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Jewish wedding guide

Last updated: 2012-09-30

Jewish wedding taking place

Getting married in a synagogue

The world of Jewish weddings can be extremely confusing. Unfortunately, it's not just a matter of the differences between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jewish weddings. The range of authentic Jewish traditions and customs that couples incorporate into their weddings is staggering, especially when you consider all of the variations.

Take, for instance, circling, the custom of the bride circling her groom under the chuppah. (a glossary of Jewish wedding terms is provided below). Some say seven times. Others say three times. A more recent, egalitarian modification is for the groom to circle his bride. Or for the couple circle the chuppah together. With all of these permutations, it's easy to get lost in the world of Jewish weddings. With that in mind, we've put together this guide and glossary to Jewish weddings. Whether you're planning a wedding or just attending one soon, we hope this guide will help as an introduction to Jewish wedding customs and traditions.

Even before the wedding, there are opportunities to incorporate Judaism into your wedding celebration.

Tenaim, which translates as "conditions," is an Ashkenazic tradition of engagement, a pre-Ketubah contract setting out the terms of the marriage, including the date and time of the wedding ceremony (chuppah). After the witnessed signing and reading of the Tenaim, a plate is smashed, traditionally by the future mothers-in-law, symbolizing the impending breaks in their relationships with their children, who will soon take responsibility for feeding each other. In recent years, many Orthodox rabbis have encouraged the Tenaim to be scheduled very close in time before the wedding, if at all, out of concerns that it has a binding effect under Jewish law and requires a get (writ of divorce) if the engagement is called off. Some Conservative rabbis have also been less than encouraging about a couple's desire to have a Tenaim ceremony based on similar concerns. But these concerns and scheduling the Tenaim the same weekend of the wedding means missing out on one of the best things about a Tenaim ceremony - the party that traditionally follows. If you're planning an engagement party before the wedding, using the occasion to perform a Tenaim ceremony is a beautiful way to add meaningful Jewish content to the celebration as well as to focus attention on the spiritual component of entering into marriage. Even if you do it on the same weekend as the wedding, the Tenaim ceremony is still a great way to honor friends by having them act as witnesses or otherwise participate in the ceremony.

The Aufruf refers to the calling up of the groom or, in egalitarian congregations, the bride and groom) to the Torah on the Shabbat before the wedding. The Aufruf is an opportunity for the community to publicly recognize, congratulate, and share in the joy of the wedding to come. In some communities. it's customary to throw candy afterwards to send the bride and groom wishes for a sweet marriage.

Kabbalat Panim is a custom of greeting the bride and groom before the wedding . At many traditional Jewish weddings, the beginning of the wedding day celebration is not the ceremony itself, but the pre-ceremonial events, the bedeken and the tish.

Bedeken and Tish
The bedeken, which translates as "veiling," is the groom's veiling of his bride immediately before the ceremony. The custom is said to be based upon the Biblical story in which Jacob, intending to marry Rachel, accidentally marries her older sister Leah, who wore a veil. In addition to having the groom verify that he is marrying the right woman, the bedeken is often preceded by singing and dancing around the bride, who sits on a thronelike chair. Traditionally, the men gather around the groom for the tish, or groom's "table." At the tish, the nervous groom traditionally attempts to deliver some words about the Torah portion while his friends and family take the pressure off by constantly interrupting him with jokes, toasts, singing, and dancing. At the end of the tish, family and friends carry the groom into the bedeken for veiling and continue singing and dancing around the bride. Even if there are aspects of these customs that seem to be based on anachronistic values, such as the separation of men and women and the contrast of the bride sitting to be admired for her beauty, while the groom tries to teach, we recommend thinking about ways to incorporate these traditions that are comfortable and consistent with your values. They offer a way to start the celebration early and to get everyone in the right, festive frame of mind. If the gender separation is not something you feel comfortable with, the two ceremonies can be combined in one place. We've also known brides who tried to teach something, an update we especially like. Finally, even if you don't want to have a public bedeken, some couples do the veiling in a more private location, such as the rabbi's study at the synagogue.

The "chuppah" is the most universally recognized symbol of a Jewish wedding, the structure under which the ceremony takes place, generally consisting of a cloth canopy, sometimes a tallit, beneath which the bride and groom stand. The wedding ceremony itself is sometimes referred to as the "chuppah," often on invitations announcing the time for the ceremony. The ceremony itself is a conglomeration of legal recitations and customs. The wedding ceremony consists of two parts, erusin (also called kiddushin), which is the legal agreement by which the bride and groom are is betrothed to each other, and nissuin, the nuptials and the active beginning of the new union between the bride and groom.

As we note above, circling is a great example of a custom with multiple variations that is attributed to different sources. The numbers of circuits is usually either seven or three. According to one variation, the bride circles alone, while in another, she is escorted on either side by a bridesmaid with a candle. Sometimes, the bride is accompanied by the singing of traditional hymn or with nigun, a wordless melody. The custom of circling is attributed to multiple sources and given multiple explanations. One source cited for the custom is a verse from Jeremiah: "for the Lord hath created a new thing in the Earth, a woman shall compass a man." (Jeremiah 31: 21). One source for three circles is a verse from Hosea with three descriptions of God's betrothal to Israel: "Thus says the Lord, I will betroth you to Me forever. I will betroth you with righteousness, with justice, with love, and with compassion. I will betroth you to Me with faithfulness, and you shall love the Lord." (Hosea 2:21-22) The number seven is generally considered a number of good fortune in Judaism, and is attributed to various sources. One Kabbalistic explanation for the number seven is that it symbolizes the removal of seven shells of solitude encrusting the groom's soul, so that it can be encompassed by the luminescence of his bride. As we mention above, many couples opt to update the custom by having the bride and groom walk around each other, or by having both walk around the chuppah together. No matter what variation feels most comfortable to you, we encourage you to think about incorporating the custom of circling. It has endured as a custom for good reason; it can have a powerful effect on the bride and groom and everyone present.

Birkat Erusin
The ceremony traditionally begins with greetings, customarily taken from Psalms (118:26), both to all present and to the bride and groom. The erusin ceremony then begins with the kiddush, the blessing over wine, followed by the birkat erusin, the betrothal blessings, after which the couple drinks the wine.

The Ring Ceremony
According to tradition, the central act of erusin is the groom's giving and the bride's acceptance of the ring, coupled with the recitation of the Hebrew formula known as haray aht, which translates as, "By this ring you are consecrated to me as my wife in accordance with the traditions of Moses and Israel." The groom then completes the erusin ceremony by placing the ring on the bride's hand, traditionally on her right index finger, which stems from the ancient belief that the index finger was directly connected to the heart. Today, many couples make the ring ceremony reciprocal by including the bride's placement of a ring on the groom's finger, accompanied by the bride's recitation of either the same formula as the groom (haray atah when corrected for gender) or with the recitation of another verse, such as the Hebrew verse that translates as, "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." Some Orthodox couples prefer to separate the bride's placement of a ring on her groom's finger by doing it later in the day, such as during yichud. Traditionally, in order to separate the erusin ceremony from the nissuin that follows, the ketubah (the written marriage contract) is read aloud and then handed by the groom to the bride. At some weddings, the groom hands the ketubah to the bride at the time of the bedeken.

Sheva Berachot
Nissuin begins with a second kiddush, followed by the sheva berachot (the seven blessings) and yichud. The sheva berachot begin with the blessing over wine, then praise God for creation, for human life, for the bride and groom separately, for fertility and children, and finally in the sixth and seventh blessings, for the companionship and joy of the bride and groom together. The ceremony concluded, the groom then breaks a glass, and the bride and groom traditionally retreat to yichud, a moment of seclusion in which the bride and groom can share their first meal as newlyweds.

Breaking the Glass
Few Jewish wedding traditions are as well known as the groom's smashing of the glass at the conclusion of the ceremony. Different explanations for the act of breaking the glass abound: that it reminds us of the fragility of personal relationships so that the bride and groom take care to their intact; that it ushers in the outbreak of celebration that should immediately follow, that the breaking recalls the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, so that we remember sadness at the height of personal joy. Two older explanations are that the shattering scares off any demons attracted by the event; or that it symbolizes the consummation of the marriage.

Yichud is a time for the bride and groom to be alone together immediately after the ceremony. It is actually the final legal requirement of the wedding. (According to Jewish law, the requirements for a wedding are the birkat erusin, the recitation of the haray aht formula coupled with the groom's placement of a ring on the bride's finger, the sheva berachot, and yichud.)

With the ceremony completed, it is a mitzvah -- a religious obligation -- of the guests present to bring joy to the heart of a new bride and her new husband. You have to love that , a religious commandment to party. Sheva Berachot Dinners Sheva Berachot dinners are a way to keep the wedding celebration going even after the wedding day. In the Orthodox world, these dinners are held for seven nights after the wedding, after which blessings for the bride and groom are recited by someone present who was not at the wedding.

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