The picture perfect engagement brings to mind the scene of a sweet young man kneeling on one knee holding out a ring box to his flustered, joyful girlfriend. It’s both a romantic expression of the promise to marry and a verbal contract* between the young couple.
Within Jewish tradition, there is a more formal form of engagement. This is referred to as tena'im, which is an actual contract and, as such, is signed by the two witnesses who testify to the agreement of the families to make a wedding. (Today there are standardized forms available.) It should be noted that the signing of the tena’im is a custom rather than a requirement. The halachic (legally) required steps of a Jewish marriage, which take place under the chuppah, are kiddushin (betrothal) and nisuin (marriage).
Over time, a fascinating custom, the breaking of the plate, has become part of the traditional ceremony of the signing of the tena’im. The mothers of the bride and groom (or, if necessary, a close female relative or friend) each take one end of a china plate and smash it. (For safety reasons, the plate is generally covered with a napkin.) The origin of this custom is unclear, but numerous ideas for it have been suggested. One suggestion is that it serves as a reminder that the Temple has been destroyed. Another is that it is a symbol of the commitment between the two families.
Because the formal engagement can be as difficult to undo as the actual marriage, many communities postpone the signing of the tena’im until shortly before the wedding. In other communities, such as among the Hassidim, a bride and groom may be formally engaged (tena’im signed) for an entire year.
*A rabbi should be consulted if either a verbal or written contract needs to be broken.
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