JEWISH WEDDING TRADITIONS
The following is a glossary of Jewish wedding customs as they are traditionally defined. These customs and traditions may vary amongst Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews as well as among those of varying levels of religious observance. We suggest using this glossary as a guide and consulting with your wedding officiate when choosing which customs to incorporate into your Jewish wedding.
The Hebrew words for groom (chossen) and bride (kallah). The wedding couple is likened to a King and Queen and are to be treated with great honor and fanfare on the day of their wedding and the week following.
Just prior to the wedding (within the final 4 days), a bride immerses herself in the mikvah (a ritual bath), with the purpose of spiritual purification. Oftentimes grooms pay a visit to the mikvah before their weddings as well. The Mikvah is an essential part of the the Jewish laws of family purity. It is customary for the bride and groom to learn these laws with a teacher during the period of engagement.
Week Before The Wedding
There is a custom in the Ashkenazi community that the bride and groom not see each other for the entire week leading up to their wedding. While there is no definitive source for this tradition, its benefits are believed to increase the joy of seeing each other again when they are reunited at the wedding. It also prevents the bride and groom from unintentionally hurting each other emotionally during the inevitable stress and strain of the final week before the wedding.
While the word shomer (masculine)/shomeret (feminine) literally means a “guard,” the role of the shomer/shomeret is more like that of a best man/maid of honor. The job of the shomer/shomeret is to make certain that the bride and groom arrive to the wedding safely and as stress-free as possible. Additionally, during the time that the bride and groom do not see each other before the wedding, the shomer/shomeret will often act as go-betweens for the couple.
It is customary for a groom to be called up for an aliyah and recite a blessing over the Torah on the Shabbat before his wedding. After the groom’s aliyah, the congregation will often sing “Siman Tov u’Mazal Tov” to him and may pelt him with candy as a fun way to wish him a sweet new life.
*The Aufruf is an Ashkenazi practice and is not generally part of Sephardic tradition.
On the Shabbat before the wedding, the bride’s friends and loved ones, as well as women from the community, gather together to celebrate the bride, bring her joy, make her laugh, and help keep away the last minute jitters.
*The Shabbat Kallah is an Ashkenazi practice and is not generally part of Sephardic traditions. The Shabbat Kallah is a relatively recent custom.
Like Yom Kippur
Because the bride and groom are starting a new life together, their wedding day is considered to be a personal Yom Kippur for each of them. For this reason, it is customary to add the Yom Kippur confessional to their private afternoon prayers. This is also the reason why many couples fast (see below) on the day of their wedding.
Fasting for the Wedding
While there is a strong custom for both the bride and groom to refrain from eating and drinking on the day of their wedding, there is some leeway. If either feels weak or ill from fasting, they are permitted to eat. And, if it is the first day of the new month, the day after a holiday, or a holiday such as Chanukah, we are prohibited from fasting.
*Please note that fasting is an Ashkenazi practice and is not generally part of Sephardic tradition.
Tena’im are documents of betrothal similar to an engagement contract, agreed upon and signed by both a representative of the groom and a representative of the bride. Because it is considered a grave breach of honor to break this formal betrothal, it has become customary in many communities that the formal Tena’im not be signed until just before the wedding. Therefore the Tena’im are signed by two qualified witnesses at the Groom’s Tisch.
*The signing of the Tena’im is an Ashkenazi practice and is not generally part of Sephardic tradition.
Kabbalat Panim, which literally means “Greeting of Faces,” is the opening reception of the wedding. During the Kabbalat Panim the bride and groom are truly graced in their roles as King and Queen for the day. While the groom reigns at his personal “Tisch” (see below), the bride is ensconced on a throne-like chair (often in public) surrounded by the women closest to her on this day: her mother and sisters, her grandmothers, and her mother-in-law, grandmothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. During the Kabbalat Panim, it is customary for the guests to greet the bride. Many brides will use this time to give out blessings to their friends, again drawing on her role as Queen for the day.
The Groom’s Tisch
The Groom’s Tisch is a less formal reception for the groom. Tisch is the Yiddish word for “table,” and during the Groom’s Tisch the male guests will come to greet him and perhaps share a bit to eat or a l’chaim in his honor. During the Groom’s Tisch, the official betrothal (known as Tena’im – see above) is concluded and the marriage contract (Ketubah – see below) is signed. (Both documents are signed by two appropriate witnesses.) The Tena’im is then read aloud, after which there is the “breaking of the plate,” a ceremony during which the bride and groom’s mothers smash a ceramic plate together. This symbolizes the seriousness of the commitment between the families: Just as breaking the plate is final, so too is the engagement.
*The Groom’s Tisch is an Ashkenazi practice and is not generally part of Sephardic tradition.
After the couple is legally engaged (Tena’im), it is time for them to be contractually married. Two witnesses sign the Ketubah (literally the marriage contract) which traditionally spells out the husband’s obligation to his wife, everything from sustaining her with basic necessities to honoring and cherishing her. Additionally, the traditional Ketubah discusses how the husband must support his wife during their lives together, and, G-d forbid, in the event of death or divorce. While the contract has been signed, the couple is not yet considered married until the chuppah ceremony.
The Bedecken is the veiling of the bride by the groom. With great fanfare, dancing and singing, the guests escort the groom to the bride. The groom then lowers the veil over the bride’s face. The custom of the bride wearing a veil goes back to the Biblical matriarch, Rebecca, who veiled herself upon seeing her future husband, Isaac (Genesis. 24:65). By viewing the bride carefully before placing the veil over the bride’s face, the groom confirms that this is his intended bride, that he will not be deceived as was Jacob when Leah was substituted for Rachel (Genesis 29:23). Once the bride is veiled, she is given special blessings, usually by her father. The groom, surrounded by his enthusiastic friends, is escorted out of the room to prepare for the Chuppah.
The Chuppah, or wedding canopy, is a covering, often cloth, held aloft on four poles. The chuppah is symbolic of the first roof the bride and groom share together, representing their new home. That there are no walls in this new home, encourages the couple to follow in the ways of Abraham and Sarah, whose tent was always open to guests.
Following a brief family processional, the groom precedes to the Chuppah. He is traditionally welcomed by the song Baruch HaBah (Blessed is he who comes). An Ashkenazi groom will often don a simple white robe, known as a kittel. The bride and groom’s white attire is symbolic of purity and creates the imagery of angels. Sephardic grooms are wrapped in a new talit (prayer shawl) and recite a sheh’heh’cheh’yanu blessing, thanking G-d for sustaining him to this occasion.
The bride enters last and is escorted to the Chuppah where she meets her groom. In most Ashkenazi traditions, the bride circles the groom seven times under the Chuppah and then stands to his right. In many Sephardic traditions, the bride is escorted almost all the way to the Chuppah, at which point the groom comes out to meet her and escorts her the rest of the way.
The custom of the bride circling the groom seven times is rich with symbolism. The following is a sampling of the meaningful interpretations that have been ascribed to this custom :
1) This parallels the seven days of creation, and symbolizes the fact that the bride and groom are about to create their own “new world” together.
2) Seven circles correspond to the seven times in the Torah where it is written “…and when a man takes a wife.”
3) When Joshua led the Children of Israel in the battle for the city of Jericho, he was instructed to circle the city seven times, resulting in the walls of the city crumbling. As two people enter into marriage, they face the challenge of breaking down the “walls” that may exist between them.
*The circling of the groom is an Ashkenazi practice and is not generally part of Sephardic tradition.
Like many Jewish ceremonies, the wedding ceremony begins with a cup of wine. The rabbi recites a blessing over a cup of wine and a second blessing of sanctification over the marriage. Both the bride and the groom then drink from the cup. The groom then places a solid gold band on the right index finger of the bride and declares: “Behold, you are consecrated unto me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” These two blessings and the giving of the ring, completes the ancient betrothal ceremony.
To separate the first part of the wedding ceremony from the second part that follows, the Ketubah is read following the giving of the ring.
The Ring Ceremony
During a traditional Jewish ceremony, the wedding ring is placed on the bride’s right index finger, which is the finger most visible to the witnesses. The wedding band actually validates the marriage contract, consecrating the marriage. Jewish wedding rings must be made of solid uninterrupted gold, silver or platinum with no precious stones or holes breaking the circle. The continuity of the ring represents the hope for an everlasting marriage.
Reading of the Ketubah
The Ketubah is read aloud and the groom hands the document to the bride. The couple is now officially husband and wife. The second half of the ceremony now continues with the Nissuin (uplifting)
A second cup of wine is filled and the second half of the wedding ceremony commences during which the Sheva Brachot (see below) are recited. After the seven blessing are recited, the bride and groom then drink from the second cup.
The Sheva Brachot are seven special blessings in honor of the wedding, that are recited both under the chuppah and at the end of the festive meal that follows the ceremony. The seven blessings of the Sheva Brachot are:
-The First Blessing is recited over a cup of wine as a sign of rejoicing.
-The Second Blessing thanks G-d for creating the world. At the same time, it honors those assembled at the wedding.
-The Third and Fourth Blessings acknowledge G-d’s physical and spiritual creation of humankind. These blessings are recited at weddings, since it is only then that the couple begins their life as complete human beings.
-The Fifth Blessing is a prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, the edifice which so expressed G-d’s special relationship with the Jewish people that the memory of its destruction rises above even our highest joys.
-The Sixth Blessing expresses the hope that the bride and groom grow in their love for each other, with a focus as exclusive as that of Adam and Eve, when there was no one else in the world.
-The Seventh Blessing is a prayer that the time of the Messiah will come to redeem the Jewish people from exile so that peace and tranquility will reign over the world.
The Breaking of the Glass
At the conclusion of the wedding ceremony, the groom smashes a glass with his foot and the guests then shout “Mazel Tov!” – congratulations and good luck. There are numerous interpretations of this custom of breaking the glass. Some see it as as a symbolic reminder of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem while others interpret is as a symbol of the fragility of a relationship. Psalm 147, “If I forget thee O’ Jerusalem,” is often recited or sung at this point of the ceremony.
Immediately following the ceremony, the bride and groom, now husband and wife, are escorted to a private room where they have an opportunity to spend a few moments in each other’s company (Yichud means alone-together). During this private time in the Yichud Room, they may not be disturbed. Seculsion in the Yichud room immediately following the Chupah is only practiced by Ashkenazim. Those Sephardic couples whose custom it is to be secluded in a Yichud room, generally do so after the reception.
Simchat Chatan V’Kallah
A Jewish wedding reception may range from a sit down dinner with music and dancing to a carnival like atmosphere. At Orthodox Jewish weddings it is considered a mitzvah (good deed) to entertain the bride and groom. Some guests may wear costumes, shake tambourines, do acrobatics, and even set their hats on fire in their seal to entertain the couple. Much of the dancing is done in large circles – otherwise known as “Simcha Dancing.”
Siman Tov u’Mazal Tov
A common song at Jewish weddings, “Siman Tov u’Mazal Tov” is a musical way of wishing the couple well. “Siman Tov” means a good sign. “Mazal Tov” means good fortune.
The Horah is the name given to the circle dance that is often done at weddings. A well known Horah dance song is Hava Nagillah.
The Mezinka is a dance of celebration reserved for parents who have just married off their last child. The happy parents are seated in the center of the dance floor, encircled by dancing guests. Often times a crown of flowers will be placed on the parents’ heads.
*This is not a universal custom, even among Ashkenazim.
At the end of the festive meal, Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals–also known by the Yiddish term Bentching) is recited to thank G-d for the food and sustenance that has been enjoyed. This is followed immediately by a second recitation of the Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings) repeating the same blessings that had been recited under the chuppah.
There are two cups of wine involved in the formal Birkat HaMazon. The first cup of wine is held by the one who leads the Birkat HaMazon, and after the Grace has concluded, the second cup is passed around to the individuals who are honored with reciting six of the seven Sheva Brachot. The leader then recites the blessing over the wine, the seventh blessing. After the seven blessings are completed, the two cups of wine are blended together and divided among the bride, groom and leader to drink.
It is customary for a Sephardic groom to be called up for an aliyah and recite a blessing over the Torah on the Shabbat after his wedding. After the groom’s aliyah, the congregation will often sing “Siman Tov u’Mazal Tov” to him.
Both the Shabbat Chatan and the Aufruf are customs that are based on a Talmudic source that records that King Solomon built a special gate for bridegrooms–who would pass through it on Shabbat to be greeted and blessed by family and friends. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the custom was moved to the synagogue.
*Please note that the Shabbat Chatan is a special custom of the Sephardic community and is not generally celebrated by Ashkenazim. However, newly married Ashkenazi men are usually called-up for an aliyah in the synagogue after their wedding, as well.
Sheva Brachot Week
During the week following the wedding, it is customary for friends and relatives to host festive meals in honor of the new couple. This is called the week of Sheva Brachot because the seven blessings are repeated after the Grace After Meals at each of these festive meals.
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