According to Jewish tradition, the very first recorded marriage was that between Adam and Eve. A great deal of Jewish thought on the significance of marriage takes its cue from this original union. Traditional Biblical interpretation understands the story of Adam as teaching us that human beings are not designed to live alone. Adam was not flourishing in his solitary life, and so God created a partner for him.
As Genesis describes it: “It is not good for a person to be lonely.” Marriage is the religiously sanctified state by which our loneliness is alleviated, through which we are supported, and learn to provide support, and without which we cannot live a well-rounded and complete life. It is not merely a social convention or a financial convenience – as we see from the story of Adam, it is essential to our very nature. Thus, the Talmud teaches that it is only through marriage that one becomes a complete person, that it is the ideal state for a person.
The mystical Jewish tradition understands marriage in a similar way. Again harking back to the story of Adam, this line of thought holds that when God first created a human, He created a being with two faces – one male and one female. This is one interpretation of what it means to say that we are created “in God’s image”: God is complete, and contains all things, and so a being created in God’s image is complete, and contains both masculine and feminine aspects. Shortly after creation, God separated the male from the female and made them into two distinct beings. From that point on, man and woman sought each other out.
Marriage is thus conceived as a true unification, a return to our original state as whole and cohesive beings. A Jewish wedding is therefore thought of as a coming together of two souls specifically meant for one another – each partner is the other’s beshert, or destined mate. Together they form one complete entity, and together they can truly be said to be cast in the image of God, as was the first person.
Marriage as a distinctively Jewish institution existed at least as early as the era of the Patriarchs. At that time, matches were typically (although not exclusively) arranged by parents, who sought out suitable mates for their eligible children. The first recorded instance of this is Abraham’s sending a representative to find a wife for Isaac, his son. The legal aspects of marriage began to be codified in the Biblical and post-Biblical eras; attendant religious and financial obligations for each partner and/or their families were slowly spelled out in a marriage document, called a Ketubah. These stipulations ensured that marriage was not just a personal undertaking, but a religious and communal one as well – a wedding in Jewish thought is not just the joining of two individuals, but the creation of a new Jewish family, a strengthening of the nation as a whole. Thus, on the Jewish view marriage is both the completion of the partners personally, and a contribution to the well-being of the Jewish people overall.
The marriage between two people is often compared to the union between God and the nation of Israel – the bestowal of the Torah on Mount Sinai is likewise considered to be an emblematic wedding. It is also often likened to a regal event; thus, the Talmud compares a bride and groom to a king and queen. This is the source of several wedding customs, such as seating the bride on a throne-like chair prior to the marriage rites, and having an entourage accompany both the bride and groom to the chuppah.