Talmud pages

Ketubot 4

Marriage or mourning?

On today’s daf we explore cases in which a close relative of the bride or groom dies shortly before the wedding, and the rabbinic recommendation on how to proceed. Should the couple proceed as planned with the marriage, or take time to mourn first?

Perhaps surprisingly, what informs the rabbinic discussion is not the emotional experience of leaping from funeral to wedding, but the principle of bal tashchit: do not waste. This is derived by the rabbis from Deuteronomy 20:19–20, which forbids the destruction of fruit trees in war.

A favorite explanation of this principle is found in a 13th-century book explaining the 613 Jewish commandments, Sefer Hachinuch. Mitzvah number 529 reminds us: “This is the way of the pious and people of [proper] action… they do not destroy even a grain of mustard in the world. And they are distressed by all loss and destruction that they see; and if they can prevent it, they will prevent any destruction with all of their strength.”

Wasting resources, particularly food resources, is something to be avoided. Therefore, argues the Talmud, in the case of a death before a wedding:

If one’s bread was baked and his animal slaughtered and his wine mixed and the father of the groom or the mother of the bride died, one moves the body into a room, and the bride and groom are ushered to the wedding canopy.

Burying the deceased leads inexorably to impurity and also triggers a state of mourning, which in turn would automatically postpone the wedding at least a week. If various food preparations have already been made such that the bread is poised to go stale, the meat to rot, and the wine has been unsealed and mixed with water (a common way to serve wine in antiquity) — then the body of the bride’s mother or groom’s father is carefully tucked away in a room and the wedding goes on. 

To modern readers, this probably sounds strange and potentially disrespectful. It might help to remember that food resources were not infrequently scarce in antiquity, making the prospect of losing a wedding feast significant.

Why specifically the father of the groom or mother of the bride, and not the mother of the groom or the father of the bride? The Gemara explains that these are the people who traditionally plan wedding feasts. And since they are dead, there would be no other opportunity in the future to honor their plans for a wedding for their child. This double incentive makes clear that the wedding should take place as scheduled. 

We also learn that if the opposite took place — the mother of the groom or father of the bride died — we don’t have the same kind of pressure to observe the wedding as planned. Postponement of the wedding until after the period of mourning is preferred. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz articulates what this might have looked like in practical terms: “The corpse is buried immediately, the seven-day mourning period is observed, and only afterward is the couple married.”

But further on Rafram bar Pappa reminds us of Rav Hisda’s teaching that there is a slightly different way of deciding whether to proceed:

The sages taught that (they are married immediately) only if one already placed water on the meat. However, if he did not place water on the meat, it can be sold. 

Again, Rafram bar Pappa insists that the wedding can only be postponed if the food won’t go to waste. But in this case, the measure is whether water was already placed on meat, in which case it cannot be resold to someone who can use it. 

Rava now notes that the salability of the meat might be geographically determined:

In a city (the wedding can be postponed because) even if he placed water on the meat it can be sold. 

In cities, where there are always lots of people around, surely we can find someone who will buy meat that needs to be eaten in a hurry. It follows that if we can eliminate the concern that food would go to waste, and we can postpone the wedding to bury the dead.

Now Rav Pappa chimes in with the inverse principle: 

In a village, even if he did not place water on the meat, it cannot be sold. 

In a small community, it might be difficult to find a buyer for the wedding meat — regardless of whether its expiration date is imminent. So Rav Pappa would urge the wedding to proceed. 

In sum, to answer the question of which takes precedence: marriage or mourning? The rabbinic answer is: food.

Read all of Ketubot 4 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 10th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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