From the Sources by Eliezer Segal: Weasels, wells and wedding worries

By Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – It is important to be trustworthy, taught Rabbi Ammi in the Talmud.

“How do we learn this? From the weasel and the pit. And if this is true for a weasel and a well, then how much more so with respect to one who trusts in the Holy One!”

No doubt trustworthiness is an admiral quality, whether in our relations with the Almighty or with our fellow humans. But what is this business about a weasel [or maybe: rat, or mole] and a well?

The medieval commentators tried to fill in the missing details by citing a tale of obscure origin. Its earliest known version was recorded by Rabbi Nathan of Rome in the eleventh century:

Once upon a time, a fair young maiden from a noble family was wandering in the desert and came upon a well. She lowered herself in a bucket to drink from its water but was unable to climb out. A young bachelor of priestly lineage offered to rescue her (after satisfying himself that she was not a demon) – on condition that she consent to marry him. They pledged that neither would wed any other partner. When (in keeping with respectable Jewish practice) she insisted that he provide witnesses to validate their commitment, a weasel passed near the well, so the suitor assured her that the weasel and the well could serve as witnesses for the purpose.

After returning home, the maiden, faithful to her pledge, fended off suitors by feigning insanity. The man, on the other hand, forgot his pledge, married another woman and fathered two sons. Tragically, both children came to untimely ends: one fell into a well and the other succumbed to a fatal weasel bite. These calamities reminded him of how he had betrayed his pledge. His wife then insisted that he divorce her and marry his original fiancée. He found her and married her, and they lived happily ever after.

In significant respects, this strange tale dovetails neatly with legal developments that were being confronted by Jewish communities in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

In ancient times, The Jewish marriage procedure consisted of two stages that were originally quite distinct: the betrothal – known as eirusin or kiddushin – and the actual marriage (nissu’in).

The eirusin is in fact a legally and religiously binding relationship, in that it cannot be dissolved without a formal divorce; and infidelity would be subject to the severe laws governing marital adultery. In order to minimize the possibility of such situations arising, medieval rabbinic authorities moved the kiddushin ceremony—when the groom bestows the ring upon the bride—to the actual wedding ceremony, thereby precluding any suspicions of violations during the betrothal period. This practice became widespread by the eleventh and twelfth centuries in France, Germany, Spain and North Africa; and it remains the norm in almost all communities. Historians have connected it to the uncertainties facing Jews because of persecution, expulsions or poverty.

The fact remained, however, that the original betrothal arrangement did serve an important purpose by strengthening the commitment to go through with the marriage. If prospective spouses too easily weaselled out of the scheduled nuptials, it could cause grave psychological and moral distress, as well as heavy financial costs when wedding expenses had already been paid.

This eventuality was addressed by resorting to a contractual mechanism of “shiddukhin”—a mutual agreement between the prospective in-laws to carry out the wedding. Unlike the talmudic betrothal, the shiddukhin did not create a ritually defined marriage relationship. The contracting parties would normally stipulate financial penalties for failure to uphold one’s commitments. These took numerous different forms. As with Christian practice at the time, the obligation was confirmed by guarantors (though not by weasels or wells).

Documents from Egypt, Spain and elsewhere described how prospective grooms conveyed three “shiddukhin,” in the guise of seal-rings—two silver and one gold, representing the three stages in the marriage process. These were entrusted to a guardian as a kind of security deposit to be delivered, returned or forfeited at the time of the actual marriage. A compendium of legal forms from Barcelona also stipulates severe penalties in cash and real estate that would be exacted from the defaulting party, even if it required resorting to non-Jewish courts for enforcement—an extraordinary departure from the norms of Jewish law. In other respects, the shiddukh agreement was treated as a business contract, and there was no religious stigma to retracting from the agreement as long as one was ready to pay the fines.

In Germany and France, on the other hand, some distinctly religious penalties were invoked for non-compliance. Violators were subject to the severe sanctions of the ḥerem, a writ of excommunication and social ostracism. When Rashi was called to deal with a case of someone who reneged and wanted to reclaim his deposit, he ruled that the matter must be adjudicated stringently, even to the point of imposing corporal punishment; for “the early authorities adopted this policy in order to avoid humiliating the daughters of Israel.” Though in principle the law applied to violations by either side, it was normally assumed that the women were the ones who needed protection.

Of particular interest was the standard practice of confirming the match by means of a handshake, an option which had no firm precedents in prior Jewish law but became common in commercial transactions in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The ancient Greeks and Romans used to confirm marital matches in this way, and the practice was adopted by the Christian church until it became standard procedure in medieval Germanic law.

Whether through handshakes, excommunications or cautionary tales about fair maidens in wells—this seems like a lot of effort to devote to enforcing simple honesty. And most of it would be unnecessary if prospective spouses just followed Rabbi Ami’s directive about being trustworthy.

Unfortunately, we unreliable humans still have much to learn from the solid dependability of pits and weasels.

Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter 

Be the first to comment on "From the Sources by Eliezer Segal: Weasels, wells and wedding worries"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.