Women-trafficking in everyday life: modern Jewish weddings (in Israel)

The original post was posted on January 9th, 2010. Translation by Hava Oz.

Many women fantasise about their wedding day, even though this event is a public celebration of their inferiority. Modern weddings among secular and progressive Israeli-Jews are supposedly characterized by more individualistic and egalitarian traits. We have wrongfully come to believe that the oppressive and subordinating nature of the marriage ritual and its language have been nullified. Yet, despite all the (welcome) changes, the core of weddings remains the same: it symbolises of the purchase of a woman.

Women-ownership in the Hebrew language

Religious Jewish weddings, and wedding conducted in Hebrew use the terms Ba’al ve-Isha (בעל ואישה), which are regarded as equivalent to ‘man and wife.’ This translation, however, is inaccurate, because Ba’al doesn’t mean ‘man’, rather it means ‘owner.’

Since modern-Hebrew has returned into colloquial mundane use, some contemporary feminine thought in Israel was given to dismantling the inbuilt Hebrew androcentric idioms (male-oriented phrases). And Ba’al is one of them. In an attempt to decrease (or resist, or deny) any trace of ancient ownership relations, some Jewish-Israeli women have decided not to use Ba’ali (בעלי), the common term used for “my husband”, and prefer using Ishi (אישי), ‘my man’, deriving from the similar common form of saying “my wife”, ishti (אשתי, my woman). The new term replaces the ownership with mutual-belonging, but somehow using Ba’alati (בעלתי, my female-owner) alongside Ba’ali, as expressing mutual ownership, remains an absurd option.

And for good reason. The root ba’al has another unspoken sense of ‘taking a woman’, which comes from liv’ol (לבעול), literally, to be/become a ba’al. According to the commonly-used Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary of A. Shushan, liv’ol denotes:

  1. to have intercourse (lishgol, לשגול);
  2. to take a wife (laset, לשאת);
  3. to be a master, to govern, to tyrannize, to rule.

In other words, bo’el (בועל) is a present-tense male verb form describing becoming a husband, and ruling, and the male action of having intercourse. Thus, by performing a sexualy intrusive act, of taking a woman’s virginity, one becomes her owner, her husband. Moreover. this word, bo’el, is also a noun, representing the subject acting man who makes himself the woman’s owner/master/husband (Ba’al), by making a claim of possession, a mark of ownership in the woman’s body. In the wedding, the woman is marked by her virginity, which is then ‘taken’ by her husband-to-be. The use of Be’ila (בעילה) then serves to bear witness to her virginity to the community-present, proving her to be ‘brand new,’ unused, in the ‘original packaging.’

Leaving a permanent mark in/on bodies is common in various cultures to indicate ownership of living bodies: in beasts and livestock by branding (using hot iron, piercing, coloring etc.), in slaves (during biblical times their ears were pierced), in women and children (injuring organs, piercing, tattoo’s, circumcision etc.). Pimps and human-traffic agents also mark their “property” with tattoo’s and piercings, as a form of making status and ownership public through external signification. Not far from human-trafficking (of women) weddings symbolism shows the stability and transparency of the everyday reification of women; confiscating their bodies by marking it with ownership signs.

It is not without reason that the ownership of women is anchored through the use of sex. This is the most central taboo about marriage, which is all about sex to begin with. In Judaism, sex is the ‘right’ of the husband over his wife (ishto), as she is becoming ‘allowed to him’ (מותרת לו).

Importantly, just like the verb bo’el (takes ownership/woman/virginity) alludes, the action is always unilateral and sexually asymmetric. Linguistically, a woman simply cannot be bo’elet, but only niv’elet (the passive form of the verb: becoming owned/married/loosing virginity). Consequently, there cannot be any ba’alati (my female-owner), as the dictionary clarifies with elaborate examples: ‘בועל, נִבְעלה; נישאה לאיש’  = bo’el [active, male], niv’ala [passive, female]; was married off to a man.’

Hence, from the very use of Hebrew in the ceremony, or the choice of Zionism to ‘revive’ (or more accurately – rely heavily on) ancient Hebrew, language has invited/facilitated the bounding/bondage of women as the objects of men. And objects, naturally, have no agency; they need men (subjects) to act upon them.

Now, while Ba’ali (בעלי) is a clear expression of  ownership, what about ishti (אשתי, my woman; the common word for my wife)? This form is indeed less problematic with regards to signifying ownership, but given the existing state of affairs, it also doesn’t explicitly rebut this option, especially in the way that “ba’alati” (my female-owner) could have.

Others tried to escape this deadlock by preferring ahuvati or bat zugi or zugati, which translate as my [female] love or partner; yet these are closer to ‘my other half’ in their less-obligating and non-institutional nature (i.e. they leave marriage aside). Yet another solution is ra’ayati, my female-friend; in use today as a more formal high-register synonym for wife, (romantically borrowed from the Song of Songs), yet it loses this meaning when used in masculine form.

Another illustration of the linguistic asymmetry is the connoting of ownership-relations in the name of the marriage-institution “nisu’in” (נישואין). The verb is laset (לשאת) means both to marry and to carry. It expresses, again, male activeness (subject) and female passiveness (object). In Hebrew you can marry/carry a wife (laset l’isha, or laset isha), but not marry/carry a husband. He is the carrying subject, she is the carried object. Here too, the dictionary explains the verb hesi’ (השיא, married off) with the example: ‘took a wife for his son, or gave his daughter to a man (see Nedarim 5:6 and Brachot 34)’. Enough said.

Marriage related costumes as trade in women

Not only is the language saturated with ownership significations, wedding costumes are also rich with charged symbols of women as objects and property. One example is the family names. Although most couples still take the man’s surname (at least in Israel), many ‘feminist’ couples decide opt for a double-surname upon marriage (often only the women do), by adding her maiden-surname to the partrilineal surname. This leads to comical speculations about the length of next generations carrying their entire genealogy in a growing mathematical series. If our descendants are to follow the new-tradition (oxymoron?) , they will need to have 4 names, then 8, then 16, and so on, in an ever-growing series of exponents….

More serious is the fact that it is extremely rare to find a married heterosexual [Israeli] couples taking the woman’s surname (thus dropping the man’s name). Perhaps this didn’t even cross their minds (which is also interesting), but it is also because that, given the norm, such act is likely to be conveyed as an insult to the man’s family and heritage (after all, most people want equity, but don’t want to pay the price when it comes to affecting their taken-for-granted prevailed position).

Taking the patrilineal name has historical roots going back to ancient times, when marriage was a financial transaction of selling and buying daughters-women-wives. Changing one’s family-name simply expresses one’s joining into a different family and the giving up of one’s previous identity. Since the woman was the one being sold, replacing the man’s family-name would make no sense. In fact, the new purchase has no bearing over the existing family-units and family members: both families remain the same, and it is only the woman, the property, which was married-off (hus’a הושאה literally: carried, moved) that changes her external signs of ownership to suit her new owner (ba’al, בעל): she loses virginity, changes names, and receives a ring.

The custom of the ring is  an early part of the wedding ritual; so perhaps it is useful to locate it here within the weddings ritual. Despite the appearance of more contemporary versions, it is surprising to discover the degree to which the basic stages of weddings have remained similar to the ‘orthodox’-religious version.

  1. First there is a period of shiduch (שידוך), which was previously the engagement. Among “secular” and modern Jews this was modified to an unofficial period of committed-relationship prior to the wedding ceremony (living together?).
  2. This is followed by the erusin/kidushin (engagement, usually by putting on a ring).
  3. Then the ketubah (contract).
  4. And finally nisu’in/ḥuppah (the wedding ceremony).

When examining these religious stages, with reference to the religious terms, we see that the assumption remains that the woman is the property of her man. Already at the ring stage, the concept of woman as possession draws on the past. The engagement ring (=kidushin) is the transaction itself. From the moment the man mekadesh (dedicates/sanctifies) the woman (for himself) with either money or an equivalent, such as the ring, in the presence of witnesses (you guessed it, men), she becomes asura (forbidden; note the passivism) to other men (subjects).

Accordingly, in Judaism, only the man is supposed to give a ring to the woman when she is being engaged (/bought). According to Halacha, if a woman reciprocates with her own ring, she is providing the man with an alternative return, thus, cancels (or seeds a fear of cancelling) the exchange, as it (may) indicate that the participants did not understand the nature of the ritual, possibly making it invalid. (Although, as always, there’s a sophisticated opposition to this concept).

Once again, the woman is passive, marked on her body, sold to another man, and should prove her subordination, agreement and adjustment. The ‘consent’ of the woman often serves as ‘evidence’ for some rabbis that ‘there is no forced marriage in Judaism;’ yet, in actuality, the woman must agree. She may be able to refuse a specific marriage (and not all women of course), but she must agree to her general condition, and to the subordination system. Eventually, she will be marked with a ring, or stay single.

As in many places in the holy scriptures (‘You shall not covet’), marriage too, is an example of adding women to the list of a man’s assets, together with slaves, cattle or anything else ‘belonging to him.’ Remember that originally, men (and only men) were also allowed to marry several women, precisely for the reason that women are the property, and never the other way around.

(Interestingly , since the liminal stages in “rites of passage” (in the anthropological sense) are considered dangerous, the stage of irusin/kidushin was shortened to the minimum possible, and it usually takes place together with the signing of the ketubah, in proximity to the actual wedding (huppah). It is also interesting to note that the ring-exchange customs probably originated in ancient Greece and perhaps even ancient Egypt).


Ketuba: the terms of use, written and executed by men.

Prior to the wedding, the future owner must take part in two public agreements of purchase, terms and conditions of use, and conveyance. (In Israel these carry full-legal meaning: kidushin and ketubah). The ketubah is also often presented by some rabbis as a ‘declaration of women’s rights,’ however her rights need such documentation precisely because they are restricted and subjected to men, whereas men’s rights are so obvious that they don’t need to be documented.

The orthodox ketubah is similar to guaranteeing workers’ rights in a contract for life, initiated, drafted, witnessed, and signed by employers. Written in Aramaic, it mentions that the groom is buying the wife ‘first-hand’ (virgin, בתולתא) or ‘used’ (woman, איתתא), for a certain amount, and is committed to behave properly to her, and return her belonging (with a penalty) in case of a divorce. The contract, drafted by men, is witnessed by men, signed by men, who also witness the money changing hands before the ḥuppah can take place; led by, you guessed it, a man-rabbi.

Finally, as the Talmud explains, once the wedding is completed, the woman enters the state of rahsut ha-ba’al (the husband’s service/authority/allowance).

Modernised? Reformed? Not like it used to be?

Some may say that today’s ceremony are different, and are more egalitarian. And they’ll be right. But so far they were unable to dismantle the oppression of women inherited in the ceremony and its related rituals, which rather contribute to its preserving. It is also true that the power of the institution itself has reduced, as evident by the growing number of divorced and re-married couples, the increase in the average age of marriage, the loss of virginal value (living together, having sex, contraceptives and abortions…). But weddings remain the choice of most, and are considered a celebrated pivotal and exciting rite of passage, if not necessary.

In fact, today’s excitement, preparation and related customs are far greated than those of the distant past. The reason is that marriage is not originally a romantic establishment. Ancient community-organised relations between the sexes were based on a need to protect women from forced or occasional sex, which left them pregnant and impure, and men free of any concern. At the time, women’s rights were not about sexual freedom sex-and-the-city style, but, on the contrary, there was a need to protect women from casual sex and rape.


Marriage: uniting kingdoms by marrying off princes and princesses

Moreover, marriage was used, and still is in many communities, as a means for various needs: to bridge conflicts, to unite kingdoms (by marrying off princes), for financial gain (e.g. exchange-marriage, as part of gifts economy and other deals), for bigamy (marrying several women, sometimes to ease the weight of house work, and producing more children, which are more means of production). Marriage was, and is a practical solution to concrete problems.

So, essentially, marriage was not at all a romantic institution, and despite the modern romanticism that is associated with it today, the language and customs remain draw upon the symbolism of ancient arrangements. For these reasons, marriage is never an intimate issue of the couple alone, it is obliging and monitored by the entire community. Everybody is celebrating the success of the exchange, and the ritual is run by a representative of the community. Marriage is one of the most, if not the most, political and central institution organising society.

In the spirit of the rape culture argument, treating women as property in human trafficking is not the exception, but the norm in a practiced form. It is in the marriage – and not in the divorce – that women start being abandoned and oppressed; and it is in everyday life – not in criminal acts and harassment – that we should look for the root of the objectification of women.

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4 Responses to Women-trafficking in everyday life: modern Jewish weddings (in Israel)

  1. Bonna Devora Haberman says:

    For more on this important analysis, please read my article, “Divorcing Ba’al: The Sex of Ownership in Jewish Marriage,” http://books.google.com/books?id=3trmH8PaQLsC&pg=PA36&lpg=PA36&dq=Divorcing+baal+haberman&source=bl&ots=sbZNHUwm4e&sig=3Jeny4ehdD74rhYpg0mb-hp61ck#v=onepage&q&f=false

    With Blessings,

  2. rybin says:

    its very interesting seen.

  3. Eyal says:

    Reblogged this on Will to Truth.

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