing of traditional tenaim remains a vestigial practice in some Jewish communities, where the agreement to marry is signed on the day of the wedding itself. Modern reinterpretations of the tenaim return the ceremony to its original, anticipatory celebration some months in advance.

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Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.