A betrothal indicates the intention of two people to marry. This is a formal state of engagement, which requires detailed negotiation and agreement on behalf of the future husband and wife, and includes each person’s immediate family members. Although common in ancient biblical traditions, betrothal is commonly practiced in modern times amongst, but not limited to, Jewish and Muslim communities, as well as in Celtic, Rotuman and some Pagan communities. In many cultures, an arranged marriage also frequently begins with a betrothal.
A formal contract is drafted to specify the terms to which each family agrees during betrothal and marriage. Such a contract is considered to be legally binding and many cultures enforce stiff penalties for broken contracts. In the Jewish tradition, for instance, breaking this contract is considered to be equal to divorce. In fact, betrothal, also referred to among Jews as erusin, can only be broken via an official divorce decree.
While similar to contemporary definitions of engagement, a betrothal is taken a bit more seriously. Upon entering into this more formal state of engagement, couples are actually considered to be married. Though unable to begin cohabitating, betrothed couples are considered bound together as husband and wife upon agreeing to become betrothed. For observant Jews, in particular, this tradition is rooted in Old Testament Bible scriptures where a betrothed woman is referred to as a wife.
Betrothed couples and their families frequently secure official contracts with gifts, which are often of great value, such as monetary contributions, jewelry, cattle and real estate. When the contract is upheld and the betrothed couple partakes of a formal marriage ceremony, these gifts become the couple’s property. If the contract is broken before a formal marriage ceremony takes place, however, the party breaking the contract forfeits all rights to these assets and may even be liable for damages amounting to several times their value.
Sometimes, a betrothal is referred to as an espousal, although this term may also indicate a formal wedding ceremony that follows a betrothal. In some cases, however, the two are used interchangeably, since a couple is considered officially bound by marriage while in a betrothed state. In Wiccan and other Pagan traditions, this state ends with handfasting, which is the ceremonial act of tying one hand of a betrothed man to the hand of a betrothed woman as a public pronouncement of marriage. It is through this activity that the commonly used phrase “tying the knot” originates.