If betrothal can be enacted through money — even, as we learned recently, a single coinor a piece of fruit — what makes it different from any other commercial transaction?
Rav says: One who betroths with a loan is not betrothed, for the loan was given to be spent.
Let us say this is like the Tannaitic debate: One who betroths with a loan is not betrothed; others say, he is betrothed … And they agree with regard to a sale that one acquires it (with a loan).
The debate here is whether one can use a loan to effect betrothal. In other words, if a man lends a woman money, then forgives the debt, does that count as money he has given her for betrothal? Rav says no, though there is an earlier Tannaitic debate on the subject: Both sides agree that one can forgive a loan in order to effect a sale, while they disagree about whether the same action can effect a betrothal.
Rambam (Moses Maimonides) rules, on the one hand, like Rav, that a loan is ineffective for betrothal, but like the earlier source, on the other hand, that a loan can effect a sale of other goods.
Rabbi Aryeh Leib Heller, a late 18th-century/early 19th-century Galician rabbi and halakhic decisor, offers an explanation for this potentially contradictory ruling. He argues that this is similar to the case of a gift that is given on the condition it is returned and that, while this can effect a sale, it cannot effect a betrothal:
… because it requires that she experience pleasure, and if she doesn’t enjoy the equivalent of a peruta (small coin), it is disgraceful for her to betroth herself for nothing … and that is why (one may not betroth with a loan), as betrothal specifically requires pleasure and a loan doesn’t provide pleasure … but for a sale, which doesn’t require enjoyment … a loan is considered money that can be used to acquire something, as there is no pleasure that has already been enjoyed.
Rabbi Heller is saying that there is a fundamental difference between betrothal and a regular sale, despite the fact that both can be enacted with money: Betrothal requires enjoyment. If a woman doesn’t benefit from what she is given at the time of betrothal, she is not considered betrothed. Rav Baruch Gigi, a contemporary leader at Yeshivat Har Etzion, writes, “This can be better understood if we consider kiddushin not as a monetary relationship, but basically as an interpersonal one. Therefore, the money is required not merely as payment, but as a symbol and generator of agreement by the woman to enter a matrimonial relationship.”
It was pointed out to me recently that modern adoption follows a similar pattern: While money is exchanged as part of the process, few would argue that one is simply buying a child. There are costs to solidify the arrangement, logistically and legally, but the money is more a signifier of a legal agreement, in the same way the exchange of money in marriage is. While it would be naive to argue that, historically, marriage has never had a sense of being transactional, it is clear here that the rabbis and later commentators offer a deeper insight into the transaction of marriage: It is, at the end of the day, a living relationship, and not merely a business deal.