The Jewish Family and Home Part I

Jewish religious law enters into many phases of life which do not center in the ritual practices of the synagogue. Marriage and divorce, the provision of meat conforming to the laws of Kashrut and of matzoth for Passover, and the settlement of private disputes are among the matters of this sort with which the Jewish community organization was concerned. it is possible to trace the weakening of the Jewish community of New York by observing those points on which the control of the secular power was accepted and those on which, step by step, all control slipped from the hands of religious authority. Here, too, can be discovered traces of the growing laxity in religious observance which made this flouting of authority possible. it is with such secularization in the development of the pattern of Jewish life in New York that this chapter deals.

Jewish tradition and the laws of the State of New York with respect to the performance of the marriage ceremony did not agree until after 1830. According to Jewish tradition any adult Jew who knew Jewish practice could solemnize a marriage. An old New York law, enacted in 1684, limited those qualified to perform the ceremony to ministers of religion and justices of the peace. it provided, furthermore, that marriages could be solemnized only after the names of the bride and groom had been read in the parish church or posted on the door of the constable's office. The Jews of New York changed their practice to conform to the provisions of this law by announcing the names of the bride and groom in the synagogue and permitting only their hazzan, who was recognized as a minister, or some substitute specifically designated by the parnass, to perform the ceremony in the absence of the hazzan. Even when the state law had been amended, in 1830, to permit Jews to marry and be married according to their own regulations, the customs which had been developed since 1684 lingered on unchanged. Thus a law of the secular power modified ancient Jewish practice.

As late as 1846 the names of both parties to the marriage were still announced in the German synagogues of New York City. Dr. Lilienthal, upon his elevation to the rabbinate of the German Jewish community, adopted the custom of making this announcement and considered it one of the requirements for performing the marriage rite. The minutes of Lilienthal's German community reveal that this requirement was objected to by the more pious Jews, who considered it an imitation of Gentile mores (hukot ha-goyim). Lilienthal replied to these objectors by citing the code book Yoreh Deah to prove that the making of such an announcement did not violate ancient Jewish precepts.

In evaluating these modifications of traditional practice, one must remember that it was to the interest of the Jewish p laces of worship to adhere to the state regulations, because such information concerning the bride and groom as was required by Jewish law was thus more easily obtained. Several important matters required investigation, especially in the case of recent immigrants. The synagogues usually wanted to know whether the bride or groom had been married before, and, if so, whether a Jewish divorce had been obtained. A special problem, calling for careful investigation, was created by the law forbidding a kohen to marry a divorced woman; other investigations were necessary to establish the status of those who claimed to have become Jews elsewhere in this country or in Europe, and who sought, as proselytes, to be wed under the laws of the synagogue. In all these legal matters observance of the state law simplified the task of synagogue authorities. Furthermore, each synagogue wanted to perform the ceremony only for those people who were affiliated with it; some compelled the groom to rent a seat before authorizing the ceremony. Under such circumstances, it was clearly advantageous to restrict performance of the marriage rite to one man, the hazzan, and to help in clarifying the status of prospective brides and grooms by public announcement of their names and their intention to wed.

How important it was to investigate the status of an immigrant bridegroom can be seen from the following case taken from the records of Anshe Chesed. In January 1849, a member, David May, asked the trustees of Anshe Chesed to "get one of his friends named J.S. married" in the synagogue. Mr. May had declared that he knew Mr. S., and, upon this declaration, the president had granted the necessary permission. Soon, however, the president was given reason to doubt the petitioner's knowledge of his friend's status and reported to the board of trustees that:

"the Shamash had reported to him this morning the fact of this man being engaged to another lady in Germany, and of his bride being engaged to a member of this congregation who as it was understood had not consented to the breaking off of this match."

It was thereupon resolved "that the ceremony to unite Mr. J.S. to his bride shall not be performed by the Hazzan of this congregation."

Although, as has been seen, the synagogues welcomed and adhered to the state law on the performance of marriages, New York State in 1830, for some unknown reason, amended its laws to permit Jews to solemnize marriages according to their own regulations. The amendment was, clearly, not made at the request of the three synagogues then in existence in New York City, because no record exists of objections to the old law raised by Shearith Israel, Bnai Jeshurun or Anshe Chesed. Undoubtedly, some private individuals dissatisfied with the control exercised by the synagogues over this important rite, prevailed upon the state legislature to allow any Jew to perform the ceremony. After this amendment had been passed, Jews without any synagogal authorization began to perform marriages, and the synagogues could do nothing to halt the practice.

In the very year in which the amendment was passed a case arose at Bnai Jeshurun which reveals some of the difficulties inherent in the unregulated performance of Marriages. M.S., before going South, in the presence of witnesses, but without any officiating clergyman, performed a marriage ceremony between himself and Miss M.I., in order, as he said, that "no one else could marry her" while he was away. The bride apparently had a change of heart and asked the congregation to consider the marriage annulled. I.B. Kursheedt held a trial to determine the facts, and turned for an opinion on the validity of the marriage to Rabbi Hirschel in London. Hirschel declared the couple legally married.

Anshe Chesed's records show a number of instances in which marriages performed after the traditional practice caused difficulties. To New York came Bavarian Jews, who, prohibited from marrying in their native land, hurriedly wed their brides as soon as they landed in this country without calling upon the synagogue authorities for permission. When, later, these immigrants sought to rent seats from Anshe Chesed, their applications were rejected because their marriages had taken place in an authorized fashion. Usually, however, where ignorance of the synagogue law was claimed, the congregation withdrew its objections and performed a second ceremony to regularize the marriage. The following petition, sent to Anshe Chesed in 1838, may well serve to illustrate this procedure:

To the Honorable the President and Board of Trustees....Your petitioner respectfully represents that he has been married by a man not authorized to give Kiddushin by any congregation and that he has since learned with pain and regret that by that means he has lost his privileges among the Yehudiml...he most humbly requests you now to authorize the hazzan of your congregation to give him Kiddushin kedat Moshe de-Yisrael and to have his marriage regularly registered in the books of your congregation.

With the great increase of Jewish migration in the Forties and Fifties, however, this type of pressure failed to serve the purpose, and there was no way of preventing unauthorized performances of marriage.

Although no change in the form of the marriage service itself took place before 1860, a minor modification in the marriage certificate was introduced by Leo merzbacher of Temple Emanu-El in 1848. Merzbacher's Ketubah retained the old form, but had on its reverse side an English version including the date and place of marriage. Merzbacher felt that the couple needed an English version of the certificate; and, indeed, it is quite possible that others besides members of Emanu-El purchased these English-Hebrew ketubot.

A short-lived regulation called shitre halizah was instituted by Lilienthal in his German-Jewish community in 1846. This regulation provided for the signing by the brothers of the groom of documents guaranteeing that, in the event of the groom's death without issue, the brothers would perform the ceremony of halizah, or release from the levirate obligation. From references in the minutes of Anshe Chesed, it appears that these documents were in vogue for about a year; with the collapse of the German-Jewish community late in 1847, this arrangement fell by the wayside.

According to ancient Jewish custom, while any man may perform a marriage, the granting of divorces is one of the most difficult and complicated matters in all Jewish law, and only a learned man, usually a rabbi with complete ordination, may award such a decree. Since Shearith Israel never had a haham, it never permitted the granting of divorces; in the newer synagogues, the same attitude prevailed. In a few instances men traveled to London in order to get divorces from the Chief Rabbi of England. Despite the difficulties involved, several unauthorized divorces were granted in New York. The earliest record of a Jewish divorce proceeding in New York, and probably the earliest in the United States, occurs in the minutes of Anshe Chesed under the date of December 6, 1835; it reads thus: "Moved that the Release or Peturim of Haye Sarah be wrote [sic] at the end of the Ketubah book. The above Release or Peturim was read, signed and sealed by the Parnass and Trustees."It was undoubtedly this divorce proceeding which Rabbi Hirschel of London criticized in a letter to Bnai Jeshurun. Indeed, Anshe Chesed soon discontinued the granting of divorces and followed the practice of other New York synagogues.

Leo Merzbacher, while he was at Anshe Chesed, and later, when he was at Emanu-El, did grant divorces; at both synagogues, however, he had to receive permission from the authorities before he engaged in the practice. Whether Dr. Lilienthal granted divorces during his stay in New York, particularly while he was head of the German community, cannot be determined. All told, the records show that very few divorces were granted in New York. Few as they were, they were sufficient in number to induce the London Jewish authorities to refuse to recognize any Jewish divorces granted in America, except where failure to recognize such a divorce would involve declaring a divorced woman's children by a second marriage illegitimate. Few as they were, too, these unauthorized divorces, coupled with other religious problems of American Jews, motivated Isaac Leeser and others to advocate a central rabbinical authority for American Jewry; this project, unfortunately, never materialized.

Like divorce, conversion to Judaism is a difficult procedure; only a competent Bet Din may admit people to the Jewish fold. From its earliest days Shearith Israel refused to admit Christians to Judaism. There were two reasons for this. One was that there was in New York no person technically qualified by Jewish law to do so. The other, perhaps more significant, was that prohibition of Jewish missionary activity had been made a condition of the readmission of the Jews to England. Conditions so made were considered binding upon the Jews of the English colonies; after the American Revolution, despite the severance of ties with England, the Jews of America continued reluctant to admit proselytes.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Jewish Family and Home Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Grinstein, Hyman Bogomolny, The rise of the Jewish community of New York, 1654-1860 Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1947, c1945, 672 pgs.
Time & Date Stamp: