Two weeks ago, at a gathering to celebrate the approaching wedding, my friend gave a drash (loosely translates as "sermon") regarding the blessing we recite during the betrothal ceremony. Originally, the betrothal, called kiddushin, was held months in advance of the actual wedding, or n'suin. (In modern times, the two ceremonies are held on the same day.) However, in many respects a couple who have gone through kiddushin are considered already married; the man and woman require a divorce document to separate, and the future husband has significant financial obligations towards the future wife. The largest difference between kiddushin and n'suin is that the couple are still not allowed to have marital relations until after n'suin.
During the ceremony, the following blessing is recited:
Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us regarding forbidden unions; Who forbade betrothed women to us, and permitted women who are married to us through canopy and consecration. Blessed are You, Eternal One, Who sanctifies His people Israel through canopy and consecration.("Canopy" refers to the bridal canopy of the n'suin ceremony, and "consecration" is the literal translation of the term kiddushin.)
In many ways this is a strange blessing. Blessings are generally divided into three categories: those sanctifying a commandment, those marking the enjoyment of some pleasure, and those expressing thanksgiving. Our bracha here does not seem to be sanctifying a commandment, since its main subject is a negative, the prohibition against sexual relations without n'suin; we do not, for example, make a blessing when we refrain from stealing or murdering, so why would we here? Similarly, we are hardly deriving enjoyment from abstaining from sexual relations. And if we are expressing thanksgiving, why are we doing so?
Many commentators have tried to explain this difficulty. My friend offered his own explanation. He suggested that the blessing is indeed one of thanksgiving; we are thanking God for forbidding sexual relations between the engagement and the wedding. Why? Because it allows the couple to build a relationship on an intellectual and spiritual level, before the physical element is introduced.
Physical interaction is incredibly powerful, so much so that the emotions it evokes often interfere with the attempt at building a spiritual relationship. Marriages in which the physical element is the foundation run into trouble when the physical element is threatened. But when the cornerstone of a marriage is a spiritual and intellectual bond between husband and wife, the physical level becomes a crown of splendour for the marriage, without being paramount. It is for this opportunity for couples to build a deep, abiding relationship between betrothal and marriage for which we thank God, with the blessing of kiddushin.