New Book from Professor Susan Marks Explores Early Jewish Weddings, Without Ritual or Rabbis

It may be difficult today to imagine a Jewish wedding without rituals led or performed by a rabbi. But in her first book, Susan Marks, associate professor of religion at New College of Florida, finds that in the early days of Judaism, most weddings did not include familiar rituals, let alone rabbis, who later gravitated toward the ceremonies as a way to grow their religious movement.

“First Came Marriage: The Rabbinic Appropriation of Early Jewish Wedding Ritual” combines ritual and historic perspectives to examine the processes by which early Jews married and the ways rabbis minimized, elaborated or codified the practices.

“The earliest rabbis, the Tannaim, were not interested in wedding ritual. They were probably a fairly ascetic movement,” Marks said. “So that it’s actually a big change when in the fifth century, in the Talmud, the rabbis begin to articulate blessings for weddings. I think that change hasn’t ever been observed. And one of the reasons it hasn’t is because of the presumption that whenever there were marriages there would have been blessings.”

Marks juxtaposes sources ranging from the Mishnah and the Tosefta, texts written by early rabbis, to inscriptions on headstones and vases that detail relationships between men and women, often slaves, who would have been excluded from marriage rituals.

“Just because slaves couldn’t legally marry didn’t mean they didn’t do things that looked like marriage,” Marks said. “This is the kind of extra-Talmudic evidence that helps fill in what we’re talking about.”

Examining the restrictions on those relationships helps us understand how rabbis construct citizenship, while the literary sources reveal the limited extent of early rabbis’ stake in those practices. Later rabbis, the Amoraim, appear more frequently at weddings, appropriating ritual as a way of legitimizing their role and expanding their reach.

“As Rabbinic Judaism is trying to grow its movement, there is actually is a need for rabbis to appear at weddings, even if they’re not of their own disciples,” Marks said. “If somebody’s cousin is getting married and would like a rabbi to say a blessing, you have a good way to grow the movement.”

Judaism scholars have been re-evaluating the role of rabbis in the early days of the religion, but Marks is unique in doing so through an investigation of marriage ritual. It contributes to an evolving perception of the Rabbinic Movement. “The rabbis become the predominant voice for Judaism. What we have nowadays is the legacy of Rabbinic Judaism,” Marks said. “But people have begun to recognize that they were one of a variety of alternatives in the year 300. They weren’t the big show in town.”

Marks is the Klingenstein Chair of Judaic Studies at New College. She received her doctorate in Religious Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, her master’s degree and rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion, and her bachelor’s degree from Reed College. “First Came Marriage” was published in January by Gorgias Press.

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