In talmudic times the bethrothal period or erusin was a stage in the halachic process of marriage that required a formal divorce to dissolve. Consummation and cohabitation were prohibited until after the marriage rituals or nissuin under the chuppah. Typically, betrothal/erusin was permitted to last for up to twelve months. (However, I have read that when involving a widow or widower, the maximum was reduced to thirty days.)
The custom of contracting a binding betrothal/erusin period fell out of practice some time in the early mid-ages. Instead, non-binding engagement celebrations began to emerge during which couples often signed tenaim (conditions) which stated their intention to marry and the conditions to be met in the event that one of the couple broke the engagement. Incorporating teniam into engagement celebrations is gaining popularity in progressive Jewish circles.
A Reconstructionist approach to Jewish law looks to halacha for guidance, if not governance. In contrast to restrictions on length of betrothal/erusin, in our case of modern-day non-binding (tenaim-type) engagement, there are no halachic restrictions on duration.
There are however, many practices that have become customary to observe during this period. And to my mind, these can be useful in guiding couples to determine the length of their engagement.
Jewish engagement customs are primarily meant to be ways of preparing individuals and couples for married* life. Allowing that intent to have a voice in their decision-making, length of engagement would then ideally emerge organically as the couple prepared themselves for marriage.
Ideally, the couple would be able to determine together when they are prepared – or prepared enough(!) – to stand under the chuppah together.
For me, engagement customs are like wedding gifts from Jewish tradition to modern couples. Every traditional custom (whether we practice it or not) invites a different series of questions for reflection and growing together as a couple.
Though in today’s world, many couples have asked themselves these questions before they get engaged, an engagement period is an incredible opportunity to turn up the volume on these questions – to intensify individual kavanah and galvanize more direct conversations about them. In a time when you’re busy planning wedding details, this can be a welcome and very grounding break.
Custom: Studying Family Purity laws as a way to prepare for Jewish married life.
Guidance: Prepare for Jewish married life. Reflect on what having a Jewish home will mean to you. What will be different after you get married, in terms of how you live out our Jewish lives together? What are your Jewish commitments - to our Jewish community, to the global community, to religious practice, to our potential children?
Custom: Exchanging gifts with one another
Guidance: Consider the gifts (of time, focus, resources) you commit to bring to your partner once you’re married. How much are you ready to give of yourself? What are your limits? What are the gifts you bring in terms of who you are and how you function in a relationship? What are you prepared to work on in terms of how you relate to your partner? What are you afraid of having to sacrifice, and how can you best address that fear independently or together? What are the gifts your partner brings to you? How does that make you a better, happier, more whole person?
Guidance: What does it mean to enter into this time together in good faith? What does an engagement period signify to you as a couple?
Are you ready to work together to determine when to get married? Are you prepared to take one another’s feelings concerns about this as seriously as our own? Are you committed to going though wedding planning with as much patience and good humor as you can garner?
How will you deal with wedding finances and other decisions?
If you’ve done a lot of spiritual and emotional preparation, and you’re still not taking the plunge, you may want to ask yourself to look honestly at what’s holding you back. You may want to consider whether extending the engagement period is doing the right and the good toward your partner by Jewish standards. If you haven’t done any personal or interpersonal preparation, you may want to ask yourselves – what re we loosing out on as individuals and as a couple and as Jews by not doing that?
Of course, every situation is unique. Health or any number of imaginable considerations can affect a decision on how long to be engaged. I have put those important particularities aside for the sake of offering some general suggestions guided inspired by ancient Jewish life and wisdom. I do that I hope they will be useful
*I use the term “Married” for simplicity. I mean it to be applied to the formalizing – legal or not (yet) – of relationships of all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, sex or gender identification of partners. May the day come soon when no distinction is made in the eyes of American civil law.
This is a matter of custom not law. The traditional custom is that dating should be short since one should have the clarity of what they are looking for and be able to detect that quickly. However, in modernity this (for better or worse) has become more complicated.
I believe there are four crucial types of questions one must answer before choosing to get engaged (or to end a relationship):
Do you share the same values and life goals?
Do you respect him or her? Does he/she have good midot?
Are you attracted to him/her? Can you become attracted to him/her?
Do you enjoy being together? Do you connect?
I believe these questions can be answered relatively quickly if a couple spends time together talking about important matters.
The rabbis taught that a relationship where one cares about another based upon one factor is a relationship that will not endure. Rather one must truly to admire/love the full person they are choosing to marry. Marriage will be the foundation for the rest of their lives. Some couples can figure out if they’re right for one another quickly. Others need time to learn about each other. There is no science to the art of the dating. One must listen to one’s heart and be honest with oneself and with the other one is dating.
The answer to your questions is that there is no answer to your question. As a rabbi, I have married couples who became engaged within months of first meeting one another, and also couples who dated, exclusively, for four years before the huppah. Both are normative; both are defensible within Jewish law and broad Jewish custom.
The only part of this to which formal Jewish law would attach itself would be the status of physical intimacy shared by the partners before entering into kiddushin, Jewish marriage. On that topic there are, no surprise, a variety of opinions. Some sources suggest that physical intimacy, and specifically intercourse, itself effects kiddushin, such that couples who are living with one another and sharing such intimacy essentially have the imprimatur of being married. And on the other end of the spectrum, certainly within the ultra-Orthodox community, the very reason for young and short engagements is that no physical contact is permitted before the wedding ceremony; marrying young and quickly thus reduces the chance of going astray by libidinous urges.
In the modern community (and for the purposes of this discussion, I am including all the modern Jewish movements: Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodoxy [yes—that is a modern Jewish movement! A more-Conservative response to the Conservative Movement’s response to Reform in the 1800s], Reconstructionist, etc…), the normal pattern for how long one waits before getting engaged is the absence of pattern. What Jewish law and custom both encourage is that couplehood be taken seriously, that physical intimacy (however one understands the laws regarding premarital sex) should be expressed and enjoyed in monogamous relationships of mutual respect and safety, and that the decision to get engaged and become married is itself a holy one, one that invokes God into the relationship in an enduring way.
Amen to Rabbi Kligfeld’s “there is no answer to your question.” Or, put another way, there is a different answer for every couple. And it’s an answer that has a lot more to do with the nature of the relationship and of the individuals involved than with Jewish law or custom. Some couples need a very long time, and some only a short time to make one of the most monumental decisions of their lives. Jewish tradition has plenty of wisdom to offer along the way, but the content of that wisdom, too, will vary depending upon the couple’s circumstances.
Judaism does see marriage as a positive value, and in general the tradition would rather see two people who love each other get married than “date” indefinitely. Kiddushin, the Hebrew word for marriage, comes from the linguistic root meaning holy, sanctified, special, and set apart. Do these words describe the relationship in question? If so, what is standing in the way of an engagement and subsequent marriage?
If your question is inspired by a personal concern, perhaps the best answer I can give you is to suggest that you talk things over with your rabbi. If you need help finding a rabbi to talk to, let us know!