The Veiling Of Rivka
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The Veiling Of Rivka

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light.”

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:21 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 23:1-25:18
Haftarah: I Kings 1:1-31
Havdalah: 5:22 p.m.

At traditional Jewish weddings the veiling is assumed by the groom, or by some authority like the officiating rabbi. But what is remarkable in this week’s parsha is that the original veiling was undertaken by the bride herself [Genesis 24:65], thus providing the basis for the Ashkenazi ritual of veiling the bride.

Known as the bedeken, this is considered by many nowadays as a beautiful preliminary, but in the Middle Ages it was held to have the force of marriage. So much so that the Tosephot laid down that it must always take place at least in the groom’s presence, if not necessarily as performed today, with his active participation in the raising and lowering of the veil over the bride’s face.

Traditionally, the particular exchange enacted under the wedding canopy consists of the groom’s giving (and the bride’s accepting) something of monetary value (in modern times, a ring) to symbolize his assumption of obligation to provide for her physical needs in return for her consecration to him (kiddushin). However, in raising the veil during the bedeken, which, like the wedding canopy is considered symbolic or analogous to “clothing,” the groom has already taken on all the obligations of chuppah and kiddushin.

The Ashkenazic practice of the bride circling her groom three, or seven times — “A woman shall encompass a man” [Jeremiah 31:22] — is the only biblical feminine reprise of Rivka’s original act of self-envelopment. Swaddling herself in fabric, what she is doing is staking out for herself and her man distinctions between personal and public spheres, male and female, thus creating a safe area for married life.

The Netziv points out, paradoxically, that Rivka’s self-veiling asserts her right to privacy and independent judgment. In the case of Rivka and Yitzhak, the inherent glitches to communication have more to do with Yitzhak than any failing of Rivka. With great delicacy the Netziv says that while with their partners Sarah and Rachel could express their personal concerns freely, Rivka understood, as soon as she set eyes on Yitzhak, that he was different, and that frequently responsibility for practical family decisions would be hers alone.

Nor was her idea of veiling herself the first occasion when she plays a proactive role. From the moment we meet her, Rivka is a dynamic person. When Abraham’s servant-proxy, Eliezer, encounters her at the well and asks for some water, she not only complies but draws extra for his camels. Still a very young girl, when she is asked by her parents whether she would like to accompany Eliezer into a foreign land to marry a man she has never met, her response is unequivocal: “I’m going.” According to Rashi, her consent was autonomous, and brooked no opposition. It is precisely such a centered individual who, catching a glimpse of Yitzhak, exclaims: “Who is that man over there?” Learning from Eliezer that this is indeed her fiancé, she dismounts and veils herself. Yitzhak must have possessed an awesome quality to provoke this reaction, and that is especially poignant.

After assenting to undergo the supreme self-sacrifice of the Akedah (the binding on the future Temple Mount by Abraham), Yitzhak was forever marked by the more fearful aspects of God. There was something otherworldly, even terrifying, in him that Rivka had not reckoned with in a life partner, and which required all her newfound womanliness to take on. Relating to this uncanny yet deeply wounded individual demanded some curbing of her own naturally outgoing and positive nature. Paradoxically, her self-veiling was a demonstration of love that made it possible for Yitzhak to bring her into his mother’s tent (the chuppah) and love her, too.

In any relationship, intimacy necessarily consists of very much the same pattern, a series of opacities and translucence. That is why the same Hebrew expression for the sanctification of a marriage — kiddushin — is used for the blessing of the moon. Just as the moon waxes and wanes, fleetingly revealing herself and hiding her beauty in a cloud, so in a relationship (either with God or other people) is it, at times, necessary to hold back, a principle consonant with Kabbalistic notions of the tzimtzum, or the self-darkening (or contraction) of God Himself. A Midrash suggests that only by wrapping himself in a tallit was God able to create the conditions that would leave room for anything else.

The Talmud asks [Kiddushin 7a] whether a woman may give a gift to her husband instead of him being the sole giver. The answer given is that if he is strong enough to know that, by accepting her present, he is giving her pleasure, she may give him something like a tallit, which can serve as a pretext, or kinyan sudar, precipitating the legal exchange under the chuppah.

Possibly the most aesthetically satisfying, simplest form of a chuppah consists of swaddling both bride and groom in a tallit (as is indeed the Sephardic custom), providing them with the space and conditions necessary to contemplate precisely the unknowns of their counterpart.

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light” and “Jewish Folk Art.” She has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and has been involved in adult Jewish education in New York and internationally.

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