Good question! Many wonderful traditions come together in a Jewish Wedding Ceremony and each one symbolises the beauty of the relationship of a husband and wife, as well as their obligations to each other and the Jewish people. Here’s my guide to everything you need to know.
[ Image: Natasha & Jez’s wedding by Susan Stripling ]
1. Signing of the Ketubah
To start with we have two short, but very important, rituals. The first is the signing of the ketubah. The ketubah is an ancient document – a marriage contract of sorts – that specifies the groom’s commitments to the bride. It is signed by two appointed Jewish witnesses, who must not be blood-related family members to the bride and groom.
Ketubot are often beautiful pieces of artwork that can be framed and displayed in the home.
[ Image: Jessica & Pete’s ketubah designed by Jennifer Raichman, by Jonas Seaman ]
The second is called the badeken and it happens straight after the ketubah signing. It’s a short but meaningful ritual where the groom covers the bride’s face with her veil. It’s a custom that derives from the biblical account of Jacob’s first marriage, when he was deceived to marry the heavily veiled Leah instead of Rachel, his intended bride. I’ve heard that some egalitarian couples are now balancing this tradition by having the bride place a kippah (yarmulke) on her bridegroom’s head too!
The badeken is often emotionally charged as the bride and groom may not have seen each other for 24 hours or longer (as much as 7 days) until this moment.
[ Image: My badeken at my wedding to Jeremy by Earthy Photography ]
Now it’s time for the wedding party to enter the main ceremony area where all the guests are seated. They make their way towards the focal point of the ceremony – a canopy held up by four poles known as the the chuppah.
The chuppah represents the shelter and privacy of the home that the bride and groom will create following their marriage. The home is central in Jewish life – it is the place where we grow up, learn to share and love, and from which we also secure our independence. You will see that the bride and groom stand at the centre of it, and the walls are formed by those closest to them. Just as the walls of our home protect us from the elements, offering warmth and security, so too the ‘walls’ of the chuppah – that is our families and friends – provide support and strength with their love.
The bride follows the groom towards the chuppah, and both are usually escorted by their respective sets of parents.
The custom of the bride circling the bridegroom seven times has been interpreted as the symbolic building of a wall of love around the relationship of the bride and groom. Seven represents the most sacred of all numbers in Judaism and also symbolises the wholeness and completeness that they cannot attain separately.
Again, some more modern couples choose to update this ritual by circling around each other three times and then a final figure of eight. Chelm and Jake did this in their fabulously personal Jewish wedding.
4. Blessings of Betrothal (Kiddushin)
Two cups of wine are used in the wedding ceremony. The first cup accompanies the betrothal blessings, recited by the rabbi. After these are recited, the couple drinks from the cup.
The betrothal blessings express the resolve of the bridegroom and bride to create a Jewish home, dedicated to G-d and to the well being of humanity.
5. Giving of the Ring
In Jewish law, a marriage becomes official when the groom gives an object of value to the bride and this is traditionally done with a ring. The ring should be totally plain, without stones or marks ― just as it is hoped that the marriage will be one of simple beauty.
The couple now exchange rings and declare their betrothal vows to each other. The words, “by this ring you are consecrated to me according to the law of Moses and Israel” form the essence of the marriage service. The circle of the ring is a symbol of the eternal nature of the marriage covenant.
[ Image: The giving of the ring at my wedding to Jeremy by Earthy Photography ]
6. The Reading of the Ketubah
The ketubah is then read in the original Aramaic text and is given to the groom for him to hand to his bride and for her to hold on to for all the days of their marriage. It has the standing of a legally binding agreement and is the property of the bride.
7. The Seven Blessings
The Seven Blessings (Sheva Brachot) are now recited over the second cup of wine by the rabbi, or a chazan, or other people that the couple wish to honour. These blessings are very ancient and set the bride and groom into a wider social and sacred context. They are arranged as follows:
1. Blessing over the wine – symbol of joy
2. Blessing praising G-d to whom all creation proclaims praise
3. G-d is praised as Creator of humanity
4. G-d is praised Who created humanity in the Divine image.
5. Hope for the messianic future
6. Prayer for the happiness of the bride and groom
7. The individual hope for happiness for the couple is combined with a prayer for joy in the messianic future.
8. Breaking of the Glass
The conclusion of the ceremony is marked by the groom stamping on a glass and smashing it underfoot. It is the official signal to cheer, dance, shout “Mazal Tov!” and start partying!
But there are various other explanations depending on whom you ask. Some of them are that it:
1. is a representation of the fragility of human relationships; and a reminder that marriage will change your life (hopefully for the good) forever.
2. is a superstition and the loud noise is supposed to drive away evil spirits.
3. is a break with the past: the marriage is to last as long as the glass remains broken, ie. forever.
4. symbolises the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem some 2000 years ago.
5. symbolises a hope that your happiness will be as plentiful as the shards of glass, or that your children will be as plentiful as the shards of glass.
Again get creative and mix up a variation of this tradition if you so fancy eg. why not both break the glass together with one swift smash in unison?
[ Image: A sneak peek of my yichud with Jeremy (just as the door was closing!) at my wedding by Earthy Photography ]
9. Yichud – Private Reflection
Once the just-married couple have processed out of the ceremony area, the final part of the ‘order of service takes place and that’s the Yichud. It is considered to be one the most intimate and private parts of the day. The bride and groom are required to have time alone away from family and guests to reflect on what just took place – their marriage – before joining the party. In times past this is when the marriage would have actually been consummated!
So there you have it – everything you need to know. I might just add that the spiritual significance of a Jewish wedding is sometimes lost in all the madness of putting it together. If there is one piece of advice I would give every bride it would be to try to experience the pure and sacred side of a Jewish wedding as much as possible.