|Chayei Sarah—Spiritual Lessons from the Jewish Wedding Ceremony|
by Rabbi Barney Kasdan
For joy, fun and a great time of celebration, it is hard to find an event more wonderful than a Jewish wedding! Of course, just about any wedding is a great occasion but there are some unique elements of the Jewish wedding that make it stand out among religious celebrations. For some people it could be the beautiful liturgy that is chanted. For others perhaps it is the symbolism of the two cups and the chuppah. Everyone seems to agree that the reception and chair dance are a high point. Parashat Chayei Sarah records many of the details of the ancient biblical ceremony as it describes the wedding of our forefather Yitzhak/Isaac. As beautiful as the Jewish wedding ceremony is, it also contains some amazing spiritual pictures of God's love for us and His plan for our future. This becomes especially illuminating when we study the wedding ceremony of antiquity. While some of the details have changed today, many of the distinctive elements are still observed within the 21st century Jewish wedding.
The first step of the ancient ceremony came to be known as Shiddukhin/arrangement. This is seen in the Parasha when Abraham charges his servant to "take a wife for my son Isaac" (B'reisheet/Genesis 24:4). Evidently, Abraham was getting a little anxious as his aging son was not yet married. How could Isaac fulfill his destiny of continuing the chosen line if he is still hanging around the tent! It was customary for many generations of Jews for the parents to arrange the future marriage of their children. If they had a difficult time with this, they could recruit the services of a matchmaker (shadkhin) as seen in this case. It was assumed that the parents or a qualified professional would have more wisdom on these matters than a young kid. Although this step of shiddukhin has mostly gone by the wayside in our modern culture, it is interesting to note the growth of matchmaking services (e.g. JDate, etc.) within the Jewish community. In ancient times, it was considered the duty of the father of the groom to make such an arrangement and we see Abraham fulfilling his responsibility here. There is also a vital spiritual lesson to be found in this step of shiddukhin. Our Heavenly Father is seeking a relationship with all His people, especially His people of the covenant, Israel. If the paradigm of the Jewish wedding is followed, it should be noted that it is not so much us seeking God, but first God seeking us! Rabbi Shaul makes this point when he states that it is the Father who "chose us in Messiah before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians 1:4). Those of us who are followers of Yeshua understand that ultimately it is the Father who arranged this relationship. That is indeed a beautiful truth, which should give us fresh understanding of God's love!
The second step of the ancient Jewish wedding is called Erusin/engagement. Even though the young kids were arranged for a future marriage through Shiddukhin, there came a point in time where they would have to publicly affirm that it is agreeable to them. In biblical times, this was usually portrayed in a public wedding ceremony to make a statement of their consent. In the parasha it is the potential bride, Rivkah/Rebekah, who gives her consent as she is asked, "Will you go with this man?" And she said, "I will go" (B'reisheet 24:58). Over time, this Erusin statement developed into the first part of the Jewish public ceremony. The young couple (sometimes young teenagers!) would come under the chuppah, sign a ketubah/wedding contract and share the first cup of wine representing the Erusin/engagement commitment. Unlike our modern understanding of "engagement", the Jewish Erusin in ancient times was considered a binding covenant stating that the couple was actually married. So binding was it that if the engagement were broken up, a religious divorce (Hebrew get) would be required. Yet the young couple was not to live together quite yet or have sexual relations. Instead, they entered a one-year time of preparation: the bride preparing her dowry and garments while the groom worked on the future housing for the couple. In biblical times this usually meant adding a room (or tent) to the father's existing home, as the entire family often lived under one roof. Once again, we can appreciate the beauty of the historical custom but there are deeper spiritual pictures to be seen if we open our spiritual eyes. At his last Passover Seder, Yeshua seemed to allude to the Erusin picture when he told his Jewish disciples: "In my Father's house are many dwelling places... I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself" (Yochanan/John 14:2-3). Yeshua and his disciples shared a cup at that Seder to illustrate that they were giving their consent to this new relationship. Thus engaged, He would be going to prepare the home during this time and his disciples (us as well!) were called to tend to our spiritual responsibilities. What an amazing picture! We believers in Yeshua have partaken of the Erusin cup and, in a sense, we renew that statement every time we celebrate the third cup of Passover. We are temporarily separated from our groom, but make no mistake; the marriage vows are binding. With the Erusin established we are now called to get ready for our full wedding.
After the one-year engagement, the third step of the ancient Jewish wedding arrives, called Nisuin/marriage. In the parasha it is said that Isaac "took Rebekah and she became his wife and he loved her" (B'reisheet 24:67). In later history this became the time where the groom would come for his bride and literally carry her (Hebrew nasa) in a processional to the final part of the ceremony. They would meet under the chuppah once again, exchange solemn vows and partake of the second cup with the Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings). Upon completion of these things (and a joyous reception), the couple could now live together fully as husband and wife. In our contemporary Jewish wedding ceremony, even we Jews sometimes lose perspective of some of these details. Because of the difficult times so often facing the Jewish community, the one-year engagement has become optional. In fact, as you probably know from the last Jewish wedding you attended, there are no longer two distinct ceremonies. Nonetheless, the two cups are still central to the overall service. The spiritual lessons are quite obvious to those who are seeking. It was at the last Seder of Yeshua that he taught us an amazing truth in this regard. After sharing the third cup (e.g., the Erusin), towards the end of the meal, Yeshua came to the fourth and final cup (that is, the Nisuin). But instead of partaking of that cup, he said the following: "I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom" (Mattityahu/Matthew 26:29). What a perfect analogy there is between the two cups of the wedding and the two appearances of Mashiach! Yeshua came the first time to work out the arrangements of our betrothal through his life, death, and resurrection from the dead. By refusing to drink of the last cup of the Seder, Yeshua was highlighting the fact that there will be a time of separation until the consummation of his Kingdom. At that time, he promises to share the Nisuin cup with all his followers and to bring us into the joy of the wedding banquet.All this is an amazing spiritual picture, which is contained in our parashat Chayei Sarah. Isaac's wedding, besides being Jewish history, is also a picture of our engagement and coming wedding with Messiah. Have you taken from the cup of engagement for yourself? Are you ready for the bridegroom to take us to his kingdom of messianic redemption?