As we have seen, much of Tractate Ketubot treats marriage as a transactional enterprise, focusing more on the legal and economic elements than, say, love or joy. All of that changes today! Mazel tov on sticking around for this delightful payoff as the discussion turns to the mitzvah of bringing joy to the bride and groom.
We first learned of this mitzvah in the very first week of our Daf Yomi journey, on Berakhot 6b:
And Rabbi Helbo said that Rav Huna said: Anyone who benefits from the feast of a groom but does not cause him to rejoice violates the five voices, as it is stated: “The voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, and the voice of those who say: Give thanks to the Lord of hosts.” (Jeremiah 33:11)
On today’s daf, we see a number of examples of how the rabbis fulfilled this mitzvah.
The sages said about Rabbi Yehuda bar Elai that he would take a myrtle branch and dance before the bride and say: A fair and attractive bride.
Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak would base his dance on three myrtle branches that he would juggle.
These types of wedding shenanigans fall today under the general category of shtick, a Yiddish word meaning a comic routine. Examples I’ve encountered over the years have included the use of glow sticks, puppets, specially designed T-shirts and — in the case of my son’s wedding — ping pong balls juggled, thrown, and collected in the groom’s hat box for a surprise later on. Silliness is part of the fun.
However, some of the rabbis question whether this sort of thing is appropriate. Their specific concerns fall into two categories: lack of decorum and sexual impropriety. We’ll look at these issues one at a time.
Referring to Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak, the myrtle-juggling dancer, Rabbi Zeira said:
The old man is humiliating us. It is further related: When Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak died, a pillar of fire demarcated between him and everyone else, and we learn that a pillar of fire demarcates only for either one person in a generation or for two people in a generation.
In chastising his colleague and belittling him as “the old man,” Rav Zeira is expressing concern that his silly behavior undercuts the seriousness of the rabbinic profession. But the Talmud immediately rejects this opinion, noting that when he died, Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak’s grave was separated from others by a pillar of fire, underscoring his greatness and effectively dismissing any criticism over his actions. His behavior at weddings was seen not only as appropriate, but a laudatory way to fulfill the mitzvah of rejoicing with the bride and groom.
And what of the fear of sexual impropriety? Further down the daf, we read:
Rav Aha would place the bride on his shoulders and dance. The sages said to him: What is the ruling? Is it permitted for us to do so as well?
In a society in which men and women were generally forbidden from touching, witnessing a rabbi engaged in a dance with the bride on his shoulders would certainly have been surprising, if not outright shocking. Rav Aha’s colleagues ask how this is permissible — and whether they can have a go as well. Not so fast, says Rav Aha:
He said to them: If for you brides are comparable to a beam, fine, but if not, no.
Rav Aha rules that dancing with the bride in this manner is permissible only if one is not aroused by having the bride on his shoulders, returning our focus from what might be prurient to the mitzvah of gladdening the bride and groom.
As with the custom of smashing a glass under the huppah to temper levity with restraint, we see that shtick is fine until the moment when festivity tips into chaos. Centering our love, admiration, attention and entertainment on the couple is, after all, the focus of the wedding celebration — and a mitzvah!
Read all of Ketubot 17 on Sefaria.