From the Archives, May 2008: Jewish Weddings

Last Sunday, our family attended the wedding of a pair of friends from our community. It was a really beautiful and special wedding. The bride and groom are both relatively recent olim (immigrants) from the USA who came to live here on their own, and we had known the bride for a good few years while she was searching for her soul mate and it gives us so much joy that she found him. The wedding took place at the synagogue Josep visited when he was here, and it just had a small, intimate, community feel to it–celebrating with our friends and neighbors.

Anyway, in their honor, and in honor of our seventh wedding anniversary–which we celebrated about a month ago–I am pulling this e-mail up from the archives. I sent this to Josep and another couple of friends the week before my own wedding. Only this time, there will be illustrative photos. 😉 This is the time to thank Rebecca Kowalsky, our talented wedding photographer; and Michal Vender, among whose breathtaking images of Hadar’s hinna I had to choose only one–and it was a very tough decision! And thank you to Hadar, Shareen, and Michal for sharing their photos. 🙂


Hi People!

6 days to the wedding!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I thought those of you unfamiliar with Orthodox Jewish weddings–whether you’re attending or not–may like to know what it is we’re up to these days. So, without further ado:

The Week Before

It is the custom, particularly in Ashkenazi communities, for the bride and groom not to see each other for the seven days leading up to the wedding. Eitan and I are also going to try not talking on the phone. I think the reason for this is obvious: to increase the longing for one another, and increase the euphoria when the bride and groom see each other again when he comes to cover her face with the veil (explanation to follow). A state secret: it also makes sure that the bride and groom don’t have the opportunity to take out all their nerves on each other and have stupid little fights before the wedding.

In North African and Middle Eastern communities there is a ritual celebration on the last day the bride and groom can see each other, called the hinna, after the spice henna. It involves traditional dress, foods, singing, and a ceremony involving a paste made from henna. (Since neither of us have an inkling of an ancestor from North Africa or the Middle East, we won’t be doing that.)

[However… I have friends who did:

hadar and yossi henna
My friends Hadar and Yossi, for example. Hadar is descended from Yemenite Jews, and Yossi from Ethiopian Jews. Here they are decked out in one of the several traditional costumes they wore during the event, and holding the henna paste. A circle of henna drawn on the palm is said to bring good fortune, especially when given with a blessing from the bride or groom.
My friend Shareen at her hinna. Shareen's mother is Persian-Israeli and her father is Tunisian, but she was born in London and moved to Israel not long before I did. She married a British Ashkenazi guy, who was absent from what she referred to as
My friend Shareen at her hinna, or as she referred to it, “crazy Sephardi people looking for an excuse to party.” Shareen’s mother is Persian-Israeli and her father is Tunisian, but she was born in London and moved to Israel not long before I did. Traditionally, the hinna was a women’s ceremony, and Shareen stuck with that and had a women-only hinna, from which her British Ashkenazi fiancé was absent. Here she is accompanied to the ceremony with bowls of flowers and candles as per the tradition.
And my friend Michal, who is pure Ashkenazi, but whose brother recently married a Yemenite girl. The circle of henna on her hand is part of the ceremony, where the bride smears henna on the hands of the guests and gives them a blessing.
My friend Michal. If she doesn’t look Sephardi to you, that’s because she isn’t! 😉 She is a fifth-generation Israeli Jew descended from a famous rabbi who made aliyah from Austria-Hungary in the 1800’s. So why is she at a hinna? Her brother recently married a girl who is descended from Algerian Jews on one side (and Belgian Jews on the other! Talk about “ingathering of the exiles”!). She is wearing a traditional robe and showing off the circle of henna she received with a blessing from the bride. In the background is the spread of traditional treats.

Anyway. Back to the original letter:]

In Ashkenazi custom, the Shabbat before the wedding is designated as a special Shabbat to celebrate the bride and groom. Many of my friends kick their families out of their houses and invite all their friends to spend the Shabbat with them, and spend the day singing songs, playing games and learning Torah in preparation for the wedding. I’m planning on having something very low-key and intense instead, with just my local friends.

Eitan will have what’s called an “aufruf”, in which he will be called up for an aliyah–a section of the Torah reading that takes place on Shabbat. In some communities people throw candy at the groom when he finishes.

The Night Before

The bride goes to the mikveh, ritual bath, for the first time. In Sephardi communities this turns into a big celebration, with lots of singing and candies and whatnot, but us Ashkenazim tend to be hush-hush about it (as everyone usually is about mikveh visits, because of the privacy surrounding the halakhic (=according to Jewish law) implications).

Starting the night before, the bride and groom each need a milaveh or shomer (“accompanier” or “guardian”), preferably a single friend, to be with him and her at all times. The milavim are in touch with each other throughout the day to make sure the bride and groom don’t accidentally run into each other before the wedding ceremony. They also make sure the bride and groom have everything in order and taken care of so they don’t need to worry about anything that day.

The Wedding Day

The day of the wedding is considered a Yom Kippur Katan, a “small Yom Kippur”, for the bride and groom; a day on which all their past sins are forgiven, a day of rebirth and renewal. Therefore, the bride and groom each fast from the morning until either sundown or the chuppah (wedding canopy), whichever comes first. Eitan and I will be breaking our fast on the wine under the chuppah.

Also for that reason, it is customary for the bride and groom to recite the afternoon prayer of Yom Kippur instead of a normal weekday’s.

Me praying the afternoon prayer on my wedding day, with Abi, who was my milavah. ;) This is on the promenade at Armon HaNatziv, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem.
Me praying the afternoon prayer on my wedding day, with Abi, who was my milavah. 😉 This is on the promenade at Armon HaNatziv, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Bride’s Throne and the Groom’s Table

As soon as the bride is dolled up and the reception starts, she greets the guests while sitting in the kiseh kallah, the “bride’s throne”. Guests approach and ask her for blessings and prayers for them and their loved ones. Prayers and blessings from a bride and groom on their wedding day are considered to have special weight.

Giving my mom a blessing. <3
Giving my mom a blessing. <3

The groom sits around a table with the rabbi who is running the ceremony, family, and friends, and the ketuba (marriage contract) is drawn up and signed.

The chatan's tish at our wedding. On the left, the scribe is working on the marriage contract.
Eitan’s tish. On the left, the scribe is working on the marriage contract. Eitan is attempting to give a sermon, but he is not given a chance to finish it because he is constantly interrupted by singing and clapping. This is a custom that developed so that if a groom is not a scholar and doesn’t have a good sermon to give, he won’t be embarrassed.

Kisui Panim, or Bedecken (“Covering the Face”)

When the chatan’s tish is over, the guests begin a procession leading the groom to the bride. The groom covers the bride’s face with the veil, and then father of the bride blesses her with a special blessing. The groom is then led to the chuppah by his father and future father-in-law (or sometimes his parents).

bedecken

This time is considered a particular et ratzon, an auspicious time for prayer. The bride reads a special blessing while still sitting in the kiseh kallah as the groom reaches the chuppah and waits there. The chuppah is the wedding canopy; a cloth stretched between four poles, that symbolize the new home the couple is about to build. Ashkenazim have a tradition to hold the chuppah under the open sky, as a symbol for the bride and groom to have children “as numerous as the stars in the sky” (as in God’s blessing to Abraham in Genesis 15:5.)

Chupah_looks_good
A typical chuppah in a synagogue in the USA. Ours wasn’t very photogenic, apparently, because our photographers don’t seem to have gotten a good shot of it.

Chuppah V’Kidushin–The Wedding Ceremony

When the bride is finished praying, her mother and future mother-in-law (or sometimes her parents) take her by the arms and the whole congregation accompanies her to the chuppah, sometimes in quiet, spiritual reverence, sometimes in joyful song and dance. (I’m gonna go for quiet and spiritual.)

My mother and Eitan's mother accompanying me to the chuppah. Yup. Quiet and spiritual
My mother and Eitan’s mother accompanying me to the chuppah. Yup. Quiet and spiritual

The groom comes out from underneath the chuppah and accompanies the bride back underneath. In Ashkenazi custom, the bride circles around the groom seven times. Our rabbi explained to us that this is the bride’s equivalent to the ring the groom puts on her finger; an act of “encircling”, and singling each other out. The custom is said to be based on a prophecy from Jeremiah 31:21: “For God will create a new reality in the land, the female will encircle the man.” The sages understand this as meaning that women will actively look for their soulmates rather than waiting around for them (symbolizing the Jewish people actively searching for God), but the custom takes the literal meaning. 🙂

The Jewish wedding ceremony has two parts: kidushin or irusin (“sanctification” or “engagement”), and nisuin (“marriage”). Many, many years ago these two stages took place about a year apart, but because of a bunch of problems that created, they were put together, and now every wedding ceremony includes both, one after the other.

Kidushin

The rabbi makes a blessing over the wine, and the bride and groom drink. Wine is an integral part of any Jewish ceremony that involves holiness.

The groom makes a blessing, and then puts the ring on the right forefinger of the bride, with the statement “Harei at mikudeshet li k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael“–“You are hereby sanctified to me by the law of Moses and Israel”. In accepting the ring from the groom with that statement, the bride becomes “mikudeshet“, “sanctified”, meaning that she is now forbidden to all men but her husband. (Though at this point she is forbidden to him also, because the second part of the ceremony hasn’t been completed.)

ring

Sheva Brachot (“Seven Blessings”)

The ketuba (marriage contract) is taken out and read aloud, mostly for the purpose of creating a hefsek (pause) between the two parts of the ceremony. The rabbi may also give a small speech at this time.

Then the sheva brachot (seven blessings) are read, usually by a bunch of different guests the bride and groom wish to honor. The translation is as follows:

Blessed are You, Hashem, our Lord, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Blessed are You, Hashem, our Lord, King of the Universe, Who created everything for His glory.

Blessed are You, Hashem, our Lord, King of the Universe, Creator of man.

Blessed are You, Hashem, our Lord, King of the Universe, Who created man in His image, in the pattern of His own likeness, and provided for the perpetuation of his kind. Blessed are You, Lord, the Creator of man.

Let the barren city be jubilantly happy and joyful at her joyous reunion with her children. Blessed are You, Lord, who makes Zion rejoice with her children.

Let the loving friends be very happy, just as You made Your creation happy in the garden of Eden long ago. Blessed are You, Lord, who makes the bridegroom and the bride happy.

Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, the sovereign of the world, who created joy and celebration, bridegroom and bride, rejoicing, jubilation, pleasure and delight, love and brotherhood, peace and friendship. May there soon be heard, Lord our G-d, in the cities of Judea and in the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of joy and the sound of celebration, the voice of a bridegroom and the voice of a bride, the happy shouting of bridegrooms from their weddings and of young men from their feasts of song. Blessed are You, Lord, who makes the bridegroom and the bride rejoice together.

Raising Jerusalem Above Our Utmost Joy

The Jewish people is a joyful people, but our joy is never complete while our Temple no longer stands. As it says in the verse from Psalms: If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning; let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not raise Jerusalem above my utmost joy.

So to close the wedding ceremony we remember Jerusalem. The groom sometimes puts ashes on his head. He recites the above verse, many times in a song, and then he breaks a glass in memory of the Destruction of the Temple.

Funny fact: if you break a dish or a glass anywhere around Jews, they will probably start clapping and call out “Mazel tov!” (“Congratulations!”) This is because the glass breaking is the last thing that happens under the chuppah, and usually when the groom breaks the glass, everybody bursts into cheers and song. Not exactly the mood we were going for with the whole glass breaking thing, but there it is!

To avoid this, Eitan will break the glass in the middle of the solemn singing, so the breaking of the glass is connected to its proper context–the destruction of Jerusalem–and not to the happy one of finishing the wedding ceremony.

Poised over the glass. At our wedding, we switched things around, according to the Jerusalem custom, and broke the glass before reciting the sheva brachot, so the wedding didn't end with the breaking of the glass.
Poised over the glass. At our wedding, we switched things around, according to the Jerusalem custom, and broke the glass before reciting the sheva brachot, so the wedding didn’t end with the breaking of the glass.

Together At Last

After the wedding ceremony, in Ashkenazi custom, the bride and groom are led to a room in the hall where they are allowed to be alone together in a locked room for the first time. 🙂 This is called the cheder yichud.

“Okay guys. You may now get lost.”

According to Sephardi custom, once the bride and groom are in a locked room together, the bride must cover her hair, so many Sephardim don’t do the cheder yichud and wait until after the wedding to be alone together. (Though I have a friend who just went ahead and covered her hair after the cheder yichud.)

After the bride and groom come out of the room, the dancing starts. It’s a mitzva to bring joy to a bride and groom, and the guests do their utmost–treating them like a king and queen, performing silly and/or complicated dances in front of them, etc.

At Orthodox weddings, men and women dance separately. Jews traditionally dance in circles, like this.
At Orthodox weddings, men and women dance separately. Jews traditionally dance in circles, holding hands or with hands on each other’s shoulders.
Meanwhile, on the women's side...
Meanwhile, on the women’s side… that’s my Grandma clapping for me there. <3
I cannot tell you how many completely insane pictures of grown men and women doing, and wearing, ridiculous things, that I went through before selecting this one.
I cannot tell you how many completely insane pictures of grown men and women doing, and wearing, ridiculous things I went through before selecting this one. The guys at Eitan’s yeshiva had this whole “amusing the bride and groom” thing down to an art; they brought puppets, wigs, silly hats, and other paraphernalia, and performed all kinds of crazy dances and acrobatics. My friends from college had a prepared wedding dance; my friends from my hometown invaded my closet and brought the accessories from my crazy Purim costumes from over the years, and a couple of them juggled eggs. Suffice to say, hilarity ensued.

Sheva Brachot/The Week After

Oh no. Don’t think the festivities end when everyone goes home happy on the wedding night. We’re talking about Jews, remember? One day of celebration for one of the most joyful occasions in a Jewish lifetime?! Not a chance!

Each night, for six nights after the wedding (including the wedding, it amounts to seven days), a festive meal is held somewhere for the bride and groom. After the blessings following the meal, the Sheva Brachot are read again (this is also true of the meal on the wedding night). That’s why those parties are referred to as “Sheva Brachot”. In order to say the Sheva Brachot, a minyan (quorum of ten men) is required, as well as at least one person who wasn’t at the wedding or at any of the previous Sheva Brachot.

And then life returns to relative normalcy, and the bride and groom live happily ever after as husband and wife. 😀

Hope this has given you a clearer picture of what’s coming up for me here, whether you’re coming to the wedding or not. 🙂

If any of you have anything in particular you’d like me to pray for this week and/or on the day of the wedding, please let me know.

Shabbat Shalom!

Daniella


Blog readers: Tell us about wedding traditions in your culture! I’d particularly love a guest letter about Islamic, Hindu, or other “Eastern” wedding traditions.

2 thoughts on “From the Archives, May 2008: Jewish Weddings

  1. Some have the minhag to have a shomer for the whole week before the wedding, not only from the night before. Also, in American Jewish weddings, the guests do not accompany the bride to the chuppa. Rather, after the badekin, the guests assemble at the chuppa, and once they are settled, there is a procession of the groom (with parents or the fathers), followed by the bride (with parents or mothers). At some weddings there are other family members in the procession as well (though this might stem more from American culture than Jewish culture).

    1. Yes, the “procession down the aisle” strikes me as being influenced by Christian weddings. The mitzvah of “hachnasat kallah l’chuppah” literally means “entering the bride into the chuppah”, which implies physically accompanying her there. And in depictions I have seen of Jewish weddings in pre-modern Europe, you generally see the bride accompanied to the chuppah with a crowd behind her.

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