One of most famous passages in the entire Bible reads: “Moses commanded us the Torah, a heritage (morashah) for the Congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4). The Rabbis exegetically interpreted the word morashah in this passage as if it reads me’orasah (“betrothed woman”), which teaches that the Torah’s “marriage” to the Jewish People is akin to a woman’s “marriage” to her husband (Berachos 57a, Pesachim 49b). In this instance, the word for betrothal is erusin, and cognates of that Hebrew word appear throughout the Bible in that context (for example, see Ex. 22:15, Deut. 20:7; 22:23-27; 28:30). Nonetheless, this essay explores the relationship of the word erusin to a later Hebrew word for “betrothal” — kiddushin. That word and its derivatives appear more frequently in the Mishna than do variants of erusin, and, in fact, the Mishnaic tractate that deals with the laws of betrothal is entitled Kiddushin. If these two words refer to the same Halachic procedure, does that make them synonyms? If they are indeed synonyms, then why does the Bible use one word, and the Rabbis another?
Before we delve into various linguistic insights concerning the words erusin and kiddushin, a few points about the Halachic conception of marriage must be clarified. According to halacha, Jewish Marriage is a two-step process. The first step, known as erusin/kiddushin, involves the bridegroom “betrothing” his intended wife. At this point, she is halachically considered his wife, and the prohibition of adultery comes into full swing. However, the new couple may not yet live together until the second stage of marriage (called nissuin, which is effectuated by chuppah).
Thus, when we refer to erusin/kiddushin as “betrothal,” this does not mirror the Western concept of “engagement” that colloquially refers to a couple who agreed to marry each other but did not yet do so. Rather, erusin/kiddushin refers to the first stage of marriage. Some scholars prefer the term “inchoate marriage,” but it is too cumbersome and obscure for our purposes. In Talmudic times, what we call “engagement” was called shidduchin. This is sometimes confusing because in Modern Hebrew the term erusin refers to a couple formally becoming “engaged” and declaring their intentions to later get married. However, as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 22:16) already clarifies, the earlier Hebrew term erusin does not refer to this.
In the opening discussion of Tractate Kiddushin in the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 2b), the Saboraic Sages ask why the Mishna (Kiddushin 2:1) refers to betrothal as kiddushin instead of using a Biblical Hebrew term. They answer that the term kiddushin in the sense of “betrothal” is related to the hekdesh (“consecrated property”), as one who betroths a woman forbids her from being with anybody else, just as consecration forbids all people from deriving benefit from the property that was consecrated.
Rabbi Yitzchak Vana (a Yemenite Kabbalist who died in 1670) writes that kiddushin relates to hekdesh because just as consecrating property causes one who misuses that property to violate a more serious prohibition than previously so, so does betrothing a woman cause one who illicitly engages her in intimacy to violate a more serious prohibition than had she been single.
The truth is that according to Biblical law a newlywed couple is already permitted to live together once the first stage of marriage (erusin/kiddushin) has been completed. However, the halacha remains that, by rabbinic fiat, the couple are forbidden to one another until they complete the second stage of marriage. The Rabbis instituted that a betrothed woman is forbidden to her husband until he finalizes their marriage with nissuin (see Kallah 1:1 and Rashi to Kesuvos 8a).
In light of this, Rabbi Alexander Sender Shor (1660-1737) and Rabbi Elazar Moshe Horowitz (1817-1890) explain the term kiddushin as implying a procedure akin to hekdesh comes into play only after the rabbinic enactment by which a betrothed woman becomes forbidden to her own husband. Accordingly, the Rabbis used the term kiddushin to accentuate the point that through kiddushin a woman becomes like hekdesh — forbidden to everyone else in the world (including her husband). By contrast, since the term erusin is not loaded with this implication, the Torah uses that term to denote “betrothal.” This makes sense because Biblical law maintains that a betrothed woman is permitted to her husband, so she does not resemble hekdesh.
We can offer another, similar reason as to why only the Rabbis use the term kiddushin and the Bible does not. Rabbi David HaLevi Segal (Turei Zahav to Even HaEzer 34:2) writes that the mere fact that Jewish Marriage is a two-step process (commencing with erusin/kiddushin and finishing with nissuin) imbues it with a special holiness (kedushah) unseen elsewhere. According to this, we may argue that the Rabbis coined the term kiddushin for “betrothal” because they were responsible for instituting this two-step framework, and that kiddushin is what kicks off the process. On the other hand, from the Bible’s perspective, “betrothal” is simply called erusin, which implies nothing about “holiness,” because from the Bible’s perspective that extra level of holiness which emanates from the two-step process does not yet exist.
Tosafos(to Kiddushin 7b) mention a halachic difference between one who effectuates betrothal using the terminology of kiddushin and one who uses the terminology of erusin. There is a Talmudic principle that even if a man betroths “half” a woman, the betrothal still goes into full effect. However, the Tosafists explain that this applies only to a man who betroths a woman using the terminology of kiddushin. Their unspoken logic is that the law of kiddushin is comparable to the law of consecrating an animal (hekdesh). If one consecrates “half” an animal for sacrificial purposes, the halacha follows that the entire beast becomes holy. The Tosafists understood that the same is true concerning kiddushin: If one betroths “half” a woman, then the kiddushin comes into full effect. However, the Tosafists maintain that this comparison between the two areas of halachah is true only when betrothing a woman using the term kiddushin, which is related to hekdesh. If, however, the groom expressed his nuptial intent using the terminology of erusin, then this paradigm is not in play and the betrothal will only take “half” effect (whatever exactly that entails).
Although the Saboraic Sages mentioned above connect the word kiddushin to hekdesh, the Tosafists (to Kiddushin 2b) point out that the plain meaning of kiddushin relates to kiddush in the sense of “preparing” or “designating” something (e.g. see Ex. 19:10, Num. 11:18). The word kedeishah (“prostitute”) is a cognate of this root because such a woman is "set aside" or “designated” for a specific purpose (see Rashi to Gen. 38:21 and Deut. 23:18). Others understand that the Hebrew word kedeishah as related to the Akkadian word qadistu, “woman of special status.” That general definition can apply to both a prostitute and a wife, leading Professor Shamma Friedman (a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language) to entertain this as a possible etymology for the term kiddushin. Either way, these approaches maintain that kiddushin is unrelated to “holiness” or “consecration,” per se.
The commentators buttress the Tosafists’ point with two arguments. First, in the speech act that contributes to the creation of kiddushin, the groom says to the bride “with this ring, you are mekudeshet to me…” Rabbi Avraham HaLevi of Barcelona (1235-1303) in Chiddushei HaRaah (Kiddushin 2b), and Rabbi Yosef Ibn Ezra (1560-1620) in Atzmot Yosef, both note that if the term mekudeshet was meant in the sense of “consecration,” then the groom would effectively be “consecrating” her to himself. But this would mean he is forbidding her to himself, just like consecrating property renders that property forbidden! Since this is certainly not the groom’s intention, it must be that mekudeshet is a term of “preparing” or “designating.” Moreover, Rabbi Eliezer Asheknazi (1512-1585) argues that, grammatically-speaking, if the bridegroom means to “sanctify” her, he should say mukdeshet. The fact that the traditional formula instead reads mekudeshet indicates that he meant to “set her aside” or “designate” her as a wife, not to “sanctify” her.
Dr. Michael Satlow suggests that the Mishnaic term kiddushin is actually a “loanword” from the Greek legal term ekdosis, which refers to a bride's father "handing over" the girl to her new husband. While this is a fascinating proposal, it is quite difficult to accept because "handing over" the bride is actually the definition of nissuin (see Ketuvos 4:5). It is thus quite problematic to argue that this is the etymological basis for the term kiddushin. Nevertheless, one could argue that the Rabbis may have adapted/adopted this Greek word, and slightly modified its pronunciation and meaning — as they often did when making use of foreign words.
Let’s now turn our attention to the word erusin andits possible etymologies. The Yemenite Sage Rabbi Shalom Mansoura of Sanna (d. 1888) explains that erusin is an expression of “tying” (similar to the English euphemism for marriage, “tying the knot”). Rabbi Yitzchak Ratzabi offers two ways of explaining this etymology. First, he cites Rabbi Baurch HaLevi Epstein (1860-1940), who writes that the root of erusin, ALEPH-REISH-SIN/SAMECH, should be understood as congruent to the root erez, ALEPH-REISH-ZAYIN, because the letters SIN/SAMECH and ZAYIN are interchangeable. The latter root refers to something packed tightly (see Yechezkel 27:24), like the word arizah (“package”) in Modern Hebrew, so it makes sense that erusin would also refer to the powerful bonds of matrimony. Rabbi Epstein also notes that erez is related to aizor (“tight belt”) by way of metathesis, continuing in the same theme of “tying” something tightly. Alternatively, Rabbi Ratzabi suggests that Rabbi Mansoura means that erusin is related to “tying” by way of a simpler metathesis without replacing any of the letters. If we simply transpose the final two letters of the root ALEPH-REISH-SIN/SAMECH, then we get ALEPH-SIN/SAMECH-REISH, which means “tie” or “bind.” A betrothed woman is “tied” to her husband in the sense that the only way she can marry someone else is if he grants her a bill of divorce (or dies).
Rabbi Vana argues that the word arusah (“betrothed woman”) is related to the Hebrew word eres (“poison”), because once a woman is betrothed to another, then she becomes like a poisonous snake or scorpion in the sense that anyone who illicitly approaches her is liable for the death penalty.
Rabbi Ratzabi cites another Yemenite scholar who explains that a betrothed woman is called an arusah in the same sense that a sharecropper is called an aris. The sharecropper enters a sort of partnership with the owner of the field, and thus retains partial rights to its produce. In a similar vein, a betrothed woman enters into a partnership with her future husband, who at that point only has a partial “claim” over her (in that she is now forbidden to commit adultery), but not a complete entitlement (i.e. if she dies, he does not inherit her property).
Finally, Rabbi Ratzabi offers two suggestions of his own towards understanding the etymology of erusin, both of which invoke the interchangeability of the letter ALEPH with AYIN. He explains that the root AYIN-REISH-SIN/SAMECH refers to “mixing,” like in the case of arisah (“dough”) which is mixed/kneaded. In some sense, erusin (spelled with an ALEPH)also refers to a “mixture” of sorts, as it represents the joining of man and wife in matrimony. Alternatively, Rabbi Ratzabi connects the word erusin to eres (“bed”), spelled with an AYIN, as an allusion to the conjugal reasons for marriage.
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