Jewish Weddings


In the course of a Jewish person's life there are a number of milestone events that are traditionally observed. These events are shared with the whole family--immediate and extended-- and friends of the family. Each experience has its own specific practices to be adhered to in the eyes of the religion. The event that closely involves most of the family members, and one that is filled with extreme joyousness and sacred tradition, is the wedding.

 

For the "most important celebration in the human life, the Jewish faith has provided us with many ceremonies." (Idelsohn, 1930, p. 127) Many of the customs practiced in the ceremony date back centuries, others thousands of years ago. Some of the ceremony has been adapted to fit more modern life, but yet some aspects remain the same. The following are the basic guidelines for the magical life-cycle event--the wedding.

A wedding is a wonderful time in a young Jewish man and woman's life . . . the joining of two separate parties into one. This is the time when two people take a vow together to live and love each other forever. There are two main parts to the wedding, the betrothal and the service.

Betrothal/Engagements

While this custom has all but disappeared in modern times, in Biblical times, marriages were arranged. To have a marriage arranged is called betrothal, or in Hebrew "elrusin." The arrangement was made by the parents, with the help of a match-maker. While there were some cases of two teenagers falling in love and wishing to be wed, the final word rested with the father. The most important aspect of the marriage was the legality of it. It was seen as though the family was losing a useful member of the household. Therefore the young man was to ask the father for his daughter's hand in marriage. A dowery was how the girl's wealth was demonstrated. This consisted of linens, livestock, kitchen ware, etc. At first, the husband to be paid a dowery to secure the engagement. If the girl was getting older, fathers were forced to offer an incentive to marry off their daughter. (Trepp, 1980)

Even still today, there are ultra-Orthodox Jews who still betroth. The ceremony in which the couple is officially engaged is called the "tena'im," which means "terms." This ritual includes breaking a plate to symbolize the mourning of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, thousands of years ago. Then the joyous news must be shared with the public. It is the job of the groom's mother to act first. The bride's mother is then to have an "in- law" dinner. (Routtenberg, 1967)  

Rituals

There are special rituals that the bride and the groom are expected to complete to allow them to prepare for theirs new lives together. Preceding the wedding are the Mikveh, which is performed by the women, and the Ufruf, which is performed by the man.

Mikveh: The Mikveh is a ritual bath to allow the women to enter into her marriage in a pure state. It is said that it frees you of sin. The woman is showered and all articles such as rings, bandages, hairpins and even nail polish are removed. This is to assure that there is no barrier between the water and all of her body parts. It is debated whether or not dirt under the nail is a barrier also. Yoreh Deah 198, Shakh 25, says, "that from the Mishna and many poskim, it is clear that as long as the nail is clean, it [in principle] constitutes no barrier." (Donin, 1991, p. 137) Her hair is then combed, and her body checked to be free of loose hair. Then the bride-to-be is dunked in a bath and is blessed after completely coming to an upright position. The blessing is, "Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning the immersion." (Cartun, 1997) This should be done as close to the date of the wedding as possible, and at least one clean day afer menstruation.

Ufruf: The word Ufruf is a German word meaning "calling up." This ritual is practiced by Orthodox and Conservative Jews. The husband-to-be reads from the torah and recites the proper blessings over it. The Rabbi then has the bride join the man and he blesses them both for their forth-coming marriage.  

Who is to officiate

It is the custom in most synagogues (the house of worship) that the rabbi leads the service and the cantor assists. If the bride and groom wish a second of either of the two, it is permitted. If so, the two rabbis will discuss the division the service. If the rabbi is a friend of the family, and if he wishes, he is permitted to make comments at dinner and/or recite the "Sheva Berakhot," or the seven blessings.  

Wedding Parties

The first wedding described in Genesis said the following, "And the Lord God fashioned into a women the rib that He had taken from the man, and He brought her to the man." The Talmud (a book of stories of interpretations of the Torah) interprets the line, " and He brought her to the man" to be a "mitzvah" (good deed) to join a bride and groom on their happy day. (Routtenberg, 1967)

Escort: Long ago, it was customary for both the father and the mother to walk the bride to the canopy. Today this is still followed by Orthodox and some Conservative Jews. Jews who follow the reform path and again some who are Conservative, have adapted this custom so that only the father walks the daughter to the canopy. It is not specified in Jewish law which is correct.

Maid/Matron-of-Honor: It is necessary to have at least one maid-of-honor, but it is acceptable to have two. If there are two, the duties are split between them. The maid- or matron-of-honor is normally a sister or sister-in-law. Her job is not only to look beautiful, but to assist the bride before, during and after the service, to assure that it runs smoothly. In order to prepare for the wedding, the maid-of-honor helps to address invitations, make phone calls, dress for ceremony, change for reception, etc. During the service, she, in order:  

lifts the veil to enable the bride to drink the first cup of wine, holds the bouquet during the ring ceremony, holds the "ketubah" (contract) after the bride receives it, lifts the veil for the second cup of wine. (Routtenberg, 1967, p. 53-54)

Best Man: The best man is usually the brother or brother-in-law of the groom. His job is similar to the maid-of-honor in that he is there to assure a care- free day for the groom. To prepare for the day, he is to prompt wedding rehearsals, organize participants, pack for the honeymoon and other miscellaneous things. On the day of the ceremony it is the job of the best man to bring the ring and sign as a witness to the license. If the maid-of- honor is single, the best man is to accompany her to the ceremony.

Bride: It is customary for the bride to be dressed modestly, but beautifully. Orthodox Jews require the bride to be in long sleeves. She carries a bouquet of flowers and wears her engagement ring. For Orthodox and some Conservative Jews, a veil must also be worn to link them their ancestors. In Genesis it states that Eliezer persuaded Rebekah to marry his master's son in Canaan. She covered herself to hide her identity and since then it has been a sign of modesty.

Groom: The only rule for the groom is that he must wear a yarmulke ( a prayer skull cap.) This is observed in all three levels of the religion.  

Processional: The processional, consisting of the family and close friends, is one of the most beautiful parts of the ceremony. In Eastern Europe centuries ago, when there was a marriage the entire population attended and joined in a long processional through the town. (Siegel, 1973) Everyone joined in the joyous occasion with candles and lovely songs.

The placement of the participants in the service is as follows:

Rabbi on the "bima," or platform, at the head of the synagogue
Cantor beside the Rabbi ( the two lead the processional or enter from a side
door and wait under the "huppah")
Grandparents of the bride enter next
Grandparents of the groom follow
Ushers
Groom escorted by parents, or not, depending on preference
Bridesmaids and the Maid-of-Honor
Bride is escorted by both parents or solely the father

Religious Ceremony

The actual service of the wedding is the most sacred. It conveys the true meaning of the marriage. This part of the ceremony links back in many ways to biblical times and the customs used then. There are symbols and acts that take place every Jewish wedding that have special symbolic and/or religious value. These elements are: the ring, the huppah, the breaking of the glass and the benedictions given by the Rabbi.

Ring: The ring is a modern substitute for a gold coin that was used as a representation of commitment. The ring that is given to the bride must belong to the groom, it can not be borrowed. The ring is to be plain metal without stones. This is to symbolize that at the moment of matrimony there is no difference between richer or poorer. The ring is also supposed to be solid, unbroken by patterns. The continuous flow of the ring shows the significance of hope for a harmonious marriage life. Jewish law says that accepting the ring in front of witnesses is most important, and that the marriage is legalized when the bride receives the ring. The man says in Hebrew, "Harei at mekudeshat li betaba'at zo kedat Moshe v'yisrael." And in English , "Behold thou art consecrated unto me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel." (Routtenberg, 1967, p. 83)

Huppah: The "huppah" or the wedding canopy is used in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform forms of Judaism. The entire ceremony is conducted under this large sheet-like awning. This tradition started in biblical times when the bride was brought to the tent of the groom, and there the ritual took place. Before the actual huppah was used, a "talit"(prayer shawl) was used to cover the heads of both bride and groom. The talit is a form of respect towards God. The idea of the huppah symbolizes the home that the bride and groom will make together. The huppah is a link to the Jewish past, and a symbol of cohabitation. (Routtenberg, 1967).

Breaking of the Glass: At the end of the ceremony, the man steps on a wine glass wrapped in cloth. This smashing of the glass is to recall the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. Donin (1991) states: "Though the Jewish State was reestablished in 1948 and Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount returned in 1967, the Temple itself has not yet been restored. Thus, the broken glass continues to symbolize the incompleteness of the religious restoration of Israel." (p. 289)

Benedictions: The Rabbi recites the blessings over the new husband and wife as is done for every spiritual event. "May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord show you favor and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn in loving kindness to you and grant you peace . . . Amen."  

Legal Aspects

During the period of the Talmud, there were three things that must be done, in front of two witnesses, to make the marriage official. First is the presentation of an article of value to the woman. Second, the presentation of a written document. Finally, after the ceremony, cohabitation.  

Ketubah: The ketubah is the legal document that sets the terms of the marriage. There is no proof of this document in the bible, but it is known that a Jewish contract was formulated by Sanhedrin in Jerusalem in the first century BCE. This was transformed into the bill of rights for the bride instead of commercial agreements. The bill of rights therefore protected the women by terms of their dowry, and the terms returning the items in the instance of the a divorce. The ketubah is a standard of elevated status of women's rights before they actually had equal rights.

The Jewish wedding ceremony is a beautiful observance. It is filled with many customs and wonderful traditions. The pre-wedding customs include some or all of the following rituals: a proper betrothal (engagement), the mikvah (ritual bath), and the Ufruf (reading of the torah). The wedding party consists of the rabbi and cantor, the grandparents of the bride and the groom the ushers, the brides maids, maids of honor and the best man, and the bride and the groom. The religious counterparts include: the ring, the huppah, the breaking of the glass, and the benedictions. Legal aspects involve the presentation of an article of value, and the ketubah (contract). With everything put together in its proper order, it makes for a beautiful service.

 

Links and Resources For Jewish Weddings


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