Any Jewish wedding ceremony follows certain rituals and traditions, transcending ages from Biblical times to the modern-day. There are still some aspects of the Jewish customs that are intact even as modernism takes a toll on Judaism. We go deeper into these traditional Jewish rituals to determine how and why they are still relevant in the Jewish communities.
So, what are the traditional ways Judaism celebrates marriage? A typical Jewish wedding entails two stages, the kiddushin (betrothal) and the wedding (nissuin). The Jewish observe certain traditions before, during, and after the wedding ceremony. During the wedding/ nuptials, there is the ketubah‘s signing, the veiling (bedeken), standing under the chuppah, the seven blessings, circling, and the breaking of glass. After the ceremony, we have the yichud tradition and the special dances at the reception.
Given how essential the Jewish customs are, we look at some common rituals you will likely find in a typical Jewish wedding. We also wish to find out the Jewish view on marriage and how important these rituals are to the newly-weds’ lives. Read on as we go deeper into the world of Jewish marriage celebrations.
Jewish View on Marriage
Like in any other religion, the Jewish hold marriage in high regard; they consider the union of a man and a woman as a combination of two souls to make one whole. A Jewish wedding is God’s perfect creation since marriage began with the first human beings on earth.
Marriage is necessary for Judaism since it not only initiates procreation, but it is also a fulfillment of companionship. According to Talmud laws, an unmarried man is prone to sinning, but these deeds may recede when he marries. The traditional Jews view marriage as an institution for love, intimacy, and companionship, for man is not supposed to be alone.
In polygamy, the Jewish Torah and Talmud allow men to marry more than one woman while women have to marry one man unless it is in the case of remarriage. For her to remarry, she has to obtain a get from her husband first so that the law can recognize her to be unmarried.
Similarly, she can remarry if her spouse dies, leaving her a widow. Although polygamy was legal among the Jews, it was not prevalent practice, and even in the Talmud, there are no records of a polygamous rabbi.
To date, the Jewish belief is that in every marriage, the man is responsible for ensuring that he provides for the wife and the subsequent children as outlined in the ketubah. This adherence indicates how valuable the institution of marriage is. Hence, the Jewish mark their celebrations in so much pomp and color.
It is illegal for Jews to marry from close blood relatives. Marrying someone who has not done a valid divorce from a previous marriage is also prohibited by the customs. Besides, you are not supposed to marry the daughter or granddaughter to the ex-wife or her sister unless the woman is deceased. Torah has all these conditions well and clearly outlined. Thus, no Jews can celebrate such a union.
Lastly, the Jewish deem marriage a way of fulfilling God’s commandments through love, commitment, and procreation between man and woman. However, different Jewish communities have embraced different rules in their code of conduct.
While the Orthodox Jews strictly follow the Torah’s dictations, other communities have slightly deviated to adopt some changes. For instance, the Non-Orthodox Jews have brought a twist on their view of marriage by introducing same-sex marriages, which is a grave diversion from the Jews laws on marriage.
On the other hand, other Jewish communities like the Reconstructionists do not insist on the marriage’s procreation aspect. Instead, they focus on marriage as a way for the couple to bond.
How Does Judaism Celebrate Marriage?
There are various denominations in Judaism, with each following different rules and traditions in the way they conduct their ceremonies. However, each religion still deems marriage as a blessed institution. As much as there are varying principles of conduct in the way they celebrate marriage, some traditional aspects to date remain intact. The way they perform marriage celebrations may be different, but still, they don’t wander from the common Jewish marriage traditions.
There are some typical Judaic wedding customs you are likely to see at any Jewish wedding. There is the ketubah; marriage contract signed by two witnesses, the chuppah; a wedding canopy signifying the home that the couples will build together, and glass breaking. These are the most common features that you can never miss at any Jewish wedding celebration, whether the believers are Conservative, Reformists, or Orthodox.
The traditional Jewish wedding ceremony never had a minister as the celebrant. It was unnecessary since the marriage would be binding once the bride received money or a valuable object from the groom. But in the present-day celebrations, an ordained rabbi must officiate the ceremony as stipulated in civil laws and guide Jewish wedding traditions.
After drawing the marriage contract, there are two major events to mark a Jewish wedding; the betrothal (kiddushin) and the actual ceremony (nissuin). During kiddushin, the bride comes over with her parents and circles the groom; then there is the recitation of two blessings. One is a general one, and another is specifically for the couples and their union. At this point, they exchange rings, and a chosen guest reads out the ketubah.
The nissuin proceeds where the couples stand under the chuppah (a canopy that symbolizes the couple’s new home together). The couple then seeks the seven divine interventions, after which they share a glass of wine. Lastly, the groom breaks a glass below his foot as the ceremony comes to an end. After the weddings, there is the tradition where the bride and groom seclude themselves for a moment then afterward join their guests in more celebrations at the reception.
Jewish wedding celebrations can occur any day but not on the Sabbath (from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday) or any other Jewish holiday. These particular days are special to the Jewish calendar meant for fasting, prayer, or believers to rest and refrain from any activity.
In the Jewish tradition, Tuesday is a convenient day for celebrating a wedding, for it is a good day that God set for creation. The first day of the Jewish month is also favorable for couples to marry and Kislev’s whole month. According to Jewish customs, two members of the same family cannot get married on the same day.
Since the wedding is the bride’s special day, a typical Jewish bride may want to look her best even as she honors her traditions. For her wedding gown, it has to be an attire that abides by the Torah’s rules in modesty matters; however, it depends on the denomination or the synagogue that she belongs.
Another important aspect of a Jewish wedding celebration is the reception, where the couple and their guests celebrate with food and dance. First, the food must be kosher or kosher-style, just as the Torah outlines. With good food and music, any Jewish wedding is complete.
The Nine Traditional Ways Judaism Celebrates Marriage
Like in most traditions, a Jewish wedding is one of the most important occasions in a believer’s life. Hence, a wedding should be a day of adherence to Jewish customs and culture. In most cases, these rituals occur even weeks before the main ceremony. All these practices are symbolic to Judaism, and you will only find them at a Jewish wedding. Let’s have a look at the nine most common traditional ways that the Jewish celebrate marriage.
1. The signing of the ketubah
The main ceremony begins with signing the marriage contract (ketubah) with two witnesses and the celebrant present. Normally, the ketubah is a Jewish legal document and not a religious script. There is no stipulation of God’s blessing on the union in the document. The couple has to sign it before the ceremony commences. This way, the wedding is made official according to Jewish law.
This document is essential as it outlines the groom’s obligations to the bride, which include providing for the family and maintaining the union. By signing this contract, he legally binds himself to the bride. Often, this document is in the form of a framed illuminated manuscript that the couple can display at their home.
The couple may read it out at the ceremony either in Aramaic or as a translated version. For Non-Orthodox couples, the document may be in two languages that the couple reads entirely or in a short version.
This document dates back to the Sanhedrin days when the Jews had a Supreme Court judicial system. It was a necessary document, especially for the bride’s protection, because it came in handy for eventualities such as separation. If the groom signed it, he would willingly grant the wife a get if they separated. Not doing so would chain the wife to him, even if she wanted a divorce, because she cannot remarry without a valid divorce document.
2. The Bedeken
After the ketubah‘s signing, there is the bedeken or the veiling ceremony, where the groom approaches the bride and veils her. This ritual is significant in various ways. First, it symbolizes the groom’s undying love for the bride and that he is only concerned with her inner beauty and not the outward appearance.
It is also important to depict that the two shall become one after the union. Another significance of this ritual is to express the groom’s intention to take up the responsibility to clothe and protect his bride when they marry.
Biblically, this ritual dates back to the days of Abraham and Isaac, when Laban tricked Jacob by offering Leah for marriage instead of Rachel when he covered Leah’s face with a veil. Similarly, Rebekah veiled her face before marrying Isaac. The Jewish customs relate these two instances as the reasons for the bedeken ceremony. If the groom personally veils his bride, there’s no way the bride’s family will trick him into marrying someone else.
The Sephardis do not practice this ritual. It is synonymous with the Ashkenazis who veil the bride and chant a prayer according to a bible verse. The word bedeken is a Yiddish term meaning covering.
3. The Chuppah
Traditionally, a Jewish wedding takes place under the chuppah. The canopy is a four-cornered structure where the bride, groom, and the celebrant stand during the ceremony. The parents from both sides may join the couple under the canopy or sit together with other guests.
The four corners and the chuppah’s roof signify the home that the couple will build together during their union. In other cases, the couple’s friends and family hold up the canopy/ chuppah. This deed implies that they will also participate in supporting the newly-weds during their married life.
However, in most cases, the canopy will be a free-standing structure with decorations all over. There may be flowers or prayer shawls covering the structure, depending on the couple’s preferences.
As the ceremony commences, the groom’s parents walk him down to the chuppah followed by the bride, also accompanied by her parents. Typically, the father or a male family member walks the bride down the aisle, but in other cases, both her parents can tag along. However, according to Jewish laws, there is no specific guideline on who has to walk her down the aisle.
4. The Circling
Once the bride gets to the chuppah, she performs the circling ritual. This tradition is synonymous with the Ashkenazi where the bride has to circle the groom three to seven times upon reaching the chuppah. However, the number of times she does it depends on her Jewish denomination since, in liberal groups, the bride can walk once. For the Orthodox groups, however, she must do it seven times.
This tradition stems from a biblical perspective. First, the book Jeremiah dictates the necessity of the bride surrounding the groom. Similarly, the three times she does it signify marriage’s three pillars (justice, love, and righteousness).
Lastly, the maximum number of circuits relates to the number seven, which biblically means perfection. This tradition varies among the various Jewish communities, reducing the number of circuits, others modifying it, and others doing away with it altogether. Generally, this ritual symbolizes the centrality of one partner in the union.
5. The Betrothal
The next step in the marriage celebration is the kiddushin. Traditionally, there are two blessings for the couple; the wine and marriage blessings. Like in most traditional weddings, the Jewish bride and groom also exchange rings. These wedding bands are metallic, which is conventionally a valuable object. They exchange the rings on each other’s left forefingers, which some people believe has a vein that connects straight to the heart.
In the middle ages, the rings were not typical for the ceremony, but as a fulfillment of the dowry payment. Thus, only the groom would present it to the bride, and it had to be purely metallic to ascertain its true value.
This ceremony is known as the betrothal because, conventionally, the groom would present the bride with the ring as he declared her marriage to him. However, in recent times, the bride also presents the bride’s ring as she chants a biblical verse. The couple attaches more meaning to the exchange of rings in that it symbolizes purity and openness in their union.
6. The Sheva B’rachot
This tradition is an adaptation of old Judaism teachings. The rabbi leads this part of the ceremony as he selects some guests to come up and recite the seven blessings. Being selected is a great honor for the couple.
These blessings are either in Hebrew or English. There is also a perfect way to bring the couple together in their faith. The blessings entail wishing the newly-weds joy and peace in their married life and are a chance for them to enjoy the ceremony with their friends and family.
Once the recitation is over, the couple drinks the wine. In more traditional setups, the groom’s father in law will place the cup on the groom’s lips as the bride’s mother in law does the same for her. There may also be some accompanying songs before the seven blessings depending on the Jewish community.
It is important to note that the number seven is significant to Judaism, given that it is the number of days that God created the world. Hence, the seven blessings are also significant.
7. The Breaking of Glass
This segment is the “Mazel Tov!” part of the celebration where the guests congratulate the bride and groom. Towards the conclusion of the ceremony, it is customary for the groom to break the glass. This tradition is unique, and you can only find it at a Jewish wedding. However, it depends on various Jewish setups.
Sometimes, they place the glass in a cloth bag and ask the groom to step on it, but in other cases, they use a light bulb, which is more fragile and is louder when it breaks. Other reformists ask the couple to break the wine glass. Some couples save the shards and keep them in their house as souvenirs to help them remember this special day.
No one knows the exact origin of this tradition, but most say that it symbolizes certain aspects of Judaism. In one account, the tradition is from the Talmud, where some rabbis saw chaos in their son’s wedding, so they broke the glass to calm people down.
Mostly, people associate it with the Jerusalem temple’s destruction, while others link it to the depiction of the essence of a Jewish marriage. They say that breaking the glass means that the couple should expect sorrow alongside joy in their union since even glass can break. Similarly, some relate this tradition with the sorrow over the Jerusalem temple’s destruction.
8. The Yichud
Once the bride and groom are officially husband and wife, they go to a secluded room away from their guests. This act manifests how they will be living together now that they are a married couple. If they have been fasting, here is where they may have their first meal together. The Yichud refers to an Ashkenazi ritual where the couple retreats to be alone together for up to ten minutes. The room has to be private, but the location depends on where the ceremony occurs and the local customs.
It may be in the rabbi’s study room or a Jewish classroom, but this room was traditionally special in the groom’s house. Upon this seclusion, the bride and groom officially consummate in marriage.
A widely practiced modern tradition is the couple’s seclusion at the chuppah, but this is not allowed in Yemen. In other cultures, like the Sephardic setup, they do away with this tradition since they consider it a violation of the couple’s modesty.
9. The Special Dances
The couple, together with their guests, joins in celebration at the reception. It could be at the same venue as the wedding or at a different venue depending on the guests. Here, their friends and family celebrate with them as they are now officially married. The reception involves eating and dancing with adherence to Jewish customs. They all indulge in Jewish food and dances as the ceremony comes to a close.
The most common traditional Jewish dances are the hora, krenzi, mizinke, and the mitzvah tantz. Normally, the guests dance around the couple as they sit. In the hora, the guests lift the bride and groom in their seats as they dance in a circle. You may also notice the men and women dancing separately. Another traditional dance is the mizinke, where parents from both sides dance upon their last child’s marriage.
We also have the krenzi dance were the daughters of a family dance around their mother when the last daughter gets married. Lastly, the mitzvah tantz includes the family members and the celebrant dancing for the bride and then with the groom. Lastly, the couple dances together.
Contemporary Issues in Jewish Marriage Celebrations
As times are fast-changing, there are so many emerging issues regarding Jewish celebrations. For instance, most Non-Orthodox Jews are beginning to encourage same-sex marriages. They argue that everyone has the free will to marry whoever they want regardless of their sex or sexual orientation.
Similarly, some communities do not believe in the necessity of marriage for procreation. These kinds of marriages have brought a twist in marriage celebration rituals like the circling event. Typically, the bride is the one to circle the groom; however, the scenario has to be different if it is same-sex marriage. Here, both parties have to circle each other in turns or do away with the tradition.
In matters of equality, Reformist Jews have made some changes to the circling ritual. Traditionally, the bride is supposed to circle the groom seven times, which is unique among Jews. With all the equality issues in mind, the more liberal Jews would either have each couple circle one another seven times or they both circle each other thrice and finally do the last round together. This event makes the wedding celebrations more lively and eliminates the monopoly.
Another emerging issue is the kosher-style menu at the reception. Traditionally, every Jewish wedding must have a purely kosher menu at the reception. This rule, by every standard, is the requirement of the Jewish dietary rules.
Due to the expensive nature of the kosher menu at the reception, many couples could not afford it, which led to the kosher-style wedding menu alternative. This new concept is more affordable, and it still serves the guests according to the kosher guidelines.
The orthodox Jews are quite conservative when it comes to the bride’s dress code. Here, the bride must wear a decent gown that covers the delicate parts of her body. The dress has to cover the arms or three-quarters of it, and the dress’s neckline must be high enough to cover the chest.
Finally, the dress should be long enough to cover the ankles. However, most brides may wish to look stylish and modern on their big day; therefore, they have come up with certain tricks to have the best of both worlds. They drape removable wrappers over their dress during the main ceremony but later remove them at the reception for style, comfort, and easy movement due to the reception’s merrymaking.
In a traditional Jewish wedding, the ketubah highlights the bride’s responsibilities. However, the Reformed Jews have a small twist on the marriage contract. They believe that marriage is a partnership; hence, the husband and wife equally share duties and responsibilities. This twist has brought a new wave in the form of the old methods of celebrating Jewish matrimony.
Lastly, the groom’s wedding ring in traditional Judaism as a means of acquiring the bride. The liberal Jews have found this act one-sided. Hence, they have made some changes to give a ring to the groom; this has resulted in a double ring wedding ceremony. Rabbis are working tirelessly to make changes that can fit into modern society that doesn’t inconvenience any couples; thus, improving the quality of marriage celebrations.
The Jewish attach so much meaning to their ceremonies, especially weddings. They have to be keen to follow traditions as they will eventually pass them down to the subsequent generations.
As modernism is spreading fast in the Jewish community, these traditions are at risk of alteration or elimination. As much as some important aspects have already changed over the years, the Jewish culture is still rich and robust to maintain most traditions.
Notably, there are still some emerging issues surrounding marriage celebrations that the Jewish need to address. This way, believers can find a balance between traditional and modern concepts of the Jewish culture.
With so many different Jewish denominations spread across different parts of the world, a wedding celebration’s traditions and customs may vary. However, some traditions have remained intact, and you are likely to notice them in a typical Jewish wedding.