This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

And May the Best Man Win*

The beginnings of married life can be a very expensive proposition. The furnishing of the new household and the wedding celebration can place formidable pressures on the budgets of the couple and their families. Among the various instruments that society has evolved to soften the blow is the widespread practice of bestowing gifts upon the bride and groom.

In western secular and Christian society, the obligation to bring gifts to a wedding is treated more as a matter of social etiquette than as a formal requirement. Questions about returning presents after a failed engagement or cancelled wedding are more likely to be dealt with in newspaper advice columns than in the courts. In Talmudic sources, on the other hand, the practice is treated as a full-fledged legal responsibility.

In this connection, ancient Jewish tradition assigned a special role to the groom’s confidant, who is designated to by the Hebrew word "shoshbin," a word of apparent Akkadian origin which often appears in Aramaic in the sense of "a close friend." In many respects, the shoshbin’s role bears a close resemblance to that of the "Best Man" at gentile weddings, a close companion of the groom who is expected to provide assistance and moral support

Underlying to the institution of the shoshbin is a sort of mutual pact between young men of a similar age to assist one another at their respective weddings.

The practice is described succinctly by Maimonides: "It is the prevailing custom in all lands that when a man gets married, his comrades and acquaintances send him money in order to help him defray the expenses connected to the marriage. Those same friends and acquaintances who sent him the gifts are then entitled to come eat and drink with the groom during the week of the wedding festivities…Those who sent the money or gifts are referred to as shoshbins."

As with the contemporary Best Man, the choice of a shoshbin was an indication of the most profound friendship, so much so that some rabbis in the Mishnah declared that a person who had served in that capacity was disqualified to testify in court about matters involving the groom.

We have seen that in accepting the honour of being a shoshbin, a person is also assuming a financial obligation, since the Best Man was expected to confer generous gifts upon the groom. In the short term, some of the expense could be written off against the pleasures of being invited to wine and dine at the wedding festivities. However, it was of greater significance that the shoshbin could count on recouping his capital more completely on the occasion of his own marriage.

The Mishnah rules that the obligation to repay the wedding presents is enforcable by law. If the favour were not returned when the Best Man himself got married, he was entitled to sue for the original costs. Jewish law therefore had to adjudicate cases in which the weddings of the two comrades were of unequal cost; and the rabbis discussed whether the obligation to recompense the wedding presents could be inherited if the original shoshbin died before ever collecting it.

Although halakhic texts tend to focus on the legal entanglements that arise from the office, it is clear that there was a meaningful moral dimension to the honour as well, and hence the selection of a shoshbin was not to be made lightly. Rav Pappa advised that, though it might be appropriate for a man to choose a bride who was his social inferior, he should strive to choose a shoshbin who is of a higher station. Indeed, the bride was also expected to have her own shoshbin to support and attend her through the wedding.

Some sources suggest that the shoshbin was deemed to be a kind of protector or godparent of the marriage, who played an ongoing role in soothing frictions between the couple. This assumption underlies many midrashic depictions of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, which is often portrayed as a marriage, albeit an occasionally stormy one.

In this setting, the task of the shoshbin was performed by no less a figure than Moses, who even in his last days devoted his energies to upholding the fragile relationship between Israel and the Creator:

…It was analogous to the case of a king who had take a wife, and she had a shoshbin. Whenever the king would lose his temper, the shoshbin would calm him down and restore harmony between the king and queen. When the shoshbin was approaching his death, he began to beseech the king, saying: I beg of you, take care for your wife…

In acting as Israel’s figurative Best Man, Moses was following a most distinguished precedent. The Biblical account of the creation of the first woman states that the Almighty himself "brought her to the man"; from which the Talmud deduces that "the Holy One Blessed Be He acted as shoshbin for the first man. From this we may infer that it is proper for a more distinguished person to act as shoshbin for a lesser one without feeling slighted."

Indeed, the awareness of such an illustrious exemplar gives powerful new meaning to the expression "Best Man."

This article and many others are now included in the book

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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press,February 25 1999, p. B6.

  • Bibliography:

    • Friedman, M. A. (1980). Jewish marriage in Palestine : a Cairo geniza study. Tel-Aviv, Tel-Aviv University Chaim Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies.