Because engagement initiates a new legal relationship between the parties, and entails that both bride and groom take up certain commitments, it was traditionally considered more important than the wedding ceremony itself.
In Biblical times, there was typically a one year interval between the engagement ceremony and the wedding. During this time the bride returned to her father’s house, and the groom learned a trade, so that he could financially support a household upon marriage. At this point, the Torah tells us, the man has the status of erus, one who is betrothed. His bride-to-be becomes, thereby, “forbidden to the rest of the world.” However the engaged couple is not yet permitted to engage in conjugal relations or to cohabit. This can only occur once the wedding ceremony, the second part of the marriage rite, takes place. Once that ceremony is complete, the man attains the status of baal, husband, and the couple begins their life in a shared household.
During the 11th century C.E., the year long wait between engagement and marriage became impractical. In part this was because each ceremony was accompanied by a seudat mitzvah, a ceremonial feast, and paying for two of these was a greater burden than most families could bear.
Additionally, political and social instability often meant that Jewish communities were persecuted and exiled, creating the very real possibility that brides and grooms would be permanently separated between their engagement and marriage. Because engagement legally bound a woman to her intended spouse, this meant that if her groom-to-be disappeared, a woman would be unable to lawfully marry anyone else.
Thus, the engagement and wedding ceremonies became conjoined, and were from then on performed on the same day. This double ceremony – engagement and wedding – constitutes the traditional two-part Jewish marriage rite, which has remained largely unchanged for a thousand years.
More recent developments in Jewish history – the proliferation of various traditions and movements within Judaism in particular – have led to corresponding developments in Jewish engagement and wedding ceremonies. While some perform the rites just as they were done hundreds of years ago, others have modified these practices to accommodate a diverse array of beliefs and personal needs. In addition to Orthodox, or traditional weddings, there are Conservative, Reform, Secular Humanist, Interfaith, and same-sex ceremonies, to name just a few. Each is a reinterpretation of what it means to have a Jewish wedding, but all take their inspiration from a legacy dating back many thousands of years.