I love Jewish weddings. They are a blend of awe, gravitas and party, and I almost always come home from one full of joy and energy. Before I take you on a tour of a traditional Jewish wedding, I want to make a disclaimer that just because something is traditional in my circles doesn’t mean that a different kind of Orthodoxy will do the exact same thing, or in the same order, (and certainly in other streams of Judaism there will be even more variance). So while some people might say, “yes, that’s recognizable as Jewish tradition to me,” others might shake their head and mutter, “well, that would never happen in our community!” That said, this is general idea of what happens in a traditional Jewish marriage.
Step One: Reception
Prior to the actual Jewish marriage ceremony there is a reception called Kabbalat Panim, which means receiving the faces, which is, I suppose, what one does during a reception. The women are in one room where the kallah (bride) sits on a chair, surrounded by her mother, future mother-in-law and any other female relatives who are present. Women come and greet her, and it has become customary for the kallah to give blessings to those who are coming to wish her well. Jewish tradition teaches that a kallah and chatan (groom) are considered pretty free from sin because they’re fasting until after the ceremony and it’s considered one of the holiest days for them, so they’re a really good person to get a blessing from.
The men are in a separate room having a tisch. I haven’t ever been to one, but my husband tells me that there’s a little bit of food, a little bit of singing, some words of Torah and, of course, congratulating the chatan. Many times, this is when the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom break a plate over a chair for the tenaim, which is the engagement contract. Historically, this contract used to be done at the time of the engagement (makes sense, right?), but today it’s done on the day of the wedding. During this reception is also when the ketubah, or marriage contract, is filled out and signed by two kosher witnesses (they’re kosher because they observe the Sabbath, among other things).
Step Two: Bedeken
After all the greeting, the men will escort the chatan to go see his kallah. This is done with much joy and singing and dancing and general revelry. It’s common for the chatan and kallah to not have any contact for the week leading up to the wedding, so it’s a very emotionally charged moment when the two see each other for the first time after the silence. I almost always cry at these; it’s very moving. The chatan approaches the kallah and covers her face with a veil. Some veils are sheer, some are completely opaque, it depends on the custom of the families involved. The veiling alludes to when the matriarch Rebecca covered her face when she saw her future husband Isaac for the first time. It also symbolizes how the chatan is not interested in the physical beauty of the kallah, but for her deeper qualities (so sweet, right?).
After the kallah is bedecked, she often receives blessings from her parents. Again, I totally cry here.
Step Three: Chuppah
This is where the Jewish marriage ceremony actually happens. A canopy held up by four poles, sometimes held by four men, sometimes stationary. It reminds us of Abraham’s tent, which was open on all sides, and encourages the couple to create a home where guests will be welcome. Some have the custom to have this part of the ceremony outside, under the open sky, which hints at the promise G-d made to Abraham to have as many descendants as the stars, and also to inspire awe and evoke a spiritual yearning in the couple being married. We got married in December, and due to cold and snow, our chuppah was inside. I’ve been to some winter ceremonies that people held outside regardless of weather, which is an impressive commitment to custom, I have to say.
There’s a procession to the chuppah. Some people have other relatives walk down the aisle before the chatan and kallah, some don’t. The chatan, who is typically walked down by his parents, wears a white cotton jacket called a kittel. This garment symbolizes purity and is also worn on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. He stands under the chuppah and waits as the kallah is escorted to the chuppah by her parents. The mother of the kallah and her future mother-in-law walk her around the chatan seven times, symbolizing the home she intends to build with him. Seven is a very holy number in Judaism, the Sabbath being the seventh day of the week, seven days in the creation of the world, and so on. Some have the custom to not wear any jewelry under the chuppah, which signifies that the couple is not marrying for any material gain.
Under the chuppah, the rabbi (yes, there’s a rabbi under there too, along with the parents, and maybe a photographer and/or videographer as well. It can get a little crowded, or maybe it’s just a really big chuppah) recites a blessing over a cup of wine and the chatan and kallah respond to the blessing and drink the wine. The chatan then presents the kallah with a ring, which must be plain and free of jewels. He places the ring on her index finger and recites “Behold, you are betrothed unto me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel.” Now they’re really married according to Jewish law.
Next comes the reading of the ketubah, the marriage contract, which is basically a list of what is required of the husband in the relationship, the physical and emotional needs he must fulfill, and also how he is obligated to support her in the event that the marriage does not work out. It’s read in Aramaic, which takes the edge off the not-so-romantic aspect of it. But it is fascinating that at this ostensibly romantic occasion, the chatan is reminded of his obligations. I like how it brings the reality of what it takes to make a relationship work into the very beginning of the relationship.
Another cup of wine is presented (this is the second one), and seven blessings are recited. These blessings are an honor and are given to relatives or rabbis that the families want to honor. The text of the blessings are beautiful, connecting the couple to G-d, to each other, to the first couple of the world and wishing them joy and friendship and love. Again with the tears when I hear these blessings.
Finally, before the newly married couple leaves the chuppah, the chatan breaks a glass under his foot. This is done to remember the Holy Temple that was destroyed thousands of years ago, without which we can never really have a truly joyful celebration. Immediately after this sober reminder of the continued exile and lack of complete spiritual connection that we have without the Temple, everyone shouts Mazel Tov (congratulations) to the new couple and they exit the room to spend some one-on-one time together. They are escorted to a private room with singing and dancing and lots of “mazel tov” wishes.
Step Four: Yichud
Until this point, the chatan and kallah have not been allowed to be in the same room together without another person present, as Jewish law requires that a man and woman who are not immediately related or married to each other not be alone in a room together. This step acknowledges that the chatan and kallah are now a couple who are allowed to be alone together. Often the chatan will present the kallah with a gift, and maybe they will have a quick bite to eat since they’ve been fasting the entire day. I had zero appetite on my wedding day so I only nibbled at the food. It was so sad! The food looked really good. But, obviously, I didn’t really mind since I was glad to be getting married.
Step Five: Party
It’s a mitzvah (commandment) to gladden the chatan and kallah, and Jews take this very seriously. There is a traditional dance where the celebrants join hands and dance in a circle where the kallah or chatan are in the center, dancing with individuals that they pull out of the crowd. In traditional settings the men and women dance separately from each other, but the kallah will get to go over to the men’s side where they will have a chance to dance for her and make her smile. It is truly a sight to see all these theoretically austere rabbis and official people being incredibly silly and full of joy as they dance and dance and dance. There can be juggling, costumes, choreographed dancing, inside jokes, schtick (how to translate this word? Silly antics, maybe), balloons to pop, acrobatics, and fancy footwork. It’s quite a sight!
There’s a festive meal in between the dancing (some may say the dancing is in between the meal, I suppose it’s a matter of perspective) and the seven blessings that were recited under the chuppah are also recited at the end of the meal. It’s also customary for there to be a week of festive meals celebrating the new marriage, with the seven blessings recited at each of those meals.
And there you have it! A traditional Jewish wedding, full of meaning and seriousness and some serious fun and celebration. Thanks to Chabad.org and Aish.com for being great resources in helping me write this article.
About the Author:-
Rivki Silver of http://lifeinthemarriedlane.com/
“I’ve spent most of my life immersed in the study and instruction of music (clarinet performance majors represent!), but for the past seven years I’ve been immersed in the study and practice of marriage and motherhood.
What started as a blog meant to stay in touch with family and friends developed into a space where I write about relationships, parenthood, music and religion, as seen through the lens of an Orthodox Jewish woman.”