Insights into Judaism: Common law wives

Asking the rabbi about common law unions, repeating the amida and G-d's tefillin.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple

Judaism Right way, wrong way, Torah way
Right way, wrong way, Torah way

Q. Does Jewish law recognize common law unions?

A. Jewish law believes in marriage. The Torah says, "A man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, so that they become one person" (Gen. 2:24).

According to rabbinic interpretation (Mishnah Kiddushin), there are three ways to create a marriage – giving the woman an object of value ("kesef"), giving her a document ("sh’tar") and cohabiting with her ("bi’ah").

All three require legal formalities. The long established practice is the first, "kiddushei kesef".

While cohabitation was originally acceptable and is not prohibited by the Torah (Nachmanides’ explanation of Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot, Commandment 470), the rabbis frowned on it.

Not only did they say that legally wedded wives have "kiddushin" and "k’tubah" whilst concubines have neither, but they argued that living with a man without marriage encourages licentiousness.

The verse, "when a man takes a wife" (Deut. 24:1) is interpreted as meaning that a couple who wish to be man and wife should proceed by means of legally sanctioned marriage.

All this applies to a woman who was previously unmarried; a married woman is forbidden to live with or have sexual relations with any other man than her husband. There are additional considerations in the case of a couple who have a civil marriage ceremony.

On the whole subject, I recommend M Elon, "The Principles of Jewish Law" (material from the Encyclopedia Judaica), 1974, cols. 371-6.


Q. Can you explain the rabbinic idea that God has tallit and tefillin and acts as a chazan?

A. They are beautiful metaphors but not to be taken literally. After all, since God has no physical form, how can He put on tallit and tefillin?

The reference to God’s tallit comes from a Talmudic passage attributed to Rabbi Yochanan where he depicts God wearing a tallit like a chazan and showing Moses the order of the prayers (Rosh HaShanah 17b). He says that whenever Israel sin, they should pray with similar fervour, reciting the 13 Divine Attributes (Ex. 34:6-7).

The notion of God wearing tefillin (Ber. 6a) is probably intended as an implied rebuke to people in the time of the Talmud who were lax about the mitzvah of tefillin. The argument was, if God Himself wears tefillin, surely you can too!

Just as human tefillin contain the Shema, which affirms the uniqueness of the Almighty, so His tefillin acclaim the uniqueness of Israel by means of the verse, "Who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on the earth?" (I Chron. 17:21).


Q. Why do we repeat the Amidah? Surely it is enough to say it once?

A. The Amidah is the central prayer of every service.

Its opening and closing sections are standard; the intermediate b’rachot vary according to whether it is a weekday, Shabbat or festival.

It is always said silently by the individual, but if a minyan is present it is repeated by the officiant (except at Ma’ariv, which was not originally obligatory).

Explanations of the repetition include:
1. The silent Amidah is the private prayer of the individual; the repetition is the community’s prayer.

2. An individual may lack fluency in prayer or Hebrew, or both. The repetition is "l’hotzi et mi sh’eino baki" – "to fulfill the obligation for a person who is not adept".

Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Jewish religious issues. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at