|Jewish Wedding Traditions|
What makes a Jewish wedding Jewish?
|Customizing Your Jewish Wedding|
There are very few requirements for a Jewish wedding, which include a marriage contract (ketubah), the religious ceremonies (kiddushin and nisuin), a plain gold band accepted by the bride, and the pronouncement that you are husband and wife. Therefore, most of what we recognize as making a wedding Jewish are a wide variety of customs and traditions that are steeped in history. But customs change over time and location, even those in "traditional" weddings.
Some traditions are adopted from places where people live, where their ancestors came from, or from other places or families. Some customs are modernized to reflect the secular realities of life in the modern world, including modern feminism, the congregational practices and philosophies, and as an accommodation to Jews-by-choice and non-Jews. Ancient customs can sometimes survive only in terms of their relevance in a changing world.
"We would like to have a wedding that incorporates at least some of the wonderful traditions of our forebears, a link to the past, but at the same time is meaningful to us." Anita Diamant points out in The New Jewish Wedding that modern Jews cannot marry the same way their parents did. "The world has changed too much. Our expectations of marriage are not the same," she states. "We are different kinds of Jews." This requires the bride and groom to make decisions about the exact traditions they intend to continue. Many of the following rituals are practiced in traditional weddings. An interesting pattern has lately emerged that the more exotic and ancient the custom, the more it will be adopted as a true expression of authentic Judaism. This has especially become true among younger couples who have been raised with exposure to the more modern customs. If you choose not to strictly follow all these traditions you may choose those elements of the ceremony that appeal to you, that others in your community or congregation follow, or those you adapt from secular events. Be sure not to adopt customs from other religions. In this way you customize (yes, the root word is custom) your Jewish wedding to meet the needs and desires of your family and you.
Will this be an easy process? Perhaps not, but it is part of the fun of planning a wedding, and not a part you can delegate to others. Making choices about which elements in a Jewish wedding will remain traditional involves merging two or more families, often with different backgrounds, values, and practices. Leave room for compromise so that everyone feels that the wedding honors what is most important to them.
On the Sabbath before the wedding, the Groom (Chatan) is traditionally given an aliyah – the blessing before and after the Torah portion is read – and his family usually sponsors a kiddush reception after services. Ufruf is Yiddish for "calling up". In congregations where women may perform an aliyah, both bride and groom may be called up. Check with the Rabbi to arrange this or to read a parsha (Torah portion). Is this reminiscent of your bar mitzvah? Like your bar/bat mitzvah, you may be able to call others in your family for an aliyah as well. Now for the fun part:
The congregation, perhaps led by the wiseguys in your family, will shower you (pelt you is more accurate) with raisins, almonds and sweets to wish you a sweet life and fruitful marriage to come! (Note to wiseguys: please check with Synagogue staff before you hand out sweets, as some synagogues have policies regarding this custom).
Traditionally observant brides and all converts go to the mikvah, the ritual bath, before the wedding. This tradition is ancient and is a law, not a custom. They are maintained by most Orthodox and some Conservative and Reform synagogues, as well. The mikvah is a pool of water fed by a running source, as opposed to stagnant. A lake, pond, or river is an ideal mikvah, but rather uncomfortable most of the year. Indoor mikvahs have an attendant and usually full bath facilities.
Because the mikvah is associated in the Talmud with the "impurity" of menstruating women, it has fallen into disfavor by some as a relic of archaic times, not relevant to today. But mikvah is really about spiritual purification, and a visit to the mikvah before the wedding is a way to ceremonially start again "rebirth". The ceremony is quite simple. The bride-to-be is immersed completely in the pool several times, floating freely, and a simple prayer is said when she comes up. This is a joyous occasion often followed, especially in the Sephardic tradition, by a party with food and drink, sometimes by bridesmaids waiting right outside. Outdoor ceremonies can be done at some unusual locations with poetry, picnics and whatnot. Some men have even joined the tradition with their own mikvah visits (call well ahead for reservations) and men-only parties that follow.
The day of the wedding the Chatan (groom) and Kallah (bride) fast and repent their sins, and they are guaranteed that if they do so, all their sins are forgiven. Thus, they start out their new life together with a clean slate. Sort of like their own private Yom Kippur. As on Yom Kippur, this ritual fasting is not about self-punishment, but about starting over (in this case, in union with each other).
|Fasting On The Wedding Day|
It is customary for the Bride and Groom not to see each other for three days to a week before the wedding. The groom will not see the bride until just before the ceremony, at the veiling of the bride. Since this is usually an anxious and nerve-rattling period, this custom has practical advantages that can save you tears and fears. Spend some time with friends and family, and let the anticipation of the upcoming event grow.
Separate receptions, called Kabbalat Panim, are held just prior to the wedding ceremony, at which the honored ones hold court in separate rooms. Check with your Rabbi since some do not allow pre-wedding receptions. Nevertheless, Jewish tradition and law treats the couple like a queen and king. The kallah (bride) will be seated on a "throne" to receive her guests. Some brides, jittery from nerves, may limit guests to the bridal party. Others will have a more traditional reception with songs, flowers, blessings, cake and wine. Perhaps the musicians will make a first appearance. Here the bride waits for the groom’s reception to end.
|Kabbalat Panim - Greeting the Bride and Groom|
The groom will be surrounded by his circle of friends and relatives at a table (the tish) who sing and toast him. The groom may attempt to present a lecture on the week's Torah portion, while his male friends and family heckle and interrupt him. Despite the Groom’s Talmudic knowledge, or lack thereof, this supposed to fun, not a serious undertaking. Other formats may involve a ‘roast’ of the Groom by friends. At the tish, the Groom, witnesses and the rabbi might sign the ketubah or, if both parties are signing together, they may do this in another room, such as the rabbi’s study.
In a more modern version of the tish, both bride and groom are entertained and received together with blessings, songs, flowers, or music. The ketubah may then be signed and the party proceeds directly to the Chuppah. There are many variations of the tish, so ask your rabbi, cantor, or event planner for more ideas. The popularity of the tish is increasing as delightful pre-wedding ritual.
Whether or not pre-wedding receptions are held, a ketubah, or marriage contract, is signed and witnessed. In traditional ceremonies the Groom signs the ketubah in a separate room, in the presence of witnesses and the rabbi, before the wedding can begin. The Bride need not sign it, because it belongs to her alone, according to Jewish law, as proof of her rights and the groom’s responsibilities (financial and otherwise). It was a radical document in ancient times, giving the wife important legal protection. It was a legal document, neither beautiful nor romantic, and the traditional language of the document remained basically unchanged for centuries.
The traditional ketubah does not necessarily reflect the realities of modern marriages or contemporary views on relationships. Many couples have found new ketubot, or have written language themselves, that is more egalitarian. Many ketubot now include parallel declarations of commitment made by both bride and groom with a joint declaration of faith in God and a connection to the Jewish people. It can be a way remind the couple of their moral responsibilities to each other. With many hand-calligraphed ketubot available, as well as many retail and internet sources of published ketubah texts, couples have a large number of choices to customize the text to reflect their particular values. You must confer with your rabbi before you decide on which text to sign, and certainly before any artwork is ordered. Not all rabbis will accept all texts, since they are legal documents. Moreover, only Orthodox and Conservative texts are recognized in the State of Israel.
Just as many choices are involved with the art that often accompanies the text. The ketubah is often written among beautiful artwork, to be framed and displayed in the home. Having a ketubah professionally calligraphed and made even more special with customized decorations has also become popular. The artwork on one such ketubah at a recent wedding incorporated elements from the childhood of each half of the couple, merging into shared experiences at the top.
The ketubah is sometimes read to the entire assembly, and it can even be signed and witnessed after the reading, while under the Chuppah.
Many brides still choose to wear a veil, an ancient custom that has its roots in the Bible. Others have rejected it as an antiquated symbol of patriarchal dominance. It may be seen as representing the modesty and dignity that characterizes the virtue of Jewish womanhood. The veil also conveys the message to the world, symbolically, that physical appearance is not as important as inner beauty. It has biblical roots in the story of the patriarch Jacob, who was first tricked by his father-in-law into marrying the wrong sister, Leah, her face well hidden behind a veil, instead of the girl he loved, Rachel,. By placing the veil over the Bride’s face himself, the Groom ensures the same type of switch isn’t made. A fun tradition enhanced by a bit of history.
If a veil is to be worn, the Groom is invited to the bedeken –lowering the veil onto the Bride. Accompanied by both fathers plus friends and relatives, the Groom, who has not seen his Bride for a week, enters the bride’s chamber and lowers the veil over the bride’s face. This can be seen to symbolize either his commitment to clothe and protect his wife, setting her apart from all others, or an indication that he is only interested in her inner beauty. In any case, this can be a charming and emotional part of the wedding. An egalitarian twist has the Bride placing a kippah on the Groom’s head at the same time.
The wedding ceremony takes place under a wedding canopy, or chuppah, easily the most recognized feature of a Jewish wedding. The origin of the chuppah in the Talmud is not certain, even its exact form is not. In any case, the symbolism in the chuppah has many sides (no pun intended). Chuppah means literally "that which covers or floats" in Hebrew. Traditionally, weddings occurred outdoors, under the stars, and the canopy created an intimate, sanctified space in which to take the vows. It also represents the new home for the married couple. The chuppah is a reminder of the dessert tents of our nomadic ancestors. For these reasons, some traditional reception facilities have skylights positioned over the place where the chuppah will stand.
A traditional chuppah is a fabric covering held up by four poles, open on all four sides. Since there are no legal requirements as to a chuppah's shape or dimensions, however, couples have created chuppahs and new chuppah traditions that expressed their unique personalities. Some customs have involved using a tallit, perhaps a family heirloom or your Bar Mitzvah tallit. Others have used craft-type projects such as quilts, embroidered or silk-screened fabric, or custom lettered projects. In fact, the chuppah can be a group or community project of special sentimental value.
Keeping with the practice of treating the Bride and Groom like royalty, a procession leading to the chuppah is quite traditional. Because a Jewish wedding is, above all, a family affair, the simplest procession involves the bride and groom, each escorted by both parents, moving down the aisle and under the chuppah. This demonstrates the marriage is a union of families, not of individuals. But Jewish law does not govern the makeup of the procession, and so couples are free to decide the exact arrangement of their procession. There are many variations according to family situations and dynamics. Sometimes grandparents follow the rabbi or cantor, followed by the ushers and bridesmaids (separate in Orthodox weddings), the Best Man, the groom and his parents, more ushers and bridesmaids, the Maid of Honor, and finally the bride and her parents. Variations allow grandparents to enter with their side of the family. Second marriages, divorced parents, missing or deceased relatives, the need for a very small or intimate service all require adaptations to the order, which is perfectly acceptable.
The number of attendants is of no consequence, since they are not required. Only two “Kosher” witnesses are required under Jewish law. While we do not specify what this may mean, clearly non-Jews do not qualify as witnesses (and they must not be relatives). Ushers and bridesmaids certainly add a festive and regal air to the ceremony, and they should at least include any brothers and sisters. Sometimes a flower girl is used, although in most Jewish weddings, the ring is held by the best man. The Best Man at a Jewish wedding, called a ‘shoshbin’, is historically a best friend who would offer a large gift to the groom upon marriage, perhaps to defray the cost of an expensive wedding affair, and was therefore entitled to celebrate with the groom during the wedding week. The understanding was that this treatment would be reciprocated upon the marriage of the shoshbin, wherein the roles would be reversed.
The arrangement under the chuppah of the people involved is also not proscribed by Jewish law. Many chuppahs are arranged so that the wedding party facing the rabbi is facing Jerusalem. Hundreds of years of Ashkenazic tradition calls for the bride to be at the groom’s right. Proponents of Jewish mysticism, “Kabbalah”, claim that the question reflects the tension between the divine attributes of justice and mercy. The merciful, masculine aspect of God is identified with the right side, and the just, female side with the left. Therefore the bride should stand on the left and the groom on the right.
Candles may be carried by escorts and attendants, making a lovely old-world effect, especially at dusk outdoors or in a partly darkened room. The candles symbolize the oneness that will come about as the couple is united under the chuppah. Check with the synagogue or reception hall staff, because fire codes may prohibit it. And use dripless tapers, braided havdalah candles or jar candles to avoid a real mess.
Live music during the procession is an old tradition, one that sets the mood and the pace of the occasion. A soloist or small group is usually best, but leave enough lead-time to find and rehearse the appropriate music. Cantors usually can assist in choosing the best processional music.
The logistics of the procession and standing under the chuppah can cause friction and anxiety, and for this reason alone you may wish to have a wedding rehearsal. Some rabbis dismiss this as a waste of time, while others will gladly accommodate your request, so be sure to ask.
When the couple first enters the chuppah, the bride circles the groom seven times, perhaps accompanied by music or a soloist, and sometimes escorted by both mothers. This is a very old custom, the meaning and origin of which has no consensus. It is nevertheless a nice touch, beautifully moving if not a bit exotic. One explanation is that it represents the seven wedding blessings and seven days of creation, and demonstrating that the groom is the center of her world. Another comes from the Bible, which says that a woman encompasses and protects a man. While this phrase probably refers to a courtship rather than actually walking around, advocates of the custom found it to be a convenient expression.
The circling was known in ancient times to be a magical means of protection, building an invisible wall around the groom, protecting him from evil spirits. It can be seen also as an act that defines a new family circle, binding the bride to the groom and away from the parents. Mystically speaking, the bride may be seen as entering the seven spheres of the groom’s soul. Joshua circled the wall of Jericho seven times, and then the walls fell down. So, too, after the bride walks around the groom seven times, the walls between them will fall and their souls will be united. These are obscure ideas for a modern wedding, so you may want to explain this and other customs in a wedding booklet available to your guests.
Of course, circling has been rejected by some Jews in the recent past as evidence of the patriarchal and demeaning nature of the bride circling around her ‘master’, marking her territory from other women. But it can also be seen as a strong act of definition: Here is the space we will share together. Some couples have also modernized the ritual by circling one another, first the bride around the groom clockwise, then the groom around the bride the other way. This mutual circling is a statement of balance and reciprocal respect in declaring a space together and breaking down of barriers.
The Jewish wedding ceremony has two parts, kiddushin and nisuin, which are performed together under the chuppah, but which have distinct differences. kiddushin, which translates as "sanctification" or "dedication", is actually a betrothal ceremony, a bonding of two souls into one with each other and with God. The bride and groom establish an exclusive relationship.
The rabbi greets everyone and makes two blessings over a cup of wine. As with all Jewish simchas (joyous celebrations), wine is a symbol of abundance and joy. The bride and groom take a sip of wine. Next comes the ring, the essential part of the ceremony. The groom places a plain gold ring, without any stones or embellishments, on the index finger of the bride’s right hand, the finger thought to be directly connected to the heart. The groom repeats the blessing: “Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” This thousand-year-old practice, the act of kiddushin, completes the betrothal. The kiddushin has accomplished kinyan, the symbolic act of the bride acquiring something of value from the groom, and Jewish law now considers them married.
In a double ring ceremony the bride then repeats the process with a similar, but gender-corrected, version of the same blessing. This is often not allowed by more traditional rabbis because it said to invalidate kinyan, since an exchange is being made. In that case the bride may present the groom’s ring, and the bride’s ring placed on her left ring finger, after the ceremony (and forever after).
If wedding vows, or "I do’s" are desired, and the rabbi agrees to speak them, they will be exchanged at this point. Some really beautiful vows, mutual promises or poetry, often written by the bride and groom affirming their devotion for one another, can be added as a powerful person statement to the ceremony.
The second part of the wedding ceremony, nisuin, the nuptials, completes the marriage. Because the two parts of the ceremony, kiddushin and nisuin, were historically separated, the ketubah is read aloud before the nuptials as a way of clearly separating the two halves. The text is usually read aloud in Aramaic, often repeated in English. The ketubah is then stored away for safe keeping, or it may be displayed on an easel for guests to inspect. The rabbi may then say a few words about the couple, particularly if he/she has known the couple, or one of them, for a while, or he may launch into a longer sermon.
The nisuin begins with the seven blessings, sheva b'rachot, and ends with yichud, or seclusion, after the ceremony. The seven blessings begin with another full cup of wine. They may be recited by the Rabbi or by various guests the couple wish to honor. Although it usually not a problem, they must be recited in the presence of a minyan, a formal quorum of ten adults. In addition to a blessing over the wine, there is praise for God as creator of the world and of men and women; a prayer for the newly married couple and of the ten degrees of rejoicing. The blessings also include a prayer that Jerusalem will be fully rebuilt and restored with the Temple in its midst and the Jewish people within her gates, showing wishes not only for the individuals but the community in which they live. The couple then drinks from the second cup of wine. The Rabbi pronounces the couple officially husband and wife.
The traditional ending of a Jewish wedding is probably the most recognized feature: breaking the glass. It is an old custom that is not formally part of the ceremony, yet pages have been written about its meaning, which has been widely interpreted. A glass is placed on the floor, often wrapped in cloth or a napkin to prevent injury, and the groom breaks it with his foot. Some couples even choose to break it together, which is fine. The crowd shouts “Mazel Tov!” and joyous music begins (Siman Tov and Mazel Tov is a favorite!). But what does breaking the glass represent? Here are some opinions:
- Even during times of great joy, we should remember the tragic destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, symbolizing all suffering by Jews everywhere;
- a representation of the fragility of human relationships;
- a reminder that marriage transforms the lives of individuals forever;
- it represents a break with childhood and the parents’ home;
- in contrast to the solemn moments of the ceremony, the loud crash signal levity and celebration to begin;
- a symbol of the irrevocability of marriage;
- this is the last time the groom gets to "put his foot down."
After the couple leave the chuppah, tradition calls for them to retire to a private room where they might spend ten of fifteen minutes together alone in yichud–seclusion. This is historically a ritual reserved only for married couples, and they are escorted to the room by witnesses and the door is closed. This is a wonderful time to reflect on the union of two souls without interference, to hug and kiss, to take a breather before you are once again the center of attention. It is customary to eat together as a married couple for the first time, breaking fast (except for those sips of wine during the ceremony) if you have fasted. Chicken broth has been served in Ashkenazic tradition as a symbol of prosperity to come (the gold color of the broth). Sephardic tradition calls for a meal of doves symbolizing marital peace. Another idea is a glass of champagne and a plate of cocktail hour hors d’oeuvres that you might otherwise never taste (talk to the caterer or ask a friend to bring this). Eat something here, because many couples do not eat much or at their own wedding, given the excitement and schedule of events. This is also a good time to place the rings on the correct fingers, remove the veil, tallit and other ceremonial garb. When you emerge from the yichud, you are the newest married couple in the room.
As a practical matter, the time gives the caterer and guests a few minutes to transition into the dining hall or cocktail area, to visit the rest rooms, congratulate the parents, and so on. It also avoids the reception line, at least immediately after the ceremony, which leaves guests wandering around while waiting for the line to end.
This has become a standard at many American weddings, even Jewish ones, so you may still wish to have one, especially if you are not observing yichud. If so, it may be held immediately after the ceremony, after yichud, or after a cocktail hour. The format is often the same: Both sets of parents, bride and groom, maid/matron of honor and bridesmaids. The Best Man and ushers do not participate, particularly since ushers are not required at Jewish weddings. This is the place for guests to express congratulations and for parents to kvell-swell with pride. Keep smiling, be gracious, but don’t chat too long. It’s OK to ask names if you don’t know; most folks are glad to introduce themselves.
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