Rabbi Meir Orlian
“I’ve got a busy week,” Rabbi Dayan told his wife. “There’s a wedding every night except Wednesday.”
“Mazal tov,” she exclaimed. “It’s a special zechus to see so many Jewish families being established!”
“I was also asked to serve as the mesader kiddushin (officiating rabbi) at a wedding next week,” Rabbi Dayan added. “The chosson (bridegroom), Chaim, would like to meet with me. I’ll have to see him on Wednesday.”
When Chaim came, Rabbi Dayan reviewed with him the various parts of the wedding ceremony. “One important part is the kesubah, a marriage document that promises the wife a lump-sum payment in the event of divorce or the husband’s death,” he said. “What are your full Hebrew names?”
“My name is Chaim ben Eliyahu and my kallah’s name is Devorah bas Moshe Mordechai,” replied Chaim. Rabbi Dayan wrote the names in his pad.
“The most important part of the ceremony is the kiddushin, giving the ring,” continued Rabbi Dayan. “Do you know who will be the witnesses for the kiddushin?”
“We haven’t decided yet,” said Chaim. “Is it important to arrange this ahead of time?”
“It is most advisable,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “The validity of the marriage is dependent mostly on these witnesses. Not everyone is halachically eligible to be a witness.”
“Oh,” said Chaim. “What criteria are necessary to be a valid witness?”
“There are two major criteria,” explained Rabbi Dayan. “First, that the witnesses are religiously observant and monetarily honest (Choshen Mishpat 34:2, 7). Second, that they are not related to either of the parties. Witnesses who are only distantly related are valid, but not if they are relatively close.”
“How close is too close?” asked Chaim.
“Immediate relatives, such as siblings, parents, grandparents and even uncles are obviously too close,” explained Rabbi Dayan. “First cousins, whose parents are siblings, are also considered too close. However, second cousins, whose grandparents are siblings, are valid as witnesses (C. M. 33:2).”
“What about a first cousin once removed?” asked Chaim. “For example, Devorah’s father has a cousin, Rabbi Karov, that we might like to honor as a witness.”
“A first cousin once removed is called ‘shelishi b’sheni’ (third with second),” replied Rabbi Dayan. “He is valid as a witness.”
“Why is he called shlishi b’sheni?” asked Chaim.
“This is because Devorah’s grandfather and Rabbi Karov’s father, who are siblings, are first level relatives,” Rabbi Dayan explained. “Her father and Rabbi Karov, who are cousins, are second level relatives. She is a third level relative. Therefore, Devorah and Rabbi Karov are called shlishi b’sheni, a third level with a second level relationship.”
“What about a great-uncle?” asked Chaim. “My father is extremely close with his uncle and would love to honor him as one of the witnesses if he can.”
“A great-uncle is called a shelishi b’rishon (third with first),” answered Rabbi Dayan. “This is because your great-uncle and your grandparent, who are siblings, are first level relatives, your father is a second level relative, and you are a third level relative. There is a dispute in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 28a) whether a great-uncle is allowed. The Shulchan Aruch also cites two opinions, but the Rama writes that we should rule according to the stringent opinion, not to accept a great-uncle as a valid witness.”
“What about relatives by marriage?” asked Chaim. “Such as the husband of a cousin?”
“Generally speaking, a husband and wife have the same status,” said Rabbi Dayan. “The spouse of anyone too close to be a valid witness is also not valid, although there are some exceptions (C.M. 33:3-4).”
“So we can honor Rabbi Karov to serve as a witness?” asked Chaim.
“These are the rules of valid witnesses,” said Rabbi Dayan. “However, in practice we are much more stringent for issues of marriage, so that people shouldn’t accidentally mistake degrees of relatives. In practice, we don’t even allow third cousins to sign together on a get (E.H. 154 Seder Haget:2). Contemporary poskim add that also for kiddushin and kesubah, one should avoid choosing even relatives who are valid witnesses.(Hanisuin K’hilchasam 8:24).”
“Let me summarize,” said Chaim. “Relatives up to first cousins, and their spouses, are not valid; a great uncle is questionable. In practice, however, we shouldn’t choose even relatives beyond that.”
“Exactly,” concluded Rabbi Dayan. “Mazal Tov!”