Is it forbidden by Jewish Law to perform a wedding on Shabbat?


My teacher and Rabbi, Rabbi Gershon Winkler, has written:

"One of my favorite hobbies is responding to mistaken facts and other misnomers about Judaism. Such misnomers are by no means the erroneous conclusions of those who are not Jewish, but equally of those who are, even among the very learned. I will from time to time present examples, and share them. Remember, all of these sources I've translated below are from rabbinic rulings that are pre-Reform, pre-Conservative, pre-Renewal, pre- Reconstructionist, pre-Humanistic, pre-Polydoxy, pre-Flexidoxy:

It is a misnomer to suppose that it is forbidden by Jewish law to perform a wedding on the Sabbath.

While it is preferable not to perform a wedding or get married on the Sabbath, it is not forbidden by Jewish law to perform a wedding nor to get married on the Sabbath. Especially in extenuating circumstances.

According to Rabbenu Ya'acov Ben Me'ir Tam (1100-1171), it is permitted to conduct a wedding on the Sabbath if the groom does not already have a wife and children (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol).

The 16th-century Rabbi of Cracow, Rabbi Moses Isserles (RAMA), reminds us that the ancient rabbis permitted marriage on the Sabbath under certain conditions, such as an emergency, to avoid an embarrassing situation, or for the preservation of human dignity. "Great indeed is human dignity," he writes, "for it overrides a prohibition... Moreover, the prohibition against marriage on the Sabbath is only a rabbinic decree, to keep us from writing the marriage contract (ketubah) on the Sabbath, as is explained in the [Babylonian] Talmud; or because such a marriage might be deemed to be the acquisition of a possession on the Sabbath, as is explained in the Jerusalem Talmud [since it] might involve exchange of property, etc.]... In addition, we are concerned that the match might be broken off completely and there would be no marriage at all as a result of quarreling between the families, and "great is the value of peace between man and wife" (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 141)...The situation of the moment requires us to be lenient in such matters which are only rabbinic prohibition, because such rabbinic prohibitory decrees were not meant to apply in times of extenuating circumstances. It is best to not perform the wedding on the Sabbath, but when such a situation arises and it is the Sabbath, and there is ground for concern that if the wedding is not performed the match will be jeopardized or the bride will be shamed, and so on -- under such circumstances, he who relies on the above arguments to be lenient has done no harm. May he delight in peace and the joy of the Sabbath thereafter. The good deed that he has done will outweigh for him any wrongness in the matter, if his intention was for the sake of Heaven and for peace" (Source: Say'lot Ut'Shu'vot HaRama, no. 125, pp. 448-495).

Also, refer to the following:

by Rabbi Eugene Mihaly z"l
Professor of Midrash
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

During the annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in San Francisco in June, 1976, a Resolution was introduced which in its initial form called for sanctions on the part of the C.C.A.R. against those Rabbis who perform marriages on the Sabbath. Subsequently, the Resolution was modified to the effect that "the C.C.A.R. should issue a strong statement regarding marriage on the Sabbath." After a brief discussion, the question was referred to the appropriate committee.

The following is an analysis of the traditional sources on the subject and a response to the question from a Reform Jewish perspective.

I. The Sources.

A. The primary source on the question of marriage on the Sabbath is the Mishnah Bezah V. 2.

All activities prohibited by the Rabbis on the Sabbath because they considered the activity a shevut (a preventive Rabbinic prohibition, to protect a more important principle, or because the activity is not in harmony with the spirit of the Sabbath) whether that activity is a purely permissive and optional act, whether it is one which may to some extent involve a mitzvah, a meritorious deed (reshut), or even if the activity is a commandment, a full mitzvah, since the Rabbis prohibited them on the Sabbath, they are also prohibited on the festival.
(Note that this Mishnah is dealing with a series of Rabbinic prohibitions not in the category of Biblically forbidden labors of their derivatives, but which the Rabbis nevertheless prohibited a shevut, as a fence and a protective measure to guard against the performance of another act which they considered a real violation of the Sabbath.)
The following completely permissive acts may not be performed on the Sabbath because the Rabbis prohibited them: One may not climb a tree, or ride a beast, nor swim in water, nor clap the hands, nor slap (the thighs), nor dance. The following are Rabbinically prohibited, even though their performance is something of a meritorious deed (reshut), a mitzvah kalah.
(Note that the word reshut was used in ancient Palestine in the sense of a mitzvah kalah. Cf. Rashi ad loc, and especially S. Lieberman in Tarbiz Vol. 5, 1934, pp. 97ff.):
One may not judge, nor betroth a wife, nor perform the ceremony of halizah, nor consummate a levirate marriage. The Rabbis prohibited the following on the Sabbath, even though the acts involved the performance of a commandment. (They are in the category of a complete mitzvah): One may not dedicate anything to the Temple, nor vow a personal valuation, etc., etc. . . .

B. The discussion in the Gemara of the Babylonian Talmud (Bezah 36b) gives the reasons for the various Rabbinic prohibitions cited in the Mishnah. Thus, the prohibition "not to climb a tree" is explained as a preventive measure lest he be tempted to pluck (which is a Biblical prohibition). Similarly, the Mishnaic injunction not to ride a beast is a preventive measure lest he cut off a switch (to use as a whip). Clapping of the hands, slapping the thighs and dancing are explained as preventive measures lest "he might repair musical instruments."

The Rabbinic injunction "not to betroth a wife" on the Sabbath, prompts the question in the Gemara: Is he not discharging a religious obligation? (Marriage is a mitzvah!) The reply in the Gemara is that
the Mishnah deals with a specific case where the man already has a wife and children and has therefore already fulfilled the obligation "to be fruitful and multiply." Therefore, his marriage is not a mitzvah.

The precise meaning of the above question and answer in the Gemara is a matter of controversy and is differently interpreted by Rashi and Rabbenu Tam.

Rashi interprets the question to mean: Why is the prohibition against betrolhal on the Sabbath listed in the Mishnah under reshut (implying that it is not a complete mitzvah), rather than being listed under the category of a full mitzvah? (The Mishnah list the various injunctions under three headings: shevut, reshut, and mitzvah.) The question in the Gemara, according to Rashi, is therefore addressed only to the place where the prohibition against betrothal is listed in the Mishnah, but not to the substance of the matter. The answer of the Gemara that the Mishnah speaks in the specific case where the man already has a wife and children explains why this prohibition is listed under the category of reshut, rather than under the category of mitzvah. Even if a man had not been previously married and had children, the prohibition against betrothal on the Sabbath, according to Rashi, would still apply.

According to Rabbenu Tam (one of the outstanding Tosaphists, a grandson of Rashi), however, the question in the Talmud is addressed to the substance of the matter. Jacob Tam understands the Gemara to ask: Why should the Rabbis prohibit a marriage on the Sabbath since he is performing a mitzvah, a commandment?
The answer then follows that only in a case where a man already has a wife and children and has thus performed the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, only in such a case is marriage on the Sabbath prohibited. If, however, he has not previously married and had children and has, therefore, not yet fulfilled the commandment to propagate, then one is permitted to be married on the Sabbath. (See Tosaphot Bezah 36 b, d. h. VehaMitzvah.)

The Talmudic discussion concludes that the Rabbinic prohibitions to betroth a wife or to perform halizah or levirate marriage are preventive measures "lest he write." These prohibitions are, in other words, Rabbinic gezerot (a fence) to protect the more important.injunction against writing on the Sabbath.

C. In a comment on the Mishnah Yoma I. 1, which states that "another woman was prepared for the high priest (to marry) on the Day of Atonement in case his wife should die," the Jerusalem Talmud raises the question: How can this be done since it would involve an act of acquisition kinyan on the Sabbath?
The objection raised in the Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma I. 1, 38d) is that since marriage is an act of acquisition, purchase, possession, how can this be done on the Sabbath? The answer in the Jerusalem Talmud is that Rabbinic prohibitions (shevut) have no effect on the Temple Mount, and since the Rabbinic prohibition against marrying on the Sabbath is only a Rabbinic prohibition, it does not apply to the high priest in the Temple.

The implication in the question and answer of the Jerusalem Talmud is that the basis for the Rabbinic prohibition against betrothal on the Sabbath is not as the Babylonian Talmud states, as a preventive measure against writing, but because it is an act of acquisition. (This apparent contradiction between the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud can, however, perhaps be reconciled in the light of a statement of Maimonides in his Code (Hil. Shabbat XXIII. 12) to the effect that "the prohibition to purchase and to sell on the Sabbath is a preventive injunction on the part of the Rabbis lest one be led to write." It is possible, therefore, that the Babylonian Talmud goes to the ultimate source of the Rabbinic injunction against betrothal, while the Palestinian Talmud cites only the proximate and not the ultimate cause which the prohibition is intended to guard against.)

It is, nevertheless, of interest to note that, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, marriage on the Sabbath is prohibited because the act represents an acquisition, a purchase.

D. Moses Isserles states (Shulhan Aruch, Orah Hayim 339. 4): ''There are those who permit betrothal (on the Sabbath) in a case where he has no wife and children (Rabbenu Tam). It is also possible that bringing under the chuppah is also permissible (Sepher Mitzvot Gadol).

''Even though this is not the final halacha, we nevertheless rely upon it in cases of emergency for the honor of people is great. It may happen at times that parties cannot agree about the dowry on Friday until nightime. In such a case, we perform the marriage on the Sabbath (after sunset) since the preparations for the meal and the wedding have been made and it would be an embarrassment for the bride and the groom if they would not marry at that time. Nevertheless, care should be taken a priori that one should not come to such an emergency situation."

Such an incident actually happened when Moses Isserles was the head of the Bet Din in Cracow. The bride was an orphan and the litigation over the dowry dragged on until two hours after sunset on Friday. Isserles himself performed the marriage even though it was the Sabbath, as he describes in his Responsa. He justifies his act at length on the basis of the importance of human dignity and the pain which the bride and groom would experience if the marriage were not to take place.

II. Analysis of the sources.

A. The prohibition to marry on the Sabbath is a Rabbinic injunction in the same category as clapping one's hands or slapping one's thigh or dancing or riding on an animal, or swimming or climbing a tree.

[It is of interest to note that with reference to clapping and dancing, Isserles states: "People clap and dance at the present time and we do not prevent them from doing so because it is better that they act inadvertently rather than with premeditation, in full consciousness of doing wrong. There are those who say that at this time it is all permitted because we are not expert in the making of musical instruments (the basic principle which the Rabbinic injunction is intended to protect) and there is no need to take preventive measures lest one fix musical instruments, for it is an infrequent occurrence. . . (Ibid.)"]

B. The Rabbinic prohibition is either a preventive measure lest one write or because one is performing an act of acquisition.

C. Rabbinic authorities of the stature of Rabbenu Tam are of the opinion that in a case where the male was not previously married and had no children, it is permitted to marry on the Sabbath, since he is performing a mitzvah. Though Rabbenu Tam qualifies his permissive attitude and states that we do not marry except in cases of great emergency, he nevertheless draws the halachic conclusion from the Talmudic discussion that in cases where the male has no children, it is permitted to marry on the Sabbath.

III. Conclusions.

A. It would seem reasonable and logical that those who would preserve a literal Talmudic halacha would be interested in preserving the primary principle rather than address the preventive measure which attempts to build a fence around the more important injunction. They should therefore focus their attention on the injunction against writing on the Sabbath. The prohibition to marry is only intended to protect the injunction against writing.

B. The followers of a literal tradition should, with equal zeal and energy, direct their attention to dancing, swimming, clapping one's hands, and all the other Rabbinic prohibitions regarding the Sabbath. Why single out marrying on the Sabbath?

C. The traditional halachist wculd also have ample precedent to perform a marriage on the Sabbath in a case where the man had no children and in cases of emergency.

D. What is to be emphasized is that the injunction against marriage on the Sabbath is a Rabbinic prohibition, a shevut, of the same gravity as dancing, clapping one's hands or climbing a tree. This is true even if one follows the most stringent interpretation of the Talmudic discussion.

E. We, as Reform Jews, would certainly not base our attitude toward marriage on the Sabbath on the principle that marriage is an acquisition, a purchase, a kinyan. We emphasize and give primacy to that aspect of Jewish tradition which sees marriage as a wholesome fulfillment, a sacred bond, an inherent good--a sacred and voluntary union of two equals who find completion and wholesome fulfillment in each other.

F. We in Reform Judaism have not and do not consider either the document of betrothal or the ketubah an essential element of the marriage ceremony. Nor, to my knowledge, has Reform Judaism considered writing a few lines a major violation of the spirit of the Sabbath, so that we would have to institute preventive measures to protect that principle. In consonance with our view of the Sabbath, the whole principle on which the Rabbinic injunction against marriage on the Sabbath is based, therefore disappears.

G. We certainly could not subscribe to the Talmudic distinction that marriage is a mitzvah and may therefore be performed on the Sabbath (according to Tam, Isserles and others) only in a case where the man does not have children.

Firstly, we would reject the indivious distinction between the male and female--a product of a particular time-place and of dated historic circumstance which has no validity today. If marriage is a mitzvah, it is certainly that for a woman no less than for a man.

Secondly, we cannot subscribe to the Talmudic notion that the only factor which makes marriage a divine command and a good is the begetting of children. Procreation is undoubtedly a fulfillment in marriage, but the love and companionship is no less a primary purpose. Eve was created to be "a helpmate" to Adam since "it is not good for man to be alone; and only later were they commanded "to be fruitful and multiply in knowledge."

The Rabbis interpret Gen. 2:24 as follows: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife," is the commandment to marry. The continuation of the verse, "and they shall be one flesh," is the commandment to have children. Man and woman become one in the child. But the union of two people in marriage has an inherent sanctity and is a mitzvah, a good, independent of and beyond procreation.

IV. The Halacha from a Reform Perspective.

The attitude of Reform Judaism towards marriage on the Sabbath should base itself on the following principles implicit in the broad imperatives of Jewish-tradition when interpreted in the light of contemporary experience and insight:

1. Marriage is a mitzvah, a commandment and a good, a fulfillment and a desired state for both men and women.

2. A religious marriage ceremony is a profound spiritual experience. The idyllic relationship of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as pictured in the creation narrative sets the pattern, according to the Talmud, for future striving and attainment. (See Ketubot 8a, 6th blessing.)

3. The goals of Sabbath observance for the Reform Jew are also based on the traditional themes of the Sabbath as a day of delight (oneg), of refreshment of soul, of perfect freedom, a day devoted to hallowing of life, the enhancement of person, a weekly projection into the messianic age.

4. The spirit of a religious marriage ceremony is thus in perfect consonance with the spirit of the Sabbath. Halachic tradition, liberally interpreted, as it must be by Reform Judaism, far from prohibiting a marriage on the Sabbath would, on the contrary, encourage it as a most appropriate and fitting activity, congruent with and an enhancement of the highest reaches of Sabbath observance.

5. There is a danger and a justified concern that the preparations for an elaborate wedding and the celebration which follows the religious ceremony will encourage the violation of the Sabbath. There is basis, therefore, to approach marriages on the Sabbath with caution. The problem is, however, no more grievous than the elaborate bar mitzvah celebrations which have become the norm. Every effort should be made, whether it be a wedding or a bar mitzvah, that the ceremony and the celebration following it should be within the spirit of the Sabbath.

A serious confrontation with the traditional Jewish sources interpreted in the light of Reform Judaism leads me to the conclusion that marriage on the Sabbath should be encouraged rather than prohibited.

"The followers of a literal tradition should, with equal zeal and energy, direct their attention to dancing, swimming, clapping one's hands, and all the other Rabbinic prohibitions regarding the Sabbath. Why single out marrying on the Sabbath?"

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