Three symbols form the core of a Jewish wedding. The first is the chuppah, a wedding canopy. It symbolizes the couple’s new home. It also recalls the tent of Abraham, who was known for his open welcome and his generosity in greeting guests. The ketubah is the marriage contract signed on the wedding day. The third major symbol is the ring, exchanged as a symbol of beauty and eternity.
Other customs that can be practiced during the week leading up to the wedding extend the celebration to a wider group of friends and family. In Orthodox ceremonies, the groom is honored by reading from the Torah in the synagogue on the Sabbath before the wedding.
The congregation showers the groom with nuts and candy to symbolize a sweet and fruitful union. On the same day the bride’s friends throw a party called a forshpiel.
Orthodox weddings must take place after sunset. Food, fashion, gifts, and rituals are determined by the level of observance. Throughout the week prior to the wedding, Orthodox couples do not see each other and are considered “royalty.” They do not appear in public without a friend or relative, whose company insures neither will be left alone during this exciting time.
On their wedding day they are viewed as being especially close to God, and take time for special prayers. These may include those requested by friends and family for others who are ill.
The wedding day is considered a day for the couple to ask God for forgiveness and get ready to start their lives as one whole. They fast the whole day to remember God and to solidify their commitment to each other.
One of the first traditions of the wedding day is the Kabbalat Panim. It’s where the bride and groom separately greet guests arriving for the ceremony.
Traditionally, the bride is seated on a throne and the groom is surrounded by singing male friends and family members, who then escort him to the ceremony. Most couples today bypass this part of the tradition. Many do, however continue with the breaking of a plate by the two mothers, to represent that the wedding vows are most serious and that a "broken" relationship can never be fully repaired, just as the broken plate can never be truly put back together.
The Marriage Covenant
The ketubah is the Jewish wedding contract signed by the bride and groom, the rabbi, and two witnesses the day of the wedding. Ketubahs are available in Hebrew or English. The text depend upon a couple’s degree of observance: orthodox, conservative, or reform. Ketubahs come in many shapes, colors, sizes, and designs, and can be purchased ready-made or personalized by an artist.
A creative couple can design their own and have a calligrapher write the traditional contract on it afterwards. After the wedding, the ketubah is displayed proudly in the home.
The Bedeken occurs immediately after the ketubah signing. It has its origin in the biblical story of Jacob, who was tricked into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. So, in Jewish tradition, the groom must see the bride without her veil before the wedding, and then put the veil on her himself.
For very traditional couples, who would have been fasting all day to honor the wedding, this could be the first moment they are allowed to eat.
Down The Aisle
A typical ceremony includes a procession led by the rabbi and the cantor, followed by the groom and his parents, then the bridesmaids, and ultimately the bride and both her parents.
The traditional wedding ceremony takes place under the open sky or a skylight, to symbolize God’s blessing to Abraham that his seed would be as numerous as the stars.
For the ceremony, it’s thoughtful to provide the kippot, or yarmulkes, for the men to wear, and to have them printed or embroidered with the couples’ names and wedding date.
To symbolize that their love provides all the wealth they need, the bride and groom do not wear jewelry to the ceremony. Traditionally, only the bride receives a ring, but modern couples are opting to exchange rings.
They need to have plain, solid gold bands for the ceremony. If they’ve chosen diamond wedding bands, they must borrow a simple wedding band for the ring ceremony. After the ceremony, the rings are returned and the couple can wear their own rings.
The bride walks down the aisle and circles her groom seven times, representing eternity, righteousness, justice, kindness, mercy, faith, and knowledge of God. Seven also represents completion, as in the seven days of creation.
The Wedding Chuppah
Jewish ceremonies always take place under a chuppah. It symbolizes their home together. In traditional ceremonies it will be created by the couple prior to the wedding.
The couple will have key family members carry and hold the chuppah for the ceremony. The groom will then be led to the chuppah by his father and father-in law, followed by his bride with her mother and mother-in law.
Today, many couples enjoy the more modern tradition of having the groom led to the chuppah by both his parents while the bride is walked down the aisle by her parents. In both scenarios, the parents will stand under the chuppah with the couple.
The traditional wedding ceremony includes two blessings. Kiddushin indicates that just as the Sabbath is celebrated over wine, so too is the union of the bride and groom. The second, Nisuin, expresses thankfulness for this moment, and the bride and groom sip wine from a single goblet, usually a family heirloom.
To conclude the marriage ceremony, honored guests are called up to recite one of the seven blessings. These acknowledge God as the creator of earth and assert that the bride and groom are now each complete in their existence together.
The final note of the ceremony is the sharp crack of a glass which the groom stomps under his shoe. This act is a remembrance of the destruction of the holy temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish social and religious life for centuries, and the tragic deaths that occurred during that era. It also symbolizes the fact that the love and relationship of the couple is fragile, so it must be cared for and not broken. Today, some brides and grooms choose to break glasses together, to symbolize equality in their marriage.
A wedding might incorporated many Jewish traditions, like breaking the glass. But in some weddings, the bride and groom choose to break glasses together, to symbolize equality in their marriage.
Most of the family takes part in the ceremony. For example, family members, bridesmaids, or groomsmen carry in the chuppah and hold it up while the couple gets married under it. Others in the bridal party might take part in the ceremony by participating in readings or reciting poems for the couple.
Among certain Israeli’s and Middle Eastern-based Jewish families, traditions such as throwing candies at the bride and groom, to wish them a sweet life, will occur at the ceremonies’ conclusion.
After the ceremony, the bride and groom have a brief moment together in a private room. This custom, “yichud” (togetherness) suggests the intimacy of their union, and reminds family and friends that their privacy as a couple must be respected. At this time, the groom often gives his bride a special gift, such as diamond and pearl earrings.
The Wedding Celebration
At a traditional Jewish wedding, guests enter the reception hall after the cocktail hour. Once the bride and groom are announced they immediately lead the guests into a lengthy dance, the hora, where they, as well as their parents, are lifted onto chairs by guests who then dance around them in a circle.
The bride and groom are handed a napkin and as they bounce around on the chairs, they are challenged to keep holding onto the napkin, which joins them together.
The Hora, or chair dance, represents the carrying of royalty on chairs. The king and queen of the night are lifted on chairs while "Hava Nagila" plays in the background.
Another tradition is known as the Mizinke, a dance that takes place for both parents who have seen their last daughter or son marry. Guests dance around the mother and father, giving them flowers and kisses.
After the hora, as guests sit for a first course, the Motzi is performed. The Motzi is a blessing of the challah, a braided bread, often done by parents or grandparents. It is an important moment in the reception. Then the challah is cut and distributed to all the guests.
A Jewish reception will be made in the Kosher style, meaning no mixing of meat and dairy and also the blessing in the kitchen by a rabbi. No pork or shellfish are to be served.
Some couples also will hire a klezmer band for traditional weddings, or even for part of the night. This is a wonderful addition to the traditional wedding bands that we are used to hearing.
For a week after the wedding, friends and family host meals for the newlyweds, at which the seven blessings are recited. These feasts recall the seven days of feasting after the marriage of patriarch and matriarch Jacob and Leah. They also link the new couple to past generations, and to their future community.