Shabbat Parashat Naso| 5765
Ask the Rabbi
Question: What are the general rules of distant relatives serving as witnesses on a ketuba? In particular, I want to know about the bride’s mother’s sister’s husband (uncle through marriage).
Answer: We will start with background and some basic rules. The laws of relatives being invalid to testify about their relatives are derived from the following pasuk: “Fathers shall not be killed because of sons, and sons shall not be killed because of fathers” (Devarim 24:16). The gemara determines that “because of” refers to testimony by relatives and that these laws apply to all forms of testimony (Sanhedrin 28a). It also derives the extent of the relationship that disqualifies through derivations from linguistic intricacies. The Shulchan Aruch brings the details within the general laws of monetary law (Choshen Mishpat 33) (a ketuba is primarily a monetary document), although the laws are basically the same for the marriage itself (Even Haezer 42:5).
The basic halachic terminology is as follows. A first-level relationship (parent/child; siblings) is called rishon b’rishon. The next generation (first cousins) is called sheni b’sheni. They may not testify for one another (or together). Second cousins are shlishi b’shlishi and are valid. Halacha also deals with mixed generations. For example, an uncle is a rishon b’sheni, which is a closer relationship than cousins. We will soon see what difference this could make.
What about relationships through marriage, as in our case? The gemara (ibid. 28b) derives from a pasuk on incest, which not only forbids the wife of one’s uncle but even calls her an aunt, that isha k’ba’ala and ba’al k’ishto, relations by marriage are much the same as those of blood relatives. There are two areas of practical difference. In some borderline relationships like shlishi b’rishon (testifying for a great uncle or vice versa) if the relationship is by marriage then they can testify for or with each other (Shulchan Aruch, CM 33:3). Additionally, in the relationship of cousins (sheni b’sheni), if they are double in-laws, then they can testify. In other words, husbands of two female first cousins may testify together (ibid.:4), although this too should be avoided (Rama, ad loc.). Regarding double in-laws by rishon b’sheni, which, as we said, is closer, there are two opinions in the Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) and the Rama is lenient b’dieved (after the fact). By testifying at a relative’s wedding, the situation is always of a single in-law for the following reason. Although the groom will only be the uncle’s double in-law, in our case, the ketuba’switnesses are testifying about both the chatan and the kallah. Regarding the bride, he is only a single in-law and is invalid. What is possible is that two people who are double in-laws will testify together about an unrelated bride and groom, and the aforementioned opinions apply.
We should point out that decisions regarding witnesses are the domain of the mesader kiddushin (=mk)(officiating rabbi). Whereas the Sheva Berachot, while important, do not affect the validity of the marriage, kosher witnesses are required for a kosher marriage, or, in this case, a valid ketuba, which in turn is (rabbinically) required for the couple to live together. As the mk is responsible to ensure that everything is done properly, he should be allowed the opportunity to make calm, informed decisions and not be pressured to accept someone just because the family feels close to him. In addition to the laws of relatives, witnesses should be beyond suspicion of sins that could render them invalid. In the case of a ketuba, they should preferably have a working knowledge of the language and basic laws of a ketuba.Let us use your case as an example (which occurs). The family wants the uncle to get an honor, but the Sheva Berachot are taken. They present the uncle to the mk, who has a lot on his mind. The mk asks if he is related, but, being told that he is a distant relative, he figures that means second cousin or beyond and continues. But, as we saw, halachically, this uncle (by marriage) is not distant at all.
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