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    I. What A

    Rabbi Does

    Most of us

    have been to

    enough Jewish

    weddings that

    we know how

    they work. We

    can easily officiate. Even without

    a big crowd, all a man has to do

    is give a woman a ring in front of

    two witnesses and say the “harei

    at” formula. Who needs a rabbi?

    If you really want an officiant,

    have your friend, teacher or barber

    perform the ceremony. Maybe

    have a singer or a chazzan do it,

    instead of a rabbi. Looking through

    the responsa literature, we see that

    some people have done it that

    way — or have used incompetent

    rabbis — with disastrous results.

    You need a rabbi to officiate to

    ensure that the man and woman

    are permitted to marry and that the

    wedding is performed according to

    the necessary requirements. That is

    the rabbi’s primary responsibility

    at a wedding. Rav Yosef Zechariah

    Stern (Zeicher Yehosef, Even Ha-

    Ezer 10) discusses a wedding at

    which an incompetent rabbi — a

    local teacher — officiated without

    the knowledge of the town’s rabbi.

    Not only were the couple forbidden

    to marry, the ring was borrowed.

    When the teacher learned about the

    ring, he had the couple divorce and

    remarry. The rabbi asked Rav Stern

    whether the couple may remain

    together after the second wedding,

    since technically they should

    never have been allowed to marry.

    Throughout the centuries, the

    responsa literature records many

    similar questions in which inexpert

    officiants failed to ensure that the

    ring or witnesses

    met halachic

    standards or were

    unaware that

    the couple may

    not be allowed

    to wed. This is

    why the Gemara

    ( K i d d u s h i n

    6a) warns that

    anyone who

    does not fully

    u n d e r s t a n d

    marriages and

    divorces may not

    officiate at them. You need to be

    trained to perform a wedding.

    II. Local Enactments

    Mischievous teenagers cause an

    additional problem of rabbi-less

    weddings. If a boy gives a girl

    anything of sufficient value and says

    “harei at…” in front of witnesses

    and she accepts, they need a

    divorce. To avoid this problem,

    communities have attempted to

    issue enactments that render such

    weddings invalid. Throughout the

    Middle Ages, we see mentions of

    local excommunications (cherem)

    issued on anyone who marries

    a woman (kiddushin) without

    a minyan, a formal officiant or

    otherwise planned and controlled

    (eg Responsa Rashba 1:550; Ritva

    quoted in Beis Yosef, Even Ha-

    Ezer 45 sv. ve-chasav od; Responsa

    Rashbatz 1:133; Responsa

    Maharik 83-84). These enactments

    and excommunications can serve

    to deter people from marrying in

    this fashion and punish those who

    do so. The question is whether

    these enactments can invalidate

    a wedding, thereby avoiding the

    need for a get which can be very

    difficult and costly.

    We see three views on this matter

    in the 16th century. Rav Eliyahu

    Mizrachi (Responsa, no. 17)

    points out that a wedding of two

    people rabbinically forbidden can

    be effective, even if prohibited. If

    so, how can a wedding prohibited

    only by a cherem be less effective

    than one rabbinically forbidden?

    Therefore, he does not allow for

    the invalidation of these marriages.

    However, his argument assumes

    that the cherem merely forbids the

    marriage. The rabbinic genius can

    find other ways to invalidate the


    Rav Moshe

    ( M a h a r a m )

    A l a s h k a r

    (Responsa, no.

    48) discusses

    enactments that

    not only forbid

    the marriage

    but explicitly

    r e m o v e

    ownership of

    the ring (or

    other item) used

    to effect the

    marriage. Since the groom must

    own the ring and rabbis (even

    today) have the ability to render

    property ownerless, they can

    prevent the marriage from taking

    effect by declaring in advance

    that the ring is ownerless under

    specific circumstances. However,

    Maharam Alashkar cautions that

    a single community inside a large

    city cannot make this enactment on

    its own. Otherwise, a couple can

    just go down the street and have

    their marriage recognized. Only

    the joint communities of a city or

    region can invalidate marriages in

    this way.

    Rav Shmuel De Medina

    (Maharshdam; Responsa, Even

    Ha-Ezer 12, 21, 30) discusses

    a different type of cherem.

    Communities can excommunicate

    people who witness a wedding that

    lacks a rabbi or minyan. Since a

    wedding needs two witnesses, by

    excommunicating the witnesses

    the rabbis effectively nullify the

    wedding. This was challenged

    by the Maharshach, whose case

    was taken up by the Ketzos Ha-

    Choshen (52:1). Witnesses are

    only invalidated after the fact, for

    future weddings. Additionally,

    people can witness a wedding

    by accident, if they happen to be

    where it takes place. In such a case,

    they do not violate the cherem and

    remain qualified to testify.

    III. Conclusion

    In practice, the Rema (Shulchan

    Aruch, Even Ha-Ezer 28:21) rules

    that even if a community issues

    an enactment against marriages

    without a minyan or the like, in

    such situations we require a get

    out of doubt. Where there is no

    enactment to the contrary, the Taz

    (Even Ha-Ezer 49:1) allows anyone

    to officiate at a wedding as long

    as he does not rule on anything. I

    assume that means that a rabbi has

    to approve the marriage in advance

    and the officiant needs at least

    basic training to avoid problems.

    Indeed, many communities issued

    an enactment that the rabbi had to

    approve the marriage but did not

    have to officiate at the wedding.

    This is so despite the reality that

    some communities failed to pay

    their rabbi a living wage and

    assumed that he would supplement

    his income with fees for life cycle

    events. However, the Pischei

    Teshuvah (ad loc., 2) quotes Rav

    Ya’akov Reischer (Shevus Ya’akov

    3:116) who rules that a wedding

    officiant must be fully proficient in

    all the laws to avoid problems.

    Rav Moshe Sofer (Responsa

    Chasam Sofer, Even Ha-Ezer

    108-109) adds an important

    footnote to the above discussion.

    The annulment under debate

    only refers to the first stage of

    marriage, the kiddushin. Since

    reckless teenagers would only do

    the kiddushin, these enactments

    could prevent such problems.

    However, no cherem can

    undo a marriage that has been