Many aspects of Jewish weddings are customs and rituals. It’s a living tradition, filled with debate and reinvention generation after generation. Thus, each wedding is grounded in the past yet also truly modern. Each reflects the modern context and also the wishes and beliefs of the bride and groom, and serves as the foundation for the type of Jewish home they will establish. Thus, each is a little different but still meaningful.
Special ceremonies of greeting and preparation before the ḥuppah ceremony heighten anticipation and set a spiritual tone for the day. In addition to the pre-wedding day traditions (e.g. aufruf and mikvah), there are several ceremonies that are part of the kabbalat panim (literally “receiving faces”): the ḥossen’s tish (a gathering at the groom’s table), the haḥnassat kallah (attending to the bride), and the ketubah signing.
The kabbalat panim are receptions shortly before the ḥuppah ceremony that feature light refreshments. The bride and groom’s receptions are separate, with the men attending the ḥossen’s tish (1) (‘groom’s table’) and the women attending the hahnassat kallah (‘attending the bride’) in another room. The separate receptions are partly due to the very traditional custom of keeping men and women apart, but also due to the custom of the bride and groom not seeing each other before the wedding. In many communities (ours included), the genders are not separated and guests may go back and forth between the receptions, while the bride and groom stay separate.
At the groom’s reception, male guests gather, and enjoy a drink (traditionally schnapps, whiskey or wine) and some food. Songs are sung and traditionally, the groom gives a d’var Torah (a discussion of the Torah). However, if he does this, guests are supposed to interrupt his lecture with songs and jokes, to ease his wedding nerves. At our wedding, there was no d’var Torah, the groom’s brother offered a toast, and the men mingled.
At the bride’s reception, the bride sits on a throne-like chair, as she is a queen for the day. Her mother and her mother-in-law sit with her (as my mother had died, an aunt had that honour). Friends and family approach, offering congratulations, blessings, their best wishes and words of encouragement. (In other words, a receiving line). There are often music, and sometimes songs and dances.
In some communities, a tena’im (engagement contract), is signed at the groom’s reception. This contract commits the bride’s and groom’s families to offering support for wedding expenses and household start up. After the contract is read out loud, the mothers of the bride and groom break a plate, to symbolize the irreversibility of the marriage. This is one of the few times when women have an active role during the wedding ceremony. The reason the engagement contract is signed just before the wedding, rather than at the start of the engagement planning process, is that the tena’im is a powerful contract— if the engagement’s called off, there are serious financial and religious consequences. So it’s signed at the last minute. We did not do a tena’m.
Before the ketubah is signed, the rabbi makes a kinyan (the ritual act of acquisition) by giving the groom an object (e.g. handkerchief, pen) that he accepts to indicate that he’s willing to assume the obligations of the ketubah. The ketubah (the marriage contract) is signed at the ḥossen’s tish. Often it is a private moment for immediate family, in the rabbi’s study, but it can be in public with all guests serving as ‘witnesses’. At our wedding, it was not only public, but held after the bedeken, with the bride in attendance. The Rabbi explained the meaning of the ketubah, and the kosher witnesses signed it. The bride and groom signed the English half.
Just before the end of the kabbalat panim receptions, there is the veiling ceremony (called the bedeken).
Along with the other men, his father and father-in-law escort the groom to the bride’s reception. Sometimes, there is music and his entourage dances him in. The bride is flanked by both mothers, and sits on her ‘throne’.
The groom lowers the bride’s veil over her face, to recall when the Jewish matriarch, Rebecca, covered her face with a handkerchief when meeting her groom, Isaac. By seeing his bride’s face before the ḥuppah, he knows that he is marrying the correct woman (unlike Jacob, who married Leah instead of his beloved Rachel). Further, by veiling his bride, he sets her apart from all the other women at the wedding. Lastly, the veiling shows that the groom isn’t solely interested in the bride’s external beauty, which can fade with time; he is marrying her for her inner beauty, for her personality, which lasts a lifetime.
Most Jewish brides wear sheer veils of tulle that let them see clearly; only in the most traditional communities do brides wear veils that obscure their face.
After the bride is veiled, sometimes the fathers and grandfathers approach her and bless her. The groom’s entourage leaves the bride’s room, and the bride and groom do their final preparations before the ḥuppah (2), while the guests go the site of the ḥuppah.
The bride will be veiled for the rest of the ceremony, although someone may have the honour of briefly lifting and lowering the veil so that she can sip the wine. (My mother-in-law did that for me).
The bride and groom are escorted to the ḥuppah. The role of the escorts is to support and encourage the bride and groom; as the bride and groom are like royalty on their wedding day, the escorts are their honour guard and royal entourage. It is considered both an honour and an obligation to serve a bride and groom.
There are some variations in who is in the procession, and their order, depending upon community, but both mothers and both fathers are escorts, since a marriage is a union of two families. (As my mother had died many years before my wedding, her two sisters were among my escorts).
The concept of best man and maid of honour dates back to the wedding of Adam and Eve, where two angels attended to them. Traditionally, the bride and groom each have two attendants to act as their right and left hands. (They may have more, if the wish– we each had three). The groomsmen may be in charge of the rings, while the bridesmaids hold the ketubah during the ceremony.
Throughout the processional, music plays– it’s a religious obligation. The processional music should be joyous, but also stately (the recessional music is often livelier). Often, a single melody accompanies the entire processional, but the drama of the bride’s appearance can be heightened by a change in melody.
While classical music is a common choice (e.g. Pachelbel’s Canon in D), Wagner’s Lohengrin (the familiar “Here comes the bride…” melody) is never used in a Jewish wedding since Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite. Israeli and Yiddish folk songs are also popular choices.
The groom arrives at the ḥuppah first, and then the bride is led to the ḥuppah. Music plays as the bride and groom come down the aisle. As the ḥuppah is the groom’s domain, the groom arrives first to welcome his bride to his home; the bride then consents to the marriage by showing up. It is customary for the groom to come out to meet the bride partway down the aisle, and lead her to the ḥuppah.
Ashkenazi brides circle the groom counterclockwise once she arrives at the ḥuppah. Some brides circle three times, some seven times. Sometimes, her escorts (the mothers, or both mothers and fathers) accompany her and sometimes she circles alone. Sephardi brides don’t circle at all. The circling is not required, but is a very old custom.
There are several explanations given for the circling. Some see it as the role of the female is to surround and protect the male, creating an invisible wall around her husband into which she steps and nobody else; others see it as the bride separating the general world from their home; or that it binds the bride to her groom, creating a new family circle, with their ties shifting from their parents to each other.
The number of circuits is either three or seven, varying by custom and community. Three circuits comes from a biblical prophesy (Jeremiah 31:21) about how G-d and Israel are betrothed; or from a repetition of “betrothed” three times (Hosea 2:19); or from the groom having three obligations to his wife (providing food, clothing and conjugal relations). Circling seven times recalls Joshua’s circling of Jericho to bring down its walls; thus the bride circles seven times to break down any remaining barriers between them. It alludes to the seven ḥuppahs in the Garden of Eden for the wedding of Adam and Eve. Seven signifies completion (e.g the seven days of creation), and so the seven circuits symbolize the couple’s completed quest for each other. There are also seven wedding blessings.
The bride and groom must stand under the ḥuppah with the bride on the groom’s right. While there are no halaḥic laws about where others stand under the ḥuppah, there are a number of customs. It is optional for the rabbi, cantor, witnesses, and parents to stand under the ḥuppah. Some traditional Jews only have the bride and groom under the ḥuppah, not even the rabbi, while others feel many family and friends should stand beneath the canopy to symbolize hospitality in the new home. Often, their respective parents stand beside them and the attendants behind them. The two witnesses must stand where they can see the groom place the ring on the bride’s finger and hear the statements.
While today many North American Jewish weddings feature flowers in bouquets, corsages and boutonnieres, and flowers are a reminder of the first wedding in the garden of Eden, an old Jewish tradition was for the escorts to lead the way to the ḥuppah carrying burning candles, as light is a symbol of G-d’s presence. It also recall’s the Baal Shem Tov, who said “From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined for each other find one another, their streams of light flow together and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being”.Endnotes
- ‘ḥossen’ is Yiddish for groom (the Hebrew is ḥatan). Kallah is Hebrew for bride
- ḥuppah is sometimes spelled as ‘cḥuppah’. In keeping with my approach to the syntax for the guttural sound, I’m spelling it with an “ḥ”
Diamant, A. (2001) “The New Jewish Wedding”. Simon & Schuster New York.
Chabad.org. “Wedding Handbook”. Available at: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/476780/jewish/Wedding-Handbook.htm
Email correspondence with Rabbi Shalom Spira
Conversations with Rabbi Arnold Fine