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Jacob Long
Jacob Long

Betrothal BEST

Formal betrothal is not customary in the United States or in English-speaking countries generally, as it is among certain nations, where the ceremony is sometimes solemn (before ecclesiastical witnesses) and sometimes private (made at home before the family or friends as witnesses). Among English-speaking peoples the betrothal, if it occurs, is generally without the presence of a third party. In Spain (S. C. C., 31 January, 1880; 11 April, 1891) and in Latin America (Acta et Decreta Conc. Pl. Amer. Lat., p. 259, in note 1) a betrothal compact is considered invalid by the Church unless written documents pass between the contracting parties. This practice obtains in other countries also, but its observance is not necessary to validate the agreement.


A valid betrothal begets chiefly two effects. There arises first an obligation in justice, binding the contracting parties to keep their agreement; viz. to marry at the time specified; or, when the date of marriage is not agreed upon, whenever the second party to the compact reasonably demands the fulfillment of the marriage-promise. Marriage, consequently, with a third party is forbidden, though not invalid. There arises, secondly, owing to an ecclesiastical law, a diriment impediment, known as "public decency", extending to relatives in the first degree of the parties betrothed. Hence, a marriage contracted between the male party to a betrothal and the mother, sister, or daughter of the other party; and, vice versa, between the woman and the father, brother, or son of the man, would be null and void. This impediment continues to exist in all its force, even after the betrothal has been legitimately dissolved. The first of these effects, an obligation of justice, may arise, it will be seen, from a betrothal compact which has not all the essentials of the definition given above; not so, however, of the second effect. It is sometimes stated that a betrothal does not bind in English-speaking countries. This is inexact, to say the least. There is no exception at any time, or in any country, to the binding force arising from a valid betrothal, even though it be not public (S. C. S. Off., 11 Aug., 1852), or to the impediment begotten thereby. Engagements very frequently, though not always, are rather proposals of matrimony than promises as explained above, and in them an essential element of the betrothal is wanting (Sabetti, Theol. Mor., n. 838, qu. 30; Kenrick, Theol. Mor., nos. 23, 37).

In case of refusal to complete the contract by marriage an action before the diocesan court is permissible. Bishops, however, are counseled not ordinarily to enforce marriage in such cases, as generally it would prove unhappy. In English-speaking countries these matters are, as a rule, taken into the civil courts, where the only remedy is a breach-of-promise suit, the penalty being a fine. In the United States, before the civil law, betrothal has only the moral force of a mutual promise. Betrothal in England was once a legal bar to matrimony with another; at present the only legal remedy for the violation of the betrothal is an action for breach of promise.

Jewish and Roman laws and customs must have influenced the early practice of the Church anent betrothal. The Jewish laws of marriage, and consequently of betrothal, were based in a great measure on the supposition that it was a purchase. In the law of Moses there are certain provisions respecting the state of the virgin who is betrothed, but nothing particularly referring to the act of betrothal. Selden's "Uxor Hebraica" gives the schedule of later Hebrew contracts of betrothal. Where the contract was in writing, it was written out by the man before witnesses and delivered to the woman, who must know its import. Rome, on the other hand, at the beginning of the Christian Era, had ceased to consider marriage as a wife-purchase. Marriage, and still more betrothal, was a purely civil compact, verbally concluded. Under later Roman law, which constituted a basis for our ecclesiastical legislation, betrothal was looked upon simply as a contract of future marriage, stronger indeed than the engagement, since to enter into a second betrothal compact was held to be as infamous as bigamy itself. No legal forms were prescribed for the early Roman betrothal, but the compact was generally accompanied by the man's sending to the woman the iron betrothal ring (annulus pronubus). As the Empire grew in importance, so did the betrothal contract, while at the same time its obligations were more frequently disregarded. Hence the practice of giving earnest-money, or pledges of fidelity (arrhoe), came into prominence; another step led to gifts being bestowed by the parties, one upon the other. The kiss, the joining of hands, and the attestation of witnesses were other elements introduced. Even in England formal engagements of this kind were common down to the time of the Reformation. As barbarian influence, however, began to affect the Empire, the betrothal took on more the semblance of wife-purchase.

The Church, at the beginning of the third century at the latest, recognized betrothal as a perfectly valid and lawful contract. In the fourth century, in Africa at least, according to the testimony of St. Augustine (Sermo viii, 18; Sermo xxxvii, 7; Sermo cccxxxii, 4, etc.), espousals were contracted in writing, the instrument (tabulae), signed by the bishop, being publicly read. At the same time the dowry, if any, was given, or nuptial gifts were exchanged. Pope Benedict I (573-577), writing to the Patriarch of Gran, declares that it is connubial intercourse that makes two one, that mere betrothal would not prevent a man from entering into wedlock with the sister of his betrothed. The question of relationship, then, arising from the betrothal contract was mooted even at that early period. Gregory the Great (590-603) allowed a woman who was betrothed to dissolve her engagement in order to enter a convent (Bk. VI, Ep. xx).

The term "betrothal" in Jewish law must not be understood in its modern sense; that is, the agreement of a man and a woman to marry, by which the parties are not, however, definitely bound, but which may be broken or dissolved without formal divorce. Betrothal or engagement such as this is not known either to the Bible or to the Talmud, and only crept in among the medieval and modern Jews through the influence of the example of the Occidental nations among whom they dwelt, without securing a definite status in rabbinical law.

The root ("to betroth"), from which the Talmudic abstract ("betrothal") is derived, must be taken in this sense; i.e., to contract an actual though incomplete marriage. In two of thepassages in which it occurs the betrothed woman is directly designated as "wife" (II Sam. iii. 14, "my wife whom I have betrothed" ("erasti"), and Deut. xxii. 24, where the betrothed is designated as "the wife of his neighbor"). In strict accordance with this sense the rabbinical law declares that the betrothal is equivalent to an actual marriage and only to be dissolved by a formal divorce.

After the betrothal a period of twelve months was allowed to pass before the marriage was completed by the formal home-taking ("nissu'in," "liḳḳuḥin"). In case the bride was a widow or the groom a widower, this interval was reduced to thirty days (Ket. v. 2; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 56). After the dispersal of the Jews had brought them into contact with the Western peoples, this arrangement was felt to be inconvenient and out of harmony with the prevailing views. It therefore becamecustomary to perform the entire marriage ceremony, betrothal and home-taking ("erusin" and "nissu'in"), at one time; and an affiancing or engagement similar to that prevailing among non-Jews was introduced. This was not an entire innovation, as its roots already existed in the custom of "shiddukin" or consent to marry, which existed in the days of the Talmud and probably also in the Biblical age. It was considered indispensable by the rabbis that a man should gain the good-will and consent of his prospective bride before entering upon a contract of marriage. Rab, the Babylonian amora, was accustomed to punish severely any one who married without first having persuaded and gained the consent of his wife (Ḳid. 13a; Yeb. 52a et al.).

There is now no legal duration of time between betrothal and marriage, the length of the engagement being left entirely to the option of the parties concerned, except that the marriage may not take place in less than seven days after the agreement to marry has been reached (Nid. 66a; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 192).

In Talmudic days, as in modern times, gifts formed an important feature of betrothal and marriage customs. These were of several kinds. The gifts which the groom sent to his bride were called "siblonot" or "sablonot," a term which Benjamin Musafia and Kohut explain as derived from the Greek σόμβολον ("a gift or payment made as a sign or a mark by which to infer something; a token") ("'Aruk ha-Shalem," vol. vi., s.v. ). This derivation is corroborated by the fact that the Talmud (Ḳid. 50b) debates the question whether the sending of siblonot can be considered a proof of marriage or not. Jastrow, however ("Dict." s. v. ), derives the term from ("to carry"), corresponding to the Biblical "massa" and "masset." It was also customary for the male friends of the groom to send gifts, which sometimes took the form of money donations and were useful in assisting the groom to defray the expenses of the wedding. These presents were termed "shoshbinut" (friendship-gifts), from the Aramaic "shoshbina" (friend or neighbor),supposed by Musafia and Kohut to be derived from the Greek σόσκηνος ("one living in one's tent; messmate; but see Payne-Smith, "Thesaurus," s. v.). Sachs ("Beiträge zur Sprachund Alterthums-Forschung," 1852, pp. 82 et seq.) derives the word from , the myrtle-bearing companions of the bridegroom. 041b061a72


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