19 May Is it Kosher to Renew Your Wedding Vows
In the 1970s, ceremonies to renew wedding vows became popular in the US. Typically, these ceremonies are officiated by clergy and consist of a formal or informal ceremony. Some Christian denominations have a formal text with various options and Jewish versions that attempt to recreate a Jewish wedding exist, as well. Is there a way to conduct an Orthodox Jewish ceremony for renewing wedding vows or some equivalent?
I. SHOULD THEY CELEBRATE?
Rav Gedaliah Felder (She’eilas Yeshurun, no. 34), the great twentieth century posek in Toronto, addresses this issue in a responsum. He divides this question into two parts. First he discusses whether Jews can or should mark a milestone in their marriage, such as a fiftieth anniversary. He points out that the important Talmudic sage Rav Yosef celebrated his sixtieth birthday (Mo’ed Katan 28a). Rav Felder explains that life is full of unexpected twists and turns. If G-d blesses us with longevity, we should take the opportunity to thank G-d for saving us from death. Rav Yair Chaim Bacharach (Chavos Ya’ir, no 70) even suggests that someone who reaches a milestone birthday (e.g. 70) should recite the Shehechyanu blessing, but leaves it as a question. Similarly, Rav Felder argues, a couple that reaches a milestone anniversary should also thank G-d for blessing them to reach that point. They have certainly experienced many uncertain times yet lived to celebrate together 25 or 50 years. Rav Felder suggests that, like a birthday party, a milestone anniversary or wedding renewal party should include friends and relatives, as well as words of Torah and maybe even a siyum, the completion of a learning cycle to mark the event with Torah. Doing so, would turn the celebration into a mitzvah meal, as explained by the Chavos Ya’ir and Rav Shlomo Luria (Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kamma 7:37). In other words, an anniversary celebration should be a religious celebration of life, not a romantic ceremony. It is less about mutual love and more about mutual life, the life you have built together, the family you have raised, the accomplishments you have achieved together. For all these, we thank G-d for giving us the strength and ability to do them as a happily married couple.
II. HOW SHOULD THEY CELEBRATE?
However, regarding the second aspect, Rav Felder dismisses the practice of reenacting the wedding ceremony for three reasons. He quotes Otzar Ha-Ge’onim (Beitzah, p. 40, no. 110) about a practice in which people would marry on a weekday and then repeat the ceremony the following Shabbos, like the Christians did (“kemo she-osin be-eretz Edom“). The unnamed Gaon says that this practice causes unnecessary blessings (berachos levatalos) in the second ceremony and also violates the prohibition of imitating gentile religious practices. A wedding is a religious ceremony, for us and for those of other religions. We are forbidden to imitate foreign practices in those religious ceremonies. Similarly, Rav Felder argues, a marriage renewal ceremony causes unnecessary blessings and imitates the Christian practice of repeating the wedding ceremony at a later date as a form of renewal. Rav Felder quotes a responsum from manuscript of Rav Yeshayahu of Trani (Rid; quoted in Prof. Simcha Assaf, “On the Family Life of Byzantine Jewry” (Hebrew) in Sefer Ha-Yovel Le-Prof. Shmuel Krauss, p. 176) discussing a couple that wanted to renew their marriage with a full wedding ceremony. Rid rejects the idea as preposterous and suggests (sarcastically) that if they want to have a new wedding every year they should first get divorced each time. Rav Felder raises a third issue with renewal of vows, in addition to concerns over unnecessary blessings and imitating gentile practices. The Talmud repeatedly cautions against actions that imply the children of a marriage are illegitimate. Even otherwise proper actions must be avoided to prevent casting aspersions on the children. Rashi (Gittin 26b s.v. hacha nami) says that this applies even to the implication that children were born out of wedlock, before the parents were married. Therefore, Rav Felder argues, a renewal of weddings vows that resembles a wedding is forbidden because it might taint the children born to the couple before the ceremony.
Rav Felder believes that a couple should celebrate milestone anniversaries. They should gather friends and family for a celebratory meal to thank G-d for keeping them alive to that point and providing the strength and ability to accomplish so much together, as a team, a family. The meal should include words of Torah and, if possible, a siyum. However, a renewal ceremony that resembles a wedding is forbidden for the three reasons explained above.