Ceremony, Symbolism & More
There are an abundant number of Jewish wedding traditions, some of which hearken all the way back to biblical times.
The Jewish wedding ceremony consists of two parts: the kiddushin, betrothal or sanctification, and the nisuin, or actual marriage, which seals the betrothal. In Talmudic times the betrothal, also called erusin, was a legally binding engagement ceremony performed a year before the wedding. During the ensuing 12 months, the bride prepared her trousseau and the groom readied himself to support his wife and future family. Today erusin and nisuin occur at the wedding.
Jewish Wedding Symbolism — Wedding Canopy & Glass Breaking
Two elements are associated with the Jewish wedding ceremony—the chuppah, wedding canopy, and the breaking of a glass. Many different meanings are ascribed to each.
The chuppah consists of a cloth held aloft by four poles. It is open on all four sides symbolizing the hospitality that Abraham and Sarah offered to all passersby. The chuppah can be made of flowers. It can be a simple tallis (prayer shawl) or an elaborately needle-pointed canvas.
Some say that the chuppah symbolizes the tents in which the ancient Israelites lived. According to another teaching, the chuppah represents the roof of the bride and groom’s future home, open on all sides to welcome their guests. Other scholars say the chuppah calls to mind the groom’s home, to which the bride was taken for the consummation of their marriage.
The breaking of a glass signals the conclusion of the wedding ceremony. A glass is wrapped in a cloth and is stomped on by the groom. The breaking of the glass has many interpretations, the most common being that even in joyous times, we remember the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Other reasons for the breaking of the glass: the noise will frighten away evil spirits; it is a reminder to the bride and groom that the world is imperfect and in need of healing.
Details of the Jewish wedding ceremony
The signing of the ketubah, wedding contract, precedes the ceremony. Written in Aramaic, the ketubah spells out the husband’s obligations to his wife, to support her, to cherish her and provide necessities. It also dictates support in the event of death or divorce.
At the groom’s tisch (table), the groom gathers with his male friends, shares a glass or two of whiskey and leads a discussion (or teaches a lesson) drawn from Jewish text. Meanwhile, the bride (kallah) is seated in another room upon a throne-like chair surrounded by her female relatives. Friends approach, showering her with good wishes and congratulations.
The bedeken, or veiling ceremony, takes place right before the wedding. You will hear sounds of trumpets or singing, or the thump of drums and/or tambourines as the groom’s friends escort him to his bride. It’s a pretty powerful moment that heightens all that is to occur. The groom lowers the veil over his beloved’s face and departs to await her at the chuppah. It is customary for the bride’s father to recite a blessing over her. As with the breaking of the glass, there are any number of reasons for the veiling ceremony the most common of which recalls Rebecca’s veiling herself upon first seeing Isaac, her future husband. Others say the ceremony ensures the groom that no one has been substituted for his bride (as happened to Jacob when Leah took the place of her sister Rachel.)
Beneath the chuppah the bride circles her husband seven times, seven being the number of times Joshua circled the wall of Jericho before it fell. By recalling this event the bride and groom are reminded that it now falls to them to keep walls from separating them. Others interpret the circling as the bride protecting her husband, and yet another explanation links the seven circles to the seven days of creation, as the bride and groom now begin to create another world. Some couples today take turns circling one another three and a half times.
Once everyone is in place again, the rabbi recites the first of the betrothal blessings over a glass of wine, which the couple then shares. The couple is officially married when the groom places the wedding band (a plain unadorned gold band) and recites, “Behold, you are betrothed unto me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel.” Next comes the reading of the ketubah, and then the recitation of seven blessings over a second cup of wine. The glass is then stepped to congratulatory shouts of “Mazel Tov!” and applause.
Following the ceremony, the couple is immediately ushered to the yichud (meaning together) room, where they are given a few minutes to be together in private, to share a small meal (some couples follow the tradition of fasting all day before the wedding) and catch their breath for a few moments as husband and wife. The bride bestows a blessing upon her new husband; gifts are sometimes exchanged.
While Orthodox Judaism forbids same-sex commitment ceremonies, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements allow their rabbis to preside over such unions. The Conservative movement does not endorse officiation.
Notes on Judaism & Divorce
There is a single mention of divorce in Deuteronomy, instructing a man whose wife no longer pleases him, because she has done something “unseemly” or “obnoxious” (suggestive of immoral behavior) in his eyes, to write her a bill of divorcement and place it in her hands. This bill of divorcement is called a get and must be presented to the wife before two witnesses. While Judaism recognizes that not all marriages will be successful, only the husband is allowed to divorce his wife. Without the get, however, a Jewish woman cannot remarry, lest she be considered an adulteress. A woman in this dilemma is called agunah, or chained woman.
The Reform movement does not require a get, but the Conservative and Orthodox movements do. A Conservative ketubah may contain a clause, called the Lieberman clause, which states that both husband and wife agree to abide by the ruling of the Beit Din, the rabbinic court of law overseeing their divorce. If the husband refuses to give the get, it is considered a breach of contract; one remedy to this situation is the dissolution of the marriage.
Jewish wedding traditions and more events in Jewish life are portrayed in the personal stories and accounts in my book, This Jewish Life. The book is made up of 54 stories of Jewish life and experiences; each story told by a different individual.
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