Where’s the Wedding? The Nature of Nisuin, by Matt Lubin

While the first Mishnah in Kiddushin, as one would expect, teaches exactly how the act of kiddushin is accomplished (in three ways: by money, contract, or by marital relations), and it is clear from the Gemara’s discussion that the act of kiddushin is a kinyan, the second stage of the marriage – nisuin – is much less clear. Is nisuin an acquisition, like kiddushin, the completion/application of an acquisition, or something else entirely? Is it the second part of a two-step process, or does it begin a completely different type of relationship than the one created by kiddushin? This lack of an explicit definition or description of nisuin (or chuppah, as it is sometimes called) gives rise to a wealth of various opinions in halakhic literature, ranging from requiring the couple to live together, to the groom covering his bride with a veil (see Even HaEzer 61), but how do all of those opinions relate to what nisuin represents, or what it is supposed to accomplish?

Even if we are to come to a conclusion regarding what nisuin is and how it is accomplished, the question remains as to why it is shrouded in such mystery in the first place. Nisuin is a fundamental aspect of every single Jewish wedding; how could the Mishnah have left us in the dark as to how such a procedure is to be done? Shouldn’t Maseches Kesuvos begin with “Nisuin is done in the following manner…” parallel to the way that Maseches Kiddushin begins?

If we take a step back, we will find that even the Written Torah never describes nisuin directly, and instead merely hinting to it by discussing laws regarding women who are betrothed but not fully married. Why is this so?

To begin to answer these questions, each opinion has to be analyzed carefully, but here we will suffice in mentioning only a couple of aspects of the Rambam’s opinion. The Rambam discusses nisuin in the tenth chapter of Hilchos Ishus, and provides the following explanation of how it is to be accomplished:

“This seclusion [of the bride and groom alone] is called ‘entering the chuppah,’ and this is what is elsewhere referred to as ‘nisuin.’ One who has relations with his betrothed fiancé for the purpose of marriage/nisuin after the betrothal, from the beginning of relations he has acquired her and she becomes married, and she is his wife in all matters. Once the betrothed woman has entered ‘chuppah,’ her husband may be with her and she is entirely his wife in all matters. And once she has entered the chuppah she is referred to as a ‘nesuah’ even if she didn’t have relations, as long as she was able to have done so. But if she were a niddah, then even though her [husband] brought her to the chuppah and was secluded with her, the nisuin has not been completed and she is still like a betrothed [woman].”

The above passage teaches us that (1) nisuin chuppah is accomplished by seclusion of the bride and groom, (2) it can also be accomplished by relations for the purpose of consummating the marriage, and (3) such consummation is not necessary, but it has to be possible, and therefore a niddah cannot be married by being alone with her groom. To conceptualize the Rambam’s requirement, nisuin is an act which expresses the intimacy-relationship between a husband and a wife.

The Rambam could have summed this up in one sentence: Nisuin is yichud haraui lebiah, seclusion which would allow for intercourse, but he does not. Furthermore, the Rambam seems to equivocate somewhat, as he continually emphasizes that proper nisuin makes the woman “his wife in all matters.” What else could we have thought? Apparently, this is meant to be contrasted to a chuppah with a niddah, in which the Rambam says that the nisuin has not been completed. The implication, though, seems to be that while it has not been finished, it has been started.

The Rambam seems to be saying that there are either different types of nisuin, or that it can be accomplished in different stages. Further support for such an interpretation of the Rambam can be drawn from another law, where he states that the marriage berachos must be made before the nisuin, and therefore should not be made before the marriage of a woman who is a niddah because she cannot have proper chuppah, as discussed. However, if the berachos were said and the couple did enter chuppah, despite the fact that the woman was a niddah, the brachos should not be recited again (Ishus 10:6). Why would we think that the brachos would have had any validity if chuppas niddah is itself invalid? Therefore it would appear that chuppas niddah is at least partially valid, because if the Rambam wanted to say that the berachos are valid if they are done entirely before the nisuin, he need not have given the example of a chuppas niddah. How are we to understand this?

There are several laws which are dependent on a woman being “in the domain of her husband,” and it is clear from several laws that this status is not conferred upon her betrothal. Thus, Rashi writes (Kesuvos daf 48) that a woman is considered to be “in the domain of her husband” not after betrothal, but after marriage – nisuin. The problem is that the Mishnah there is referring to a girl being sent off with the messengers of the husband, not to yichud haraui lebiah (which is how the Rambam defines nisuin). Furthermore, if we are to understand nisuin as an expression of marital intimacy, how could such a thing ever be accomplished through a messenger of the husband? Shouldn’t it require participation of the husband himself?

Due to this problem, R. Naftoli Tropp suggests that according to the Rambam, there are two independent aspects of nisuin: the marital aspect and the money-related aspects. The financial aspects of the marriage, such as the husband’s obligation to honor his wife’s kesuvah, can be applied as if the woman is fully married merely by “entering her husband’s domain.” However, the marital aspects of nisuin can only be accomplished by the chuppah of the bride and groom being together in private.

R. Naftoli Trop split the nisuin into two parts, but based on our reading of the Rambam in Hilchos Ishus, it seems necessary to subdivide it even further. As mentioned earlier, it would appear that the Rambam believes that seclusion which cannot lead to marital consummation – a chuppas niddah – still seems to accomplish something in the realm of the husband and wife’s relationship. Could nisuin really be so fragile a concept that it can be broken into so many more pieces?

If chuppah is a formal act of kinyan, then it would indeed be hard to imagine that different aspects of the marriage consummation can be accomplished at different times and through different venues. However, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in a hesped for his uncle, the Brisker Rov, (Divrei Haga’os V’ha’aracha, pg. 78) said that, unlike kiddushinnisuin is not a kinyan at all, but rather the realization of a reality that the man and woman are actually living together as a married couple. Thus, there is no formal act of a kinyan, and perhaps no need for any formalized act at all, as the status of a woman as a nesuah is dependent on the reality of whether or not she is actually living with her husband, and not due to a specific legal procedure. (It should be noted that certain passages in the Gemara and the Rambam do seem to refer to chuppahnisuin as a kinyan, but those might not be meant to be taken literally.)

This chiddush echoes the words of the Aruch Hashulchan (Even HaEzer 61:14), who states that the many opinions regarding how nisuin is to be accomplished are actually all in agreement. Nisuin is something that best symbolizes husband and wife living together as such, which could have different physical expression depending on the cultural realities of various times and countries.

If nisuin is not a formal procedure, but rather dependent on an actual change, then the otherwise strange aspects of nisuin fall into place. While the Rambam states that a person who spends time privately with his wife when he is able to have relations with her is fully married, several other “marriage-like” activities could likewise give the couple marriage status for certain other rules, that are dependent on those very activities, such as the obligation upon the man to financially support his wife as soon as she joins his messengers. This also explains the mysterious absence of a definition for nisuin in the Torah or Mishnah. Nisuin is by definition something without procedural formality; even if full nisuin is accomplished by yichud haraui lebiah, that is only by virtue of it being an expression of the amorphous concept of marital intimacy.

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