Birkhat eirusin, the blessing made prior to the giving of the ring, is directly tied to how we define the religious significance of the institution of marriage.
Regarding the brakha itself, the Talmud (Ketuvot 7b) records the text of the brakha and a debate as to whether we close it with a final brakha (which is our practice). The Rishonim admit confusion as to the text of the brakha – which references forbidden sexual unions and the future chuppah. Why, they ask, do we refer to these things in the brakha? Why not make a simple brakha on the mitzvah of kiddushin?
For a number of Rishonim (Rambam and Ra’avad, as well as many Geonim), this is a birkhat ha’mitzvah, a mitzvah blessing, plain and simple. The complicated text may have been necessary to clarify that the marriage was not fully consummated at this point – that prohibitions still applied (asar lanu et ha’aarusot, “You have forbidden betrothed [and not-yet-married] women”), and that it would only be consummated at a later date – when the chuppah would take place (al yidei chuppah vi’kiddushin). It is still not clear according to this why the prohibition of arayot, forbidden sexual unions, are mentioned, nor why there would be a closing brakha (unless it was merely due to its length).
Other Rishonim (Ramban, Rosh, Ritva and Ran) state that this is not a birkhat ha’mitzvah, but a birkhat ha’shevach, a blessing of praise, one that gives praise to God for the institution of kiddushin. It is for this reason that the prohibitions are mentioned, because the institution of kiddushin sanctifies the relationship, and – in the Jewish context – sanctity is brought about by the constellation of issur vi’heter, distinctions between what is forbidden and what is permitted. We do not live in a neutral world, and by marking certain things as forbidden, it frames and sanctifies those things that are permitted. In the words of Ramban: “she’kidshem bi’assur la’hem u’bi’mutar lehem,” “that You sanctified the Jewish people through what is forbidden to them and what is permitted to them.” [Consider, also, that the parasha of Kedoshim can be seen as the culmination of the parsha of arayot, a point made by our student, Mishael Zion, and that Rambam’s Kedusha section of his Mishne Torah is dedicated to forbidden food and forbidden sex].
Ramban goes on further to compare this sanctity to the kedusha of Shabbat, which is achieved by the prohibition of melakhot. Thus, in our birkhat eirusin, we make a closing brakha – “mekadesh Yisrael al yidei chuppah vi’kiddushin,” “Who sanctifies Israel through chuppah and kiddushin” – emphasizing the kedushat Yisrael, the sanctity of Israel, and parallel to the closing brakha of kiddush (the comparison to kiddush is already made – without elaboration – in the Gemara). In this way, it can be seen that this is not just a birkhat ha’shevach, but also a brakha, like kiddush, that is a sanctifying brakha. Shabbat and kiddushin impart sanctity with or without our brakhot. But our brakha, whether in kiddush or for the kiddushin, adds a human dimension to the sanctity, a dimension that comes through our declaration and through our conscious awareness of the intrinsic sanctity. The brakha, by its proclamation, heightens our awareness and thus deepens the sanctity that is already present.
[It is also worth noting that the Geonim and a number of Rishonim reject the text “mekadesh Yisrael al yidei chuppah vi’kiddushin” and state that the original and correct text is just “mikadesh Yisrael”. As the Geonim explain “ayn kedushatan shel Yisrael taluy bikach” – the institution of marriage is not the vehicle for the sanctity of Israel. It is one of a number of institutions that give us, as a people, sanctity, but it is not unique in that regard. They thus state that the proper brakha is just “mekadesh Yisrael,” that God sanctifies Israel, and – by implication – that the institution of kiddushin is a part of the sanctity of Israel.]
The debate regarding whether it is a birkhat ha’mitzvah or a birkhat ha’shevech has practical implications. If it is a birkhat ha’mitzvah it would have to be made before the mitzvah, and only by the one doing the mitzvah – the groom. If it is a birkhat ha’shevach it would have to be made after, and could – at least conceivable – be done by someone other than the chatan or kallah. However, the matter does not divide so simply. Ra’avad and the Geonim state that it is a birkhat ha’mitzvah, but since the man is not entirely in control – the bride can refuse – he cannot make it beforehand, and thus would have to make it afterwards. On the other side, Ramban states that it is a birkhat ha’shevach, as we have seen, but that it stands in for a birkhat ha’mitzvah (which cannot be made for technical reasons – that the mitzvah is only completed at the nissuim). Thus, we can reconcile our practice to make it before the kiddushin with Ramban’s position – because it stands in for birkhat ha’mitzvah, it can come before the mitzvah is performed. In addition, if it functions like kiddush, and is sanctifying the kiddushin, it can – and perhaps should – come before the kiddushin itself, just as one can make kiddush just before or just after Shabbat begins. The question of timing actually came up at a recent wedding that I attended, where the chatan gave the ring before the mesader made the birkhat eirusin. I consulted with the mesader immediately, and advised him to have the chatan make the blessing right then, given the large number of Geonim and Rishonim who say that the blessing can be made (or even should be made) after the kiddushin.
Regarding the second issue of who makes the blessing, it would seem that our practice of the mesader making the brakha indicates that it is not a birkhat hamitzvah, for – as Ritva explains – we never find one person making a birkhat ha’mitzvah for another person’s mitzvah (unless the one making the brakha is also doing the mitzvah, like in the case of shofar, which is not the case here). And, in fact, Rambam and Ra’avad who say that it is a birkhat ha’mitzvah, state that the groom makes the blessing. Nevertheless, the Nodah biYehudah (Tinyana, EH 1) states that it is a birkhat ha’mitzvah and that the mesader is discharging that obligation of the chatan. Thus, he states, if the chatan is deaf – he states – and cannot fulfill his obligation through hearing, the mesader should not make the blessing. He does consider that it might also be the bride’s mitzvah and her blessing as well, and thus states that he might allow the blessing if she can hear and fulfill her obligation. This question – whose blessing it is, and whether the rabbi is discharging the obligation of the groom (and bride) – impacts whether the rabbi has to have in mind to discharge their obligation and whether he has to tell them that they need to have in mind to fulfill their obligation. There is nothing wrong with doing this, but – in my opinion – our practice of having another person make the brakha is strong evidence that it is not a classic birkhat ha’mitzvah, and does not have to be made by the groom, and thus such intent regarding it is not necessary.
The nature of the brakha issue may, in the end, be a debate between the Shulkhan Arukh and the Rema. The Shulkhan Arukh only mentions the groom making the blessing, and states that it cannot be made after the kiddushin. The Rema, on the other hand, states that the practice is for a third party to make the blessing and that it can be made after the kiddushin, up until the moment of nissuim. The Rema’s position is one that I believe accounts more for the complexity of the brakha, and one that underscore the shevach aspect of the brakha and our recognition of the kedusha of the institution of kiddushin.