The wedding day is a semi-Yom Kippur for the bride and groom. What is the connection between marriage and atonement? What is the source for this concept? Is repentance incumbent upon the bride and groom, or are their sins revoked regardless? Is the absolving of sins equal for the bride and groom? Are sins atoned for in a second marriage? And what about interpersonal sins –are they also absolved? How can the bride and groom fully utilize this day of atonement? Of this and more, in the following article.
A Groom’s Atonement
The Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 3:3) recounts the story of Rav Zeira who was asked to take up a position of authority. Rav Zeira refused the position, but when he overheard a Tana repeat the Braisa that states that there are three whose sins are atoned for – an ill person, a groom, and one who ascends to a position of authority — he agreed to accept the position in order to merit atonement.
The Yerushalmi quotes the source for this concept from the psukim in this week’s parashah (Bereshis 28:8-9) “And Eisav saw that the daughters of Canaan were displeasing to his father Yitzchak. So Eisav went to Yishmael, and he took Machalas, the daughter of Yishmael, the son of Avraham, the sister of Nevayot, in addition to his other wives as a wife.” This woman that Eisav married was called Bosmas, as we find in the passuk (Bereshis 36:3) “Also Bosmas, daughter of Yishmael, sister of Nevayot.” Her name was not Machalas; her real name was Bosmas. The Torah only calls her Machalas to hint that a groom attains mechila [pardon] for his transgressions upon marriage. (This Midrash is quoted in Rashi [ibid] and other Meforshim.]
Similarly, we find in the Gemara (Yevamos 63b) “Rabbi Chama bar Chanina said: Once a man marries a woman his iniquities crumble [mitpakekin], as it is stated: “Whoever finds a wife finds good, and finds [veyafek] favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Mishlei 18:22). Rashi explains the term mitpakekin as a pkak – bottle cap or covering. The sins of a groom are “capped” and no longer observable. Seemingly, there is a difference between the Yerushalmi and the Gemara.
In the Rimzei Harokeiach (Parashas Nitzavim) it is written: “…And like the rejoicing of a bridegroom over his bride shall your G-d rejoice over you ” (Yeshayahu 62:5). Chatan-bridegroom has the numerical value of 458, al –on= 100, and kala-bride= 55. The total numerical value of the three is 613, to hint that because their sins are absolved, the bride and groom are considered to have fulfilled all 613 mitzvos.
The Tashbetz Katan (465) quoting his Rebbe, the Maharm of Rothenberg, says that the word venika (and he was cleaned) appears three times in the Tanach: “If he gets up and walks about outside on his support, the assailant shall be cleared [venika ]” (Shemos 21:19) – alluding to an ill person, “…The man shall be absolved [venika ] of iniquity” (Bamidbar 5:31) – alluding to a groom, and “…For who can stretch forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be accounted guiltless [venika]?” (Shmuel I 21:9) alluding to one who takes a position of authority. Here we learn of the three whose sins are atoned for – an ill person, a groom, and a nasi.
Seemingly, atonement works even without the groom’s repentance. The wicked Eisav was marrying a wicked wife (see Rashi, Bereshis 28:9) while continuously plotting to kill Yaakov. Yaakov was then forced to flee, with Eliphaz hot on his heels. Seemingly, this illustrates that an unrepentant groom is absolved of sin, regardless of his intentions.
Fasting on the Wedding Day
The Rama (Even Haezer 61:1; Orech Chayim 573:1) mentions a custom for both the bride and groom to fast on their wedding day. Several reasons are given for this: Moshav Zkeinim l’Ba’alei Hatosefos (Bershis 28:9) and Tashbetz Katan (Rabbenu Shimshon, talmid of the Maharam of Rothenberg, 465) write that the bridegroom fasts on his wedding day because his sins are atoned for on this day. Since it is the bridegroom’s personal Yom Kippur he is obligated to fast. This reason appears also in Mate Moshe (Volume III, Hachnosas Kalla chapter 1); Beis Shmuel (Even Haezer 61:6); Biur Hagra (Even Haezer 61:6) and Marharam Mintz (109).
Mate Moshe adds this as the reason some have the custom that the groom wears a Kittel to his chupah — to remind him of his atonement, as the passuk reads “If your sins prove to be like crimson, they will become white as snow…” (Yeshayahu 1:18).
Mahari Brona (93) highlights an additional aspect: on their wedding day the couple rises to glory and their sins are erased. Therefore, there is room for concern that their sins could prevent their forgiveness because they are not worthy of it. To combat this, they take upon themselves to fast and repent before the chupah. After the chupah they can break their fast immediately and are not required to continue until tzeis hakochavim (if the chupah is held during the day). However, Beis Shmuel maintains that as it is similar to Yom Kippur, and the fast must be completed, and even if the chupah is held during the day the bridegroom and bride must fast until tzeis hakochavim.
The Shela adds (Sha’ar Haosios, Kedushas Hazivug): “And the groom and bride must purify themselves to the utmost when entering the chupah. Firstly, it is known what our Sages write (Yerushalmi, Bikkurim 3:3) that The Holy One Blessed be He forgives them for all their sins. Therefore, they should repent before their chupah because it has been accepted in all communities to fast. And they should arouse themselves in teshuva… and they should take upon themselves from that day onwards to truly serve Hashem and be holy and pure. And it should not be like the custom is in other places, where the couple sits together and plays cards and other things. And after this, they should enter the chupah and pray to Hashem to bring his Shechina to reside between them as our Sages say (Sota 17a): “A man and woman who merit, the Shechina rests between them.”
The Ben Ish Chai writes (Shana aleph, Shoftim, 13): “It is the custom for the bridegroom to fast on the day he enters the chupah because one who marries is forgiven for all his sins and he needs the merit of his fast. In addition, through the fast he will have a broken heart and be open to repentance.”
These sources show that although a bridegroom’s sins are atoned for, it is only on condition that he repent. Therefore, fasting is one of the accepted wedding day customs.
Atonement or Postponement
The Sdei Chemed (Volume 6, Asifas Zkeinim, Ma’arechet Chatan Vekala) writes that according to the Yerushalmi and Midrash who learn of this concept from Eisav, it seems that sins are erased irrespective of repentance. However according to the Gemara it seems that the sins are merely “capped” and not forgiven, therefore fasting follows the Gemara’s opinion. (It is important to note that the previously indicated commentaries quoted the Yerushalmi and Midrash as the source, and not the Gemara.)
The Sdei Chemed quotes Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto (Kesef Nivchar, Chayei Sara, drush bet): “When indicating that sins are ‘capped’, the Gemara means that they are sealed, and the groom’s behavior is evaluated. If after his wedding the bridegroom changes his behavior, his past sins are forgiven and considered merits, just as any ba’al teshuva. But if the groom continues with his bad behavior, he is punished for his past sins, even those that predate his wedding.
Following this approach, he explains the Gemara: “‘Whoever finds a wife finds good, and obtains [veyafek] the favor of the Lord’ (Mishlei 18:22) – if one finds a wife and makes positive changes in his behavior thanks to her, all his past actions will be beloved by Hashem” because his sins became merits.
Then he continues explaining the Gemara:
“In the West, i.e., Eretz Yisrael, when a man married a woman they would say to him as follows: ‘Matza or motzei?’ In other words, they would ask the bridegroom if the appropriate passage for his wife is the passuk which begins with the word matza: ‘Whoever finds [matza] a wife finds good’, or whether the more appropriate passuk is the one beginning with the word motze: ‘And I find [motze] more bitter than death the woman’ (Koheles 7:26).”
“These words are surely not meant to tease one for his marriage choice. It serves as a hint to the groom to remind him to do teshuva, so his sins can turn to merits. Then the appropriate passuk for his marriage will be “Whoever find a wife finds good”. However, one who does not change his behavior will be caught in the web of previous sins, which are more bitter than death.
“Therefore,” concludes the Sdei Chemed, “at his wedding, the bridegroom merits an auspicious time in which his repentance is accepted more than ever. And if he repents then, his teshuva will be accepted easily and all his sins will turn to merits and be erased completely as if they never existed.”
Most agree that a bridegroom’s atonement at his wedding depends upon his repentance. Therefore, bridegrooms customarily fast on their wedding day. (Moshav Zkeinim, Maharam of Rothenburg, Mate Moshe, Shela, Gra, Maharam Mintz and Ben Ish Chai.)
Mahari Brona is of the opinion that the auspiciousness of the time may arouse a kitrug and prevent the marriage. Therefore, the bridegroom should fast before the chupah to earn the merit to enter his chupah, marry and achieve the mechilas avonos involved.
Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto and Sdei Chemed understand that according to the Yerushalmi sins are atoned for entirely, regardless of repentance, while according to the Gemara sins remain until after the wedding, when the bridegroom is reevaluated. The wedding is, however, an auspicious time for teshuva. At this time teshuva is more readily accepted. If one takes advantage of it, his sins turn to merits. But if not, he is punished.
An additional explanation is found in Ir Binyamin (part 1, Yevamos chapter 45, mentioned in Chida, Machzik Bracha 282:14): According to the Bavli, sins are not erased but ‘capped’ – sealed away (following Rashi’s opinion). Just as the groom’s bad characteristics are covered up for the duration of the sheva brachos, so too, his sins are not observed. But after his wedding those sins remain as they were, uncapped.
The link between repentance and atonement leaves us with a question – how can this concept be learned from Eisav’s marriage when it seems Eisav himself didn’t repent?
The Midrash (Bereshis Rabba 67:13) writes: “‘And Eisav saw that the daughters of Canaan were displeasing to his father’.” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: ‘He decided to convert. Machala – Hashem forgave [machal ] him for all his sins. Bosmat – that his mind was perfumed [hitbasem].’ Said Rabbi Elazar: ‘Had he removed the first it would have been proper, but he took these women ‘on his women’, a pain atop of pain.'”
This Midrash can be explained in two ways – Rabbi Yehoshua maintains that Eisav did, in fact, repent, and therefore his wife’s name indicates atonement. Rabbi Elazar however argues that had he really wanted to repent he would have first divorced his first wives who served idols. From the wording of the passuk “on his wives” it is indicated that he merely added additional wives to his first wicked wives.
However, there is another way of explaining this Midrash that there is actually no dispute between the two. Eisav wed with the intention to change his ways and do good. Therefore, he married Bosmat the daughter of Yishmael. This took place after Yishamel’s death. Yishmael did teshuva 48 years beforehand, prior to Avraham’s death. Bosmat, who grew up in Yishamel’s house after he had repaired his ways, was intended to serve as a positive influence on Eisav. However, since he married her without divorcing his first wives, instead of helping him change for the better, Bosmat was influenced by his wicked wives and became wicked herself. Her marriage ended up adding fuel to the fire.
The Netziv (Ha’amek Davar, Bereshis 28:9) explains that indeed, at the time of his marriage Eisav intended to repent and his sins were atoned for.
Although marriage has the power to help one break away from harmful behaviors and turn over a new leaf, one must take every precaution to ensure that it doesn’t end up being a cause for heartache and sin. This is exactly what happened to Eisav, despite his good intentions.
Eitz Yosef (on Ein Yaakov, Bikkurim 3:43) adds that when he married his first wives, Eisav didn’t merit atonement because they were wicked women. Only when he married Bosmat who was initially pious, did he merit atonement for his sins.
Here we learn that Eisav had the opportunity to repent and indeed he did. His sins were atoned for, but eventually it all fizzled out and amounted to nothing when he went back to his old ways.
Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Fischer (Even Yisroel, 7:36) explains this differently. He writes that the Gemara (Megillah 11a) learns from the words of the passuk ‘hu Eisav [he is Eisav]’ that Eisav was himself, with his evil personality — from beginning to end. This passuk teaches us that Eisav never repented. The lesson about a bridegroom’s atonement is learned from Eisav, to teach us that even the sins of a wicked man who do not repent are atoned for at his wedding. [He seems to indicate that the Gemara agrees with Rabbi Elazar’s opinion that Eisav never repented.]
Orchos Rabbenu (part 1, shiduchin, 61) recounts that he heard from the Kehillos Yaakov that there are various levels of teshuva and atonement. Although Eisav remined a rasha, he did achieve a certain level of hirhur teshuva, and his atonement was accordingly.
The Klausenburger Rebbe (Dvar Yatziv) explains that according to the opinions that Eisav didn’t repent, this passuk indicates that Eisav named his wife Machalas as a mechanism of tricking his father into thinking he repented and his sins were atoned for with his marriage.
Punishment for Past Offenses
Of Eisav we read in Yechezkeil : “Therefore, as I live, says the Lord G-d, for I shall make you into blood, and blood will pursue you; for surely you hated blood, and blood will pursue you. And I shall make Mount Seir into desolation and waste, and I shall cut off from you anyone passing through or returning” (35:6-7). The midrash (Rabba Bereshis 63:13) explains that this punishment is for hating the blood of the sacrifices, essentially mocking his birthright. How is Eisav punishable for a sin he committed at the age 15 when he merited atonement at the age of 63 with his marriage to Bosmat?
Eisav’s personal makeup included bloodlust (Drashos Haran, drush 8; Alschiech, Mishlei 21:29; Gra, Mishlei 22:6). One who was born under the mazal of Ma’adim (Mars) will surely shed blood. It is up to him to decide how to make use of his character traits – will he utilize them for the positive, as a kohen in the Mikdash, mohel, doctor or shochet, or for the negative – as a murderer.
Even if Eisav’s sins were atoned for, his basic character traits remained. It is not enough to achieve atonement – one must have a clear plan how he intends to make his atonement permanent, how to implement lasting character changes. One who fails to do so, even if his previous sins were atoned for, will soon amass new sins, sinking right back to where he was before. Eisav, who took a new, pious wife without divorcing the first ones, fell into just that trap – he failed to make a real plan how to make his repentance permanent.
Yechezkel Hanavi criticizes Edom whose root of sin lies in their being born under the mazal of Ma’adim. That part wasn’t their fault — what was their fault was their attitude – they saw service in the Mikdash, including spilling of sacrificial blood, a disgrace. Therefore, they caused bloodshed of righteous people. And their punishment? Blood will forever pursue them.
Why are the grooms’ sins atoned for? Why is he offered a second chance at his wedding?
The Prisha writes (Eve Ha’ezer 1:6) that by marrying, one is doing Hashem’s will and procreating. Therefore, it is a favorable time and his one’s sins are not seen. This is the meaning of the passuk “He who has found a wife has found good, and has obtained favor from the Lord” (Mishlei 18:22).
The Maharsha (Yevamos 63a) explains that in marrying one is setting up a protection from future sinful actions and thoughts, therefore he is atoned from sin. Similarly, the Mahari Chaviv writes that when a person marries in order to protect himself from sin as well as engage in the mitzva of procreation, he is actively taking steps to be better from now on, and thus his sins are erased. This is also the opinion of the Aruch Hashulchan (Even Hezer 1:1).
The Eshel Avraham (Orech Chayim 573:1) explains the pasuk: “With loving-kindness and truth will iniquity be expiated” (Mishlei 16:6). Since the groom, in marrying, is working on building the world and obligating himself with supporting his wife and children, his sins are atoned for.
The Kasv Sofer (Vayishlach) writes that a woman is called a “choma” – wall, because she saves her husband from sin and assists him. In improving his ways after his marriage, a man proves that the reason he sinned before his marriage was only because he was lacking a wife to assist him. Therefore, his sins are absolved. [Following this explanation, it seems that Eisav was given an opportunity to atone for his sins, but didn’t utilize it properly.]
From the above it seems that in merit of the mitzva of marrying, one’s sins are forgiven. An additional part of repentance is taking steps to ensure sin won’t occur again. In marrying, one is taking just such steps. That itself is a reason for forgiveness.
The Rash Sirleau (Bikkurim 3:3) writes that a groom is like a newborn child who is not condemned for his past. Similarly, the Mahari Chaviv (commentary on Ein Yaakov) writes that when a man enters the greatest commitment of his life, selflessly resolving to making his own interests secondary to the welfare of his spouse and the needs of their marriage, he is worthy of being forgiven for the sins he committed in the past, and he is like a new creature. The Maharal (Chidushei Aggados Yevaos 62b) explains that a married man is a completely new person — not the same one who sinned.
The Maharal continues, explaining that while this reason is true, the main reason runs deeper. A single man is essentially lacking. When he marries, a man fills his lack and becomes whole. This is the meaning of the Bavli’s statement that his sins are ‘capped’. A sin is a deficiency, an incompletion. When the Gemara writes his sins are ‘capped’ it is because his deficiency is filled. But the Yerushalmi and Midrash add here an additional aspect – when making himself complete he “…has obtained favor from the Lord” (Mishlei 18:22) and his sins disappear.
According to the Maharal, the opinions of all three – Yerushalmi, Bavli and Midrash — coincide. When one marries he fills his lack, thereby making himself whole. And when filling his deficiency and makes himself whole, he is doing Hashem’s will and his sins are forgiven.
Are only the groom’s sins atoned for, or is the bride also included?
The Gemara in Yerushalmi uses the male pronoun of “lo – to him” when speaking of the one whose sins are atoned for upon marriage. But there are other version that read that Machalas’s sins were atoned for, not Eisav’s. (Rash Sirleu on Yerushalmi Bikkurim 3:3; Mate Moshe Hachnasas Kala 1:2).
The Shela (Sha’ar Hosiyos, kuf) and the Elya Rabba (573:2) agree that both bridegroom and bride’s sins are erased. This explains the prevalent custom in which both the bride and groom fast on their wedding day.
However, Eshel Avraham (Orech Chayim 573:1) writes that we find no source for a bride’s atonement and therefore fasting is unnecessary. However, perhaps her sins are atoned for, since she is now secondary to her husband. As a result, more leniency can be exercised when ruling on a bride’s fast than on a bridegroom’s.
The Elya Rabba (573:2) and Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (Ha’elef Lecha Shlomo, Orech Chayim 60) write that atonement occurs at a second marriage just as it does at a first one. Eisav was marrying Bosmat after he already had several wives, and his sins were atoned for nevertheless. The same is true when marrying a widow or divorcee because there is no reason to differentiate between the two.
Rosh Golat Ariel (Part 1: 321) recounts the following story: The Imrei Emes was once participating in a Sheva Brachos in Warsaw when someone asked Rabbi Eliezer Dovid, the Radshowitzer Rebbe, about the following Mishna: “A groom who saw a nega [lesion] is not checked during the seven days of celebrations following his wedding” (Nega’im 3:2). The Gemara (Erchin 16a) teaches that negaim are a result of sin. How can a groom have a nega if a groom’s sins are forgiven upon his marriage? [Obviously he understood that the groom’s atonement encompassed the entire seven-day celebration, not only the time of the chupah]. The Imrei Emes answered that this kapara is no greater than the kapara of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur does not atone for sins of interpersonal nature, so too the kapara of the wedding day does not atone for sins of interpersonal nature.
Most commentaries agree that the wedding day is an especially auspicious day in the bridegroom and bride’s life. The merit of the great mitzva they undertake in their marriage grants them a new opportunity, a fresh start on life. However, it is their obligation to take advantage of the time and repent, making a steadfast decision to repair whatever it is that needs repairing in their life. Along those lines, in has become the accepted Ashkenazi minhag for the bride and groom to fast on their wedding day, as well as in some Sfardi kehillos. Those who don’t have that custom, do however, have the custom to learn more Torah and pray on this day. Some have the custom of doing a ta’anis dibur. [One who knows they won’t be able to function properly after a fast should consult a rabbi regarding this fast.]