Ancient Jewish Marriage

Marriage in ancient times was a negotiated match involving an agreement on conditions, payment of a bridal price, and the groom's

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Yet in the course of time the mohar lost its original meaning as a purchase price paid to the father for his daughter and assumed the significance of a gift to the near relatives of the bride. As far back as in early biblical times, it was customary for a good father to give the whole of the mohar or at least a large part of it to his daughter. A father who appropriated the whole mohar for himself was considered unkind and harsh.

The portion of the mohar which the bride received from her father, and the mattan, which the groom presented to her, were not the only possessions she brought to matrimony. A rich father sometimes gave his daughter a field or other landed property as well as female slaves.


Until late in the Middle Ages, marriage consisted of two ceremonies which were marked by celebrations at two separate times, with an interval between. First came the betrothal [erusin]; and later, the wedding [nissuin]. At the betrothal the woman was legally married, although she still remained in her father's house. She could not belong to another man unless she was divorced from her betrothed. The wedding meant only that the betrothed woman, accompanied by a colorful procession, was brought from her father's house to the house of her groom, and the legal tie with him was consummated.

This division of marriage into two separate events originated in very ancient times when marriage was a purchase, both in its outward form and in its inner meaning. Woman was not recognized as a person but was bought in marriage, like chattel.

Marriage, as with any type of purchase, consisted of two acts. First the price was paid and an agreement reached on the conditions of sale. Sometime later the purchaser took possession of the object. In marriage, the mohar was paid and a detailed agreement reached between the families of the bride and groom. This betrothal was followed by the wedding, when the bride was brought into the home of the groom, who took actual possession of her.

In those days the betrothal was the more important of these two events and maintained its importance as long as marriage was actually based upon a purchase. But as women assumed more importance as individuals, and marriage ceased to be a purchase, attaining moral significance, the actual wedding became more important than the betrothal.

A New Attitude Toward Women

During biblical times, even before the Babylonian exile, Jewish life evolved and changed in many ways, including the attitude toward women. Over time, women came to be regarded as endowed with personalities just as were men.

Even as far back as early biblical times, we find traces of a new moral attitude towards women. For instance, although a man was legally allowed to marry more than one wife, barring kings and princes, very few used this right. As a rule, the ordinary Jew lived in monogamous marriage. [However, as history progressed, monogamy has been observed predominantly by Ashkenazic Jews, following the ban on polygamy in about the 10th century by Rabbenu Gershom, Meor Ha-Golah (the Light of the Diaspora). In Sephardic communities polygamy has never been outlawed, and several sources relate that Christians in Muslim Spain were scandalized by the not infrequent cases of Jewish polygamy.]

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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.