The Majority of the Bethrothed
There is a well-known mishnah in Ketubbot 1:5 in which we read “האוכל אצל חמיו ביהודה שלא בעדים–אינו יכול לטעון טענת בתולים, מפני שהוא מתייחד עימה”, “He who eats with his father-in-law in Judea without the presence of witnesses cannot raise a claim of non-virginity against his wife because he has been alone with her” (trans. and explanation here, courtesy of Mishnah Yomit). Apparently after erusin, bethrothal, but before the actual wedding, there was a suspicion of sexual relations between the bride and groom. I wasn’t aware of many other sources which discuss this apparent practice (see Tal Ilan in bibl.), so it came of a surprise to me when I came across the following in an article by Simcha Assaf. Assaf was discussing the family life of Byzantine Jewry and quotes from the letters of R. Ovadiah of Bartenura which describe his travels around the Mediterranean on his way to the Land of Israel (see here for some good comments by Tzvi Howard Adelman on this genre of Jewish literature). Bartenura was very honest in his observations of various Jewish communities and relates the following about the Jews in Polermo, Italy: “גם באיסור הנדה מקילים מאד, ורוב הארוסות תבאנה הרות לחופה”, “They are also very lenient in the laws of niddah and the majority of the bethrothed come to the wedding canopy pregnant”. Their custom was not to do the erusin and nisuin at the same time, as was common by that time, rather to have a period of time separate the two. Apparently not only in Polermo but in other Jewish communities in Byzantium, as a result of this sometimes long period of time between the two ceremonies it was quite common for the bethrothed couple to have sexual relations before the wedding and in other cases for the groom to run off with another woman. Assaf brings a number of sources which illustrate both the opposition to this practice by some but also how widespread it was in Byzantium. Returning to our mishnah, some saw this practice as a continuation of the practice described in Mishnah Ketubbot 1:5. I am not about “to put my head between the mountains” regarding the migration of customs and practices from the Land of Israel to Ashkenaz through Italy, but it is interesting that this was at least perceived to have its origins in Judea.
We’ll end with an example of at minimum careless translating, or on the other hand quite possibly blatant censorship. Recently a translation of the letters of Bartenura was published by C.I.S. Publishers under the title Pathway to Jerusalem: The Travel Letters of Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura . In the introduction it is written,
“In publishing these letters in their entirety, including the critical comments made by Rabbi Ovadiah Bartenura of those people and practices of which he disapproved, the assumption is made that these criticisms were written to instruct the reader and not to denigrate any individuals.” (p. 12)
Well, it seems that the words “They are also very lenient in the laws of niddah and the majority of the bethrothed come to the wedding canopy pregnant” was just a little too critical since as far as I can tell they weren’t translated (see the post at Seforim on censorship and re-read J.J. Schachter’s “Facing the Truths of History”).
Simch Assaf-“לחיי המשפחה של יהודי ביצאנץ” in the Sefer Yovel for Shemuel Krauss
Tal Ilan- Premarital cohabitation in ancient Judea; the evidence of the Babatha archive and the Mishnah (Ketubbot 1.4[sic]), HTR 86,3 (1993) 247-264
Louis Epstein-Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism, 126-131.
From Italy to Jerusalem: The Letters of Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro from the Land of Israel (Hebrew), ed. Menachem Emmanuel Hartum and Avraham David