Jewish Learning
Jewish Life Cycle
Rabbi Benji Landau
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The Cycle of Life: Witnesses at a Wedding

We are all familiar with the requirement for witnesses to witness and sign certain legal documents. Similarly, many parts of Jewish Law also need witnesses (eidim). We require witnesses for a variety of procedures, ranging from life-cycle occasions such as marriage or divorce, to land acquisition and (in Temple and Mishnaic times) the declaration of the new month based on a sighting of the new moon. Criminal offences are not punishable in a Beit Din (Jewish court of law) unless there is rigorous and substantiated testimony.

There are several stages during the wedding ceremony that require witnesses, such as the ketubah (marital contract) which is signed by two witnesses. The witnesses for all stages of the wedding must be observant Jewish males who are related neither to each other nor to the bride or groom.

After the ceremony has finished, the bride and groom enter the yichud room, a place where they remain secluded for their first few moments as a married couple, immediately after the chuppah. Witnesses standing outside the room must ensure that the couple are totally alone and undisturbed in that room for at least a period of approximately five minutes. 

In these two particular cases (ketuba and yichud) the witnesses are needed in order to observe and confirm that these parts of the process are carried out in accordance with Jewish Law. This is the limit of their role.

However, when it comes to enacting the marriage under the chuppah, the role of the (two) witnesses is markedly different. The couple officially become man and wife when the two designated witnesses watch the groom placing a ring on his fiancée’s finger whilst he proclaims, “Behold you are married to me with the placing of this ring, in accordance with the law of Moshe (Moses) and Israel”. The witnesses confirm their testimony by each saying the word ‘mekudeshet’, meaning ‘married’. Here the witnesses are not merely validating and verifying that this event took place for the sake of future corroboration; they are actually serving to effect the marriage itself. Although their role seems to be quite passive, their witnessing of a marriage carried out according to Jewish Law is actually at the heart of the entire process.

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