It’s time for another rousing edition of Ask! A! Jewwww! In past such posts, I’ve answered all manner of Jew-related queries, but this one is special: I noticed I was getting a lot of questions about Jewish weddings, so I opted to reserve all those questions for one dedicated post. I warn you in advance, it’s going to be long, but it is my hope that by the end, you’ll pretty much be able to conduct a Jewish wedding service with your eyes closed.
So pull up a chair (which will be hoisted into the air by four burly men, but more on that in a bit), pour yourself a glass of syrupy-sweet wine, and read on:
Before I get underway with the actual wedding process, I’ll answer a few of the non-ceremony-specific questions:
When it comes to putting on yarmulkes at a wedding, what is the proper behavior for non-Jewish men?
I think it comes down to deference to your environment. I liken this sort of thing to when Barack Obama visited the Western Wall in Israel and donned a yarmulke, or, even on a non-religious scale, if you go to an authentic Japanese restaurant, you take off your shoes. As far as I know, the respectful thing to do is to put on the yarmulke.
It's not typical for the ceremony to be held at the synagogue, right?
You know, I was asked this a lot and there’s absolutely no prohibition against it; I think the confusion is this: In our custom, for whatever reason, the ceremony and reception take place in the same location (as opposed to a Christian wedding ceremony taking place at a church, and then having the reception at a separate hall). Since a lot of synagogues aren’t equipped to handle a party of that magnitude, most people get married in a larger venue instead (for instance, I got married in a country club), and that’s perhaps where the whole “no synagogue” perception came about.
I would like to know about dresses at Jewish weddings: they must be long-sleeved, no? (My source: Say Yes to the Dress!)
I’ll say this: most Orthodox rabbis will not perform the service if the bride isn’t dressed “modestly.” Obviously, that’s a subjective term, and my (long-sleeved!) dress would have been considered Grade-A ho material in a more religious community, as my collarbone was showing. Basically, if I’d have gotten married in the summer, I’d probably have gone with a sheer-sleeve dress, or something with cap sleeves, but since it was November, I opted for the classic long sleeve look.
What's the deal with carrying the bride around on a chair?
The only explanation I’ve ever heard for this (NOT AT ALL TERRIFYING) custom is that the bride and the groom are like royalty on their wedding day, and should thus be hoisted up like a king and queen. Don't I look queenly?
I'd love to know what the ceremony looks like structure and vows-wise.
The bulk of this post will revolve around this oft-asked question. (I've also worked in a number of other questions you asked--such as the reason behind the bride circling the groom seven times, the placement of the ring on the index finger, etc.--here.) I’ll be answering this from the Orthodox perspective, since that’s what I know best. (Please feel free to chime in the comments if you had a different type of ceremony/know of additional info related to any of these questions!)
Let’s kick it off with the morning of the wedding. For starters, the bride and groom (who haven’t seen each other in a week) wake up in their respective homes. Then, if they are Ashkenazi Jews, they begin fasting; Sephardic Jews do not have this custom (see the distinction between the two groups from the last "Ask a Jew" post). The reason for this is that your wedding day is considered a “mini Yom Kippur” (i.e., the fast day that's the holiest day of the Jewish year). As Yom Kippur is considered a day of repentance and prayer, there is the thought that your wedding day—where two people are joining together to become one unit—is the holiest day of your life, and should thus commence accordingly. (Jonniker --The fast is broken immediately after the wedding ceremony, before the start of the reception.)
This is the real start of the wedding. A Jewish wedding starts off like any other (cocktail hour! Smorgasbord!), but with one major difference: Once again, the bride and groom haven’t seen each other in a week, so the bride, with a great fanfare (no literally; like, there are trumpets, people) is brought into the main room. She is seated, surrounded by the women in her (and her soon-to-be husband’s) family and guests trickle by to greet her. (See? Here I am! I’m the one in white!)
The Chatan’s Tish
The groom is brought into an adjacent room, and he has his own mini-party called a “tish.” where the guests also come to visit him, as well. If you ask me, this sucks, but only because everyone else at the tish is drinking scotch and eating, and the poor groom is sitting there. Not drinking.
At the tish, two vital wedding documents are filled out: the tena'im (engagement contract) and the ketubah (marriage contract). Both of these documents are pretty much “boilerplate” (If you can call ancient Aramaic boilerplate, I guess); the ketubah outlines, among other things, the husband’s duties to his wife. Since ketubahs are the framework for a Jewish marriage; many couples view them as a thing of beauty, and have theirs specially commissioned by artists/calligraphers. Here’s ours:
The tena’im, while key, is sort of ceremonial, in that it used to be executed in advance of the wedding day, but now everything happens on the day of the wedding (even if the bride and groom have been officially engaged for a while, which, you know...they HAVE). Both the tena'im and ketubah are signed by witnesses, usually close friends of the bride and groom. Here’s J’s grandfather (and rabbi!) signing the tena’im document (I have no idea why certain of the scanned images, like this one, are blurry):
At the conclusion of the reading of the tena'im, the mothers of the bride and groom break a plate to symbolize that just as a shattered plate can never be fully repaired once it’s broken, the bride and groom should give the same time and effort into maintaining their relationship, and never let it “shatter.” (Any other explanations, fellow Jews? This is what I was always told.)
Badeken (Veiling of the Bride)
The badeken, in my opinion, is pretty much the best part of any Jewish wedding you will ever attend. The bride (whose cheeks, by the way, are damn near killing her from smiling so much), is still in the main room, enthusiastically greeting all the guests from her seat. And then! The band starts up an ancient (but rocking) Jewish song, and the groom, surrounded by all the men (who are singing and dancing along with the band), is marched in to see his bride. I know you weren’t THERE, but you can sort of see how excited I was:
The groom then places the veil over the bride. The symbolism here is that the groom isn’t only concerned with the bride’s external appearance, but rather, cares more about her inner beauty. A number of commenters have also reminded me that this act recalls the biblical story of Rachel, Jacob, and Leah where, at Rachel and Jacob's wedding, Rachel and Leah's father (Laban) tricked Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel by covering Leah's face in a thick veil prior to the ceremony so she looked like the bride. (There's obviously some biblical backstory here, but I'm trying to keep this a relatively reasonable length.) Now, we have the groom do the veiling, so to speak, so he can make sure he got the right woman.
The bride’s dad (and in some cases, her new father-in-law) then blesses her with the same blessing he’s been giving her every Sabbath Eve since she was a little girl. On that note, this is me, crying, while my dad blesses me.
Everyone then dances the groom back out, and proceeds into the room where the actual wedding ceremony will take place.
The groom’s family and groomsmen take the standard walk down the aisle. The groom, accompanied by his parents, makes his way down to the chuppah (or wedding canopy) as all assembled guests arise. A chuppah can be simple (a prayer shawl held up by friends...Sephardic Jews usually have friends hold up the chuppah poles) or ornate, made out of vines and flowers, and/or fabric. The lovely Katie thoughtfully offered us this shot of her gorgeous floral chuppah:
My incredibly talented mom made ours:
The chuppah envelops the bride and groom from above, but is purposely open on all sides, symbolizing that the new home of the bride and groom should always be open to family and friends.
Once the groom makes his way down the aisle, it’s customary for Ashkenazi grooms to don a kittel, a white robe that’s worn in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, and, like the bride’s white dress, represents holiness and purity. The cantor (or honored guest...with a good voice) commences singing the traditional wedding blessing.
The bridesmaids, and bride's family walk down the aisle (per usual), and then everyone arises once again as the bride makes her entrance, accompanied by both of her parents.
You will note that my parents are holding candles; this is a custom to metaphorically “light the way” so that the bride and groom's new life together will be filled with brightness and light. The bride’s parents bring her up under the chuppah where she proceeds to circle around the groom seven times, as the cantor sings the ceremonial prayer.
There are a few explanations for the circling: 1) there are seven blessings in the Jewish wedding ceremony; and 2) you are commencing the creation of a new life together, just as God created the world in seven days. After the seventh rotation, the bride stands at the groom’s right hand side, and the ceremony begins in earnest.
The rabbi conducting the ceremony traditionally says some words of welcome to the guests, and explains what will happen. A few blessings are made over a goblet of wine, and the bride and groom drink from it. (Sephardic couples will, at this point, I believe, have the rabbi sort of drape them under a prayer shawl to symbolize their new union. Any Sephardic Jews out there? Help me out!)
The groom then recites his wedding vow (“Harei at mekudeshet li b'taba'at zo k'dat Moshe v'Yisrael”--"Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring, according to the laws of Moses and Israel") and places the ring on the index finger of the bride’s right hand.
(The reason for this is that the right hand is considered the stronger one, and ancient Jews considered the index finger to be the one that runs closes to the heart. (After the ceremony, you can move the ring to the traditional spot on the left ring finger.) The wedding band is to be completely solid gold/platinum/silver and unadorned by any other gemstones to symbolize the pure, genuine commitment the couple has to each other.
You will note here that I am not wearing any other jewelry under the chuppah; the relationship is the “jewel,” and the couple should not be distracted by, for lack of a better phrase, sparkly things. The plain ring and what it represents is the focal point of this ceremony.
At this point, the ketubah (remember that from before?) is read aloud by a rabbi. The seven Jewish wedding blessings are then read by various honored guests. At this point, one final song is sung, and either a lightbulb or a thin wineglass (doesn’t matter what it is, just as long as it’s easily broken) is wrapped in fabric and placed on the floor, and the groom smashes it with his foot. (This is to symbolize that even now, at the pinnacle of our happiness, we still remember the destruction of our Temple thousands of years ago.)
And…that’s it! Mazel Tov, and let the reception begin!
Mairim's comment reminded me that I left out a KEY part of the wedding ceremony, even though it technically takes place right after. After the recessional, as the bride and groom are marched out with everyone singing and dancing them, they do not proceed directly into the reception, but instead spend a few minutes alone together in the "Yichud Room." Technically, according to Jewish law, men and women are not supposed to spend time alone together (or even touch) unless they're married. HOLD UP. I know. I KNOW. It sounds insane. And much like with the hair covering question in the last post, I am JUST REPORTING THE RULE, not telling you I obeyed it. This is followed by people far more religious than me.
The purpose of the Yichud Room is symbolic-- to signify that now that the bride and groom are married, they are permitted to spend time alone together. I am sure that if you never so much as shook hands or spent time alone together prior to your marriage, this is a very moving and special time. I can honestly tell you, however, that J and I spent the bulk of our time in the Yichud Room breaking our fast and figuring how to get my dress off...SO I COULD PEE, PEOPLE. (So! Many! Buttons! And crinolines!) (I am SURE you now have questions about the rules and reasons for the whole not touching before marriage thing, so ask away, and I'll cover them in another post.)
Claire has asked about the reception, in terms of separation between men and women. (Claire, did SOMEONE see A Stranger Among Us, Melanie Griffith's seminal work, where she stars as an undercover cop in a Hasidic community and no, I am not kidding?) Once again, more religious Jews would have a divider of some sort down the middle of the room, separating the men and women's dancing. We didn't have that; everyone was all together.
Whew! Anything else?
(Oh, and thank you all for your kind words...I'm blushing!)