Welcome to Tractate Kiddushin! For the next 81 pages, the rabbis will take up the subject of betrothal, which is called both kiddushin (primarily in rabbinic sources) and erusin (primarily in biblical sources). But before we dive in, it’s worth explaining that rabbinic betrothal is not the same as modern engagement, which is closer to what Jewish tradition calls shidduchin — an agreement to marry that doesn’t necessarily include a sparkly ring but does involve hammering out the financial particulars of the future marriage. In fact, as we will learn in a few weeks’ time on Kiddushin 12b, Rav held that shidduchin was a necessary precursor to kiddushin, and betrothing someone without it was punishable by lashes.
Kiddushin is far stronger than engagement because, as the name (which derives from the Hebrew root that means to sanctify) implies, it is the moment that the woman becomes consecrated to her husband and therefore sexually off limits to other men, on penalty of death. Further, kiddushin can be canceled only by divorce. So in this respect, kiddushin is closer to marriage than modern engagement.
Since medieval times, Jews have combined kiddushin and nissuin into one ceremony so that a woman’s sexual obligation to her husband is enacted only moments before his financial obligations to her take effect. But in rabbinic times, they were separated, often by months or more. Why might there have been an advantage to having a period of time during which a woman was consecrated to her husband but he was not obligated to support her? Perhaps because this allowed a man to take a wife before he was economically ready to support her. And for a young couple not yet ready for full marriage, betrothal might have protected a woman from the predatory advances of other men, since sleeping with her was now a capital offense.
So how is kiddushin accomplished? According to the mishnah that opens our tractate:
A woman is acquired in three ways, and she acquires herself in two ways. She is acquired through money, through a document and through sexual intercourse … And a woman acquires herself through a bill of divorce or through the death of the husband.
As will become clear in the Gemara, the rabbis thought the first of these three methods — money — was the preferred method of betrothing a woman. In their day, this was done with a coin, but for the last several centuries it has more commonly been accomplished with a ring of significant value. But theoretically, according to this mishnah, a man could also accomplish the same by giving a witnessed document (not to be confused with the ketubah) or even by having intercourse with her — as long as the intention was clear at the outset, making accidental betrothal in the heat of passion impossible. However, the rabbis of the Talmud, who lived in the centuries after the Mishnah was written and were opposed to this last method, even prescribing punishment for a man who betroths his wife through sex. They nonetheless acknowledge that it is legally effective.
The language of today’s mishnah makes clear that the rabbis envisioned kiddushin as a unidirectional process. She is “acquired” by him, and she only “acquires herself” back with the dissolution of the marriage, through either divorce or the death of her husband. This accords with the fact that, in talmudic times, men were permitted to take more than one wife. Women did not consecrate men to themselves because men’s sexual status was unchanged by marriage. Only with the edict of Rabbeinu Gershom in about the year 1000 was polygamy officially outlawed for the Ashkenazi Jewish community. In recent decades, some liberal Jewish movements have introduced what might be seen as a logical consequence of banning polygamy, the notion of double kiddushin, in which both marital partners acquire one another.
Though these developments were still a long way off for the rabbis of the Talmud, they did not think of betrothal as something in which the woman has no active part. The Gemara on today’s page, which asks a number of questions about the language of this mishnah, wonders why the mishnah doesn’t say that he acquires her but rather that she is acquired:
If the mishnah had taught: The man acquires the woman, I would say that he can acquire her even against her will. But the mishnah taught: The woman is acquired, from which it may be inferred that (he betrothers her) with her consent, yes, but without her consent, no.
There’s a whole lot more to learn about this step in the rabbinic marriage process. We’ll be back tomorrow with more.
Read all of Kiddushin 2 on Sefaria.