The tradition and wonder of a Jewish wedding ceremony
If your ideas about weddings were formed by fairytales and love stories, you might be in for quite a shock if you go to a Jewish wedding.
In most traditional ceremonies, the types of vows popularized in TV and movies are never stated. Also, it’s not considered bad luck for the groom to see the bride on the day of the wedding. Instead, ritual and tradition are woven together in Jewish weddings, creating a ceremony that is equal parts solemn and festive, legal and religious, festive and transactional.
“A Jewish wedding is a conglomeration of different things from Jewish tradition,” explained Rabbi Emily Meyer, formerly of Bet Chaverim in Des Moines, Washington, who recently moved to Pittsburgh. “The betrothal and the actual marriage are together in the same ceremony. The betrothal starts with blessings and the exchange of rings accompanied by a vow. It’s formulaic. Modern weddings have every possibility in them. The second part is the [actual] marriage [including]the first blessings of the marriage, a set of seven blessings.”
Cantor Rena Shapiro, spiritual leader of Beth Samuel Spiritual Center, is often asked to sing those seven blessings, the sheva brokhot. It’s “the obvious things a cantor would do,” Shapiro said. Couples interested in music may have her sing or chant other sections of the ceremony as well, including “may you be blessed in your coming,” as the rite begins.
Before the blessings are even chanted, the bride and groom have already been busy. “In the Chabad custom, meaning in a Chabad Orthodox wedding, the chatan (groom) recites a Chasidic discourse on marriage,” said Rabbi Yisroel Altein of Chabad of Pittsburgh . “It’s also a time when the kala (bride) focuses on reciting Tehillim (Psalms).”
One unique characteristic of Jewish nuptials is the badeken or veiling of the bride, which comes after the bride and groom haven’t seen either other for seven days. During the badeken, Altein explained, “the chatan sees this is the wife he is going to marry and covers her.” Though it usually comes before the official ceremony, some couples now incorporate the badeken into the wedding itself.
Why is it important that the groom sees the bride prior to the ceremony?
“It’s based on the episode in Bereshit when Jacob thought he was going to marry Rachel and was tricked into marrying Leah,” said Temple Emanuel of South Hills Rabbi Emeritus Mark Mahler. “You want to make sure you’re marrying the right person.”
This is often also the time when the couple signs their ketubah or wedding contract. A traditional ketubah obligates the husband to support his wife. But Meyer noted that there are plenty of modern variations and it can be “one of the most beautiful parts of the Jewish wedding. You have something hanging on your wall where you can look and say, ‘Remember that moment and these promises we made to each other.’”
The rest of the ceremony, including the sheva brokhot, takes place under the chuppah, an open-sided wedding canopy that symbolizes the tent of Abraham and Sarah.
“They were the first Jewish couple,” Mahler explained. “It therefore connects us to all generations of Jewish brides and grooms.”
Before entering the chuppah, in traditional ceremonies, the bride will circle the groom seven times, which Altein likens to building the walls in a home.
“In order to make a marriage work, we need something greater,” he said. “As the Talmud tells us, that is the blessing of Hashem and the setting up of the home on the foundation of God. The encompassing chuppah encircles them both and we circle it seven times.”
The groom then gives the bride her wedding ring, placed on her right forefinger, so the bride can display it to the guests. This fulfills one of three elements of marriage in the Jewish tradition, according to Mahler: “cohabitation; the exchange of silver, something valuable; and the giving of a contract.”
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the groom performs what is perhaps the best-known ritual of a Jewish wedding: the smashing of a glass beneath his foot. This custom, too, has changed over the years and taken on various meanings.
The first instance of the act occurred after the destruction of the Second Temple. While a party was taking place in honor of a couple that had just been married, a sage broke a glass and interrupted the celebration, reminding everyone that they should remember the destruction of the temple even during this time of joy.
“We smash the glass to remember our hearts are shattered and something is missing,” said Altein.
Although a solemn act, Mahler said this is the time “everyone yells ‘mazel tov’ and the bride kisses the groom.”
These days, there are numerous additional interpretations.
Meyer said that she uses the breaking-the-glass ritual as an opportunity to offer the couple both a blessing and a warning. The blessing: “May the blessings in your life together be as numerous as these shards of glass.” The warning: “As one step shatters this glass, a word said in haste can shatter this partnership.”
Before going to the seudat mitzvah, the religious feast following the ceremony, the bride and groom are required to spend a few minutes alone for some much-needed one-on-one time before the business of the festivities. The reason for this, Altein said, is that although “the chuppah symbolizes a home, it is far from a home. Therefore, the bride and groom go into a private room. That is an act of marriage.”
While many traditions attempt to predict the best time to get married, Mahler recalled the words of a rabbi he once knew who told him, “The best time to get married is when you are in love.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@