May women play an active role in the marriage ceremony and in the seven blessings (sheva berakhot) recited during the seven days of feasting after the wedding?
Since this question involves many different aspects of the wedding ceremony, we shall deal with them in chronological order.
1. Women may hold the poles of the huppah since we have demonstrated elsewhere that in this day and age there is no danger of incident thoughts at a religious ceremony.
2. Women may chant piyyutim such as “Mee Adir” since they are optional and have no formal halakhic status. Furthermore, we have demonstrated elsewhere that “kol b’isha ervah” referred originally to conversing with women, not to their singing.
3. Women may read the ketubah aloud at the wedding ceremony. This Ashkenazic custom began in the Middle Ages and its purpose is to divide the betrothal and wedding ceremonies (erussin and nissuin), but the reading itself has no halakhic significance. Therefore, a woman who is able to read the Aramaic with understanding can read the ketubah aloud under the huppah.
4. Women may give a derashah or talk under the huppah. This derashah is intended to stress the importance of marriage in Judaism and there is no reason why a woman cannot explain this to the bride and groom.
5. May a woman be counted in the minyan for the blessing of betrothal (birkat erussin) or the seven wedding benedictions (sheva berakhot)? Rav Shmuel Hanaggid and others have proved that the erussin blessing does not require a minyan. This, however, is a moot point since in practice erussin is always performed today together with the nissuin, which does require a minyan (Mishnah Megillah 4:3 and Ketubot 7b). Biblical support for this requirement is sought in various proof texts (asmakhtaot – Ruth 4:2 or Psalms 68:27). The Ritva excludes women by emphasizing the words “ten men” in the verse from Ruth. This is not convincing because such exact readings (diyukim) of asmakhtaot in the Talmud can lead to some very strange conclusions. A close reading of Maimonides (Ishut 10:5) shows that he wanted to exclude slaves and minors from the minyan for sheva berakhot, not women. Furthermore, the Talmud (Ketubot 7-8) makes no attempt to exclude women from the minyan for sheva berakhot. Lastly, it is clear that beginning in biblical times a minyan was required for many different rituals and halakhic events not because of some specific verse but because it was felt that the event demanded the presence of a tzibbur or congregation. We do not know why sheva berakhot requires a minyan, but we can surmise that the object was to express public approval of the event and “because the presence of many people is the glory of the king” (Proverbs 14:28). It stands to reason that a woman belongs to such a tzibbur or congregation because sheva berakhot speaks of the bride and groom in an equal fashion and because a woman – like a man – is required to make the bride and groom rejoice.
6. May a woman recite the erussin blessing? In order to reply, one must define the goal of this blessing, but the answer, unfortunately, is quite elusive. Some compare it to the blessings over fruit or over mitzvot while others compare it to kiddush (Ketubot 7b). Rav Sa’adiah Gaon says it’s like the blessings over mitzvot and must be recited by the groom or his representative (shaliah). R. Mordechai Yaffe says that it’s like the blessings of enjoyment (birkot hanehenin) while the Rosh says that it is a blessing of praise to God. According to all of these approaches (except Rabbi Yaffe’s which is not convincing), there would be no reason to prevent a woman from reciting the erussin blessing.
7. May a woman recite sheva berakhot under the huppah or during the seven days of rejoicing? Once again, in order to reply, we must define the purpose of these blessings and the answer is far from clear. Some say that they are like blessings recited before mitzvot (Bet Yosef). Others say that they are blessings of praise (Rambam and Ran) while still others say that the purpose is to make the bride and groom rejoice (Rashi and Abudraham). The first explanation is highly unlikely. If we follow the other two explanations, there would be no reason to exclude women from uttering blessings of praise or from helping the bride and groom rejoice. (There follows an analysis of four modern rabbis who have dealt with the topic.)
8. During the seven days of celebration one only recites sheva berakhot if “new faces” (panim hadashot) have come to participate. Are women considered “new faces”? This expression has received many different explanations throughout the centuries (people who did not attend the wedding ceremony, important people etc.) yet no known definition of this term would exclude women. And indeed, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (d. 1839) has ruled that women may be considered “panim hadashot” if food is added in their honor.
In conclusion, it is permissible for women to actively participate in every aspect of the marriage ceremony and the seven days of rejoicing. But such changes must be introduced with caution according to the wishes of the family and the nature of the invited guests. A wedding ceremony is not a place for arguments and strife. Every innovation must be introduced gradually and peacefully in order that the wedding atmosphere should remain one of “love and harmony, peace and companionship”.
Rabbi David Golinkin
Approved Unanimously 5751