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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Lev Herrnson

Jewish Wedding Vows: Separate, Not Sexist!

This blog post has been getting a lot of attention lately, so I thought I'd update it and re-post it for everyone's benefit. Long story short, the tradition Jewish wedding vow formula does NOT objectify the bride. Please read on...

Recently a couple reported that they objected to the traditional Jewish wedding vows. Recited during the ring exchange under the chuppah (wedding canopy), the groom typically makes this vow to his bride: Harei at mekudeshet li betaba’at zo k’dat Moshe v’Israel—translated as, "By this ring, you are consecrated to me (as my wife) in accordance with the laws of Moses and the people of Israel."

wedding vows
Bride reads her vows under the chuppah

Rachel and Matthew had a visceral reaction to this traditional vow.

"He's not going to say that to me. It's possessive, patriarchal and altogether antiquated!" Rachel blurted out.

Matthew agreed, "It's totally sexist, rabbi. I’m marrying her, not buying her."

We took a few moments to unpack their thinking, during which time, thanks to this insightful couple, I came to understand the problem with greater clarity.

You don't like the idea of being "consecrated" to Matthew, do you Rachel?

"No, rabbi. And if you can't eliminate those words," she said with disdain, "then we'll find someone else."

Rachel, I think I get where you're coming from. You understand the phrase " are consecrated to me..." to somehow reduce you to a possession, that it makes you subservient to Matthew somehow? Is that correct?

"Yes, exactly!" she answered.

Well, I've got good and bad news for you. The good news is there's a solution. The bad news is, you're going to have to learn Hebrew—or just trust me on this one.

Let's start with the good news. If you're willing to hear me out, you'll learn that you two can recite the traditional Hebrew text, together with an English translation that’s faithful to the Hebrew, and everyone should be happy. But first, I must digress.

Our instructors in rabbinical school regularly reminded us that every translation is an interpretation. Bayit means "house", but it actually has a range of meaning: dynasty; descendants; and even, inheritance. The same is true for lots of words in translation. In our case, the English translation typically used doesn't do justice to the Hebrew word "mekudeshet." Like the more familiar terms Kiddush (the blessing over the wine) and Kaddish (the prayer recited in honor of the deceased), or even "kadosh, kadosh, kadosh," recited during Jewish prayer services, the word mekudeshet is derived from the Hebrew word for “holy.” Rendered in English as "consecrated" or sometimes “sanctified,” the translation creates problems of understanding.

Every word with an abstract meaning starts out with a concrete understanding. In the case of KaDoSH (the word root contained within the word meKuDeSHet), the original meaning of the word is "separate." Separate makes good sense when you consider how we relate to holy things. Holy things are separate and apart from normal, run-of-the-mill things.

In the case of a wedding, however, the vows recited during the ring ceremony are an indication that the bride and groom are, for the purposes of their marital relationship and their new status in the community, separating themselves from everyone else, save for their new spouse. Mekudeshet refers to "exclusivity.” In other words, the marrying couple are committing themselves one to the other, and no one else can or will share in that loving, personal and private commitment. "Consecrated" is intended to express exclusivity, but it comes off in a possessive sort of way. It’s an objectification of the sort Martin Buber described as an I-It relationship. In fact, mekudeshet implies an I-Thou relationship—"the two of us, we are in this together..."

With the translation of mekudeshet as "exclusivity" firmly underpinning our understanding, it's safe for Rachel and Matthew—and everyone else, to repeat those ancient words, "Harei at..." because they connote a loving, compassionate, collaborative relationship, a holy bond characterized by exclusivity.

Mazal tov, everyone!

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