Wedding guests play an important role at Jewish weddings. Not only are they obligated to rejoice and honour the bride and groom on the wedding day, but they also form a community to sustain the relationship.
While the bride and groom spend a few private moments together in yiḥud, and then have some pictures taken of them with their newlywed glow, the invited guests enjoy appetizers for about thirty or forty-five minutes.
Once the photographs are done, the bride and groom enter the reception hall, and are greeted with music, singing and a hora (a traditional folk dance).
After the first dance, the bride and groom sit at the head table(s). The meal itself begins with the hamotzi (blessing over bread), over the wedding ḥallah (1), a large braided egg bread. Often, the parents of the bride and groom or a special guest receives the honour of reciting the hamotzi. At this point, dinner is served.
Since the sheva braḥot are traditionally recited only by men, in some communities women offer sheva shevahot (seven praises). This draws from biblical precedents such as Miriam and Devorah, and is a way to actively voice women’s joy and gladness over the nuptials. These are recited before the meal, to bookend the sheva braḥot which are recited again after the meal. The sheva shevaḥot can mirror the themes of the sheva braḥot, or they can focus on the bride and groom’s plans and abilities, or cite psalms and poems, lines from the Song of Songs, or refer to biblical foremothers. The sheheḥiyanu (a prayer of thanksgiving for living to see an important occasion) is often used as the seventh praise if certain requirements are met (2).
Many Jewish weddings are kosher, abiding by the systems of laws that govern what and how Jews eat (3), even if the couple themselves do not keep kosher. It signals that they are establishing a Jewish home that follows the traditions of their branch of Judaism, and ensures that their observant guests can enjoy the celebration without discomfort. If the wedding is held in a synagogue, kosher food may be required.
Not only are music, singing and dancing central features of a Jewish wedding, but they are also actually religious requirements (mitzvot). The meal following a Jewish wedding is called a seudah mitzvah (meal accompanying the fulfillment of a religious commandment that occurs after major life-cycle events). Words of Torah, blessings, songs, dances, toasts, reminiscences, and jokes that make the bride and groom laugh all increase happiness and so are mitzvot. A Jewish wedding can even feature juggling acts, acrobatics and other stunts in order to entertain the bride and groom! Traditionally, Jews’ joyous occasions are celebrated with food (bread and meat) and wine, and so participating in a reception that celebrates the mitzvah of marriage is an honour and mitzvah itself. And the dancing is a central feature of Jewish weddings because it’s a way of expressing happy emotions (“dance for joy”). The festivities will kick off with Israeli folk dancing, the hora, which is a simple circle dance that is easy to learn and fun to do– nearly everyone gets swept onto the dance floor, even if they “can’t” dance. At many Jewish weddings, the bride and/or the groom are lifted up in chairs during the hora dances. It is common at Jewish weddings for the bride and/or groom to be lifted up in chairs during the hora dances. Dancing will continue throughout the affair with intermissions only when the food courses are served. There may be a mitzvah tanz (near the beginning of the dancing, it allows guests the honour of a moment dancing, individually, with the bride and groom) and a mezinke (one of the last dances, it honours the parents who just married off their last child). For many weddings, secular dancing starts after the Jewish dancing ends.
It should be noted that at traditional Jewish weddings, men and women dance separately. At more liberal weddings (such as mine), men and women may dance together.
Thus, ‘reception’ is really not the right word; a wedding is a simḥa (4) (joy, or a celebration of a joyous event), as the purpose of the party is to increase the joy of the bride and groom.
Wine is one way to create a simḥa, and Jewish weddings typically feature an open bar. It should be noted that while alcohol is frequently enjoyed at Jewish simḥas, it is rarely consumed to the point of intoxication.
Jewish weddings used to feature a badḥan (‘joker’, professional entertainer/master of ceremonies, part of Eastern European Jewish weddings for nearly seven centuries). This master of ceremonies introduces the couple, announces the start of the dancing, the dessert, and other elements of the evening, tells stories about the bride, groom and guests, and introduces those who will make toasts. The badḥan may also arrange some amusing folly, sing parodies, lead a group sing-along, or any other form of entertainment.
Please note that the wedding should be tasteful and entertaining to all; do not embarrass the bride or the groom, or make jokes that could offend any guest– as that would reduce the bride and groom’s joy.
At their wedding and during the first week of marriage, the bride and groom are to be treated like royalty, wined and dined, with their every wish catered to.
It is also customary at joyous occasions to give ts’dakah (charitable donations, from the Hebrew word for justice and related to the Hebrew word for wisdom), to spread the joy and to acknowledge that even in such a moment as this, the happiness is incomplete when others are suffering. Ts’dakah is not only an act of personal goodness, but it’s also a mitzvah (religious obligation), and is traditionally given anonymously. It is also a way to establish the new Jewish home on a basis of kindness and compassion.
Ever wonder why Jews often give donations (or gifts) in multiples of eighteen? In Hebrew, like in Latin, letters have a numeric value. We are all familiar with I=1, V=5, X=10, C=100 et cetera; in Hebrew, it starts as א=1,ב =2 ,ג=3, ד=4. The Hebrew word for “life” (חי) corresponds to the number 18– so Jews traditionally give $18 (ḥai (5)) or $36 (double ḥai), or multiples of these amounts (e.g. $180 ), or a combination of these amounts (e.g. $136).
Grace after Meals
At some point, everything must end. The wedding meal is followed by the Birkat Ha’mazon (grace after meals) and another recitation of the Sheva Braḥot. This ends the wedding celebrations with dignity and faith. The prayers are sung by everyone responsively, reading them from benschers (booklets with the prayers) and it is a powerful affirmation of community.
First, two full cups of wine are prepared, one for the person who leads the Grace, and the other for the Sheva Braḥot blessings.
The Grace begins with a call for everyone to order: “Let us bless our G-d in whose abode there is joy, of whose bounty we have eaten”.
The birkat ha’mazon has four themes. All thank G-d, and the first thanks G-d for providing food, then it blesses the land that provided it, next it expresses hope for rebuilding Zion, and lastly it speaks to G-d’s goodness and love. Then, there are a series of petitions (which can include special ones for the occasion), followed by verses from the Psalms, and it concludes with a prayer for peace.
If the majority of your guests know the birkat ha’mazon, use the full version. If most of your guests are not Jewish, speak to your Rabbi about using the shorter version. It can be painfully long and mood-killing if only a small percentage of your guests are familiar with the words and melodies and the full version is recited!
After the Grace is completed, if there is a quorum of ten Jewish males present, six guests recite the first six blessings of the Sheva Braḥot. Each recites it while sitting and holding the Sheva Braḥot cup of wine. Note that the order is slightly different than during the ceremony. What was the first blessing under the ḥuppah (borei pri ha’gafen) becomes the seventh after the wedding meal; as a result, what was the second blessing is now the first, and so on. The the person who led the Grace recites the wine blessing and sips from his cup.
Under the ḥuppah, those reciting the sheva braḥot may have to be Jewish males, but after the Grace after meals, ask your Rabbi if you may include Jewish female friends and family in this honour.
A bit of wine from each cup is then poured into the other cup, blending the wine, and the groom sips from one cup and the bride from the other. This ceremony of the cups represents the combined joy of the bride and groom, the completion of the betrothal and nuptials, and the establishment of a new house. In a marriage, everything is shared as two lives are merged into one.
Why wine? Wine gladdens the heart—but to make wine, a grape must be crushed. And so to in marriage there are crushing moments but working together to overcome these challenges leads to new levels of love and happiness.
At this point, the official aspects of the wedding are over. Some brides and grooms now go home, but many hope that you join them for some secular dancing.Endnotes
- Often spelled ‘challah’, this word begins with the guttural sound, and so I’m following my ‘h’ convention The only family events at which the shehehi’yanu blessing is recited is the pidyon ha’ben (redemption of the son), and the Sephardim (and all Israelis) also recite it at a circumcision. It is never recited at a wedding– unless one of the people reciting it have eaten a new fruit, are wearing an expensive new garment, or have seen a friend they have not seen in more than 30 days.
- Kashrut, while sometimes described as an ancient means of protecting human health, is really a way of sanctifying the basic need of eating and drinking. Kosher means “fit”, as in fit for eating. Kosher meats come from animals that chew their cud and have cloven hoofs; from fish with fins and scales; and from poultry. Shellfish, meat from pigs, and meat from animals which are carnivores are forbidden. The animals have to be killed in the prescribed way (which minimizes their suffering), inspected, and prepared properly (e.g. salting to remove blood, removal of the sciatic nerve). Milk cannot be mixed with meat (thus a meat meal will have absolutely no dairy). If it is a kosher wedding, the drinks served at the wedding will also be kosher. This means that some drinks familiar to those who do not keep kosher will not be available.
- Usually spelled ‘simcha’, I am using ‘simha’ to follow my rule of how to spell the guttural sound.
- Commonly spelled “chai”, this word starts with a guttural sound. Thus, I’m spelling it as “ḥai” to avoid confusion with a delicious spiced tea.
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