Jewish Wedding Customs and Traditions

One of the oldest religions in the world, Judaism has several rituals which govern its wedding ceremony. Even though the details may vary from one place to another and may have evolved across ages, they are essentially based on the Judaic law and are as meaningful as beautiful in their observance.

Jewish wedding customs can roughly be divided in two halves – the kiddushin signifying the betrothal of the bride-to-be and nissuin or the actual marriage. The two phases are usually linked by the signing of the marriage contract which forms one of the most important parts of the Jewish wedding ceremony. Another important part of the Jewish wedding ceremony is the Chuppah or the wedding canopy. This a symbol of the home that the new couple will build together and is open on all sides, as a mark of honesty that the couple must share with each other and also of hospitality that they must extend to others.

The Kiddushin

The Kiddushin specifically refers to the sanctification or the dedication of a woman in marriage to a particular man. It prohibits the woman to all other men, even requiring a religious divorce to dissolve. This is very alike the modern sense of betrothal or engagement which is now commonly referred to by the term, erusin. However historically the kiddushin and erusin were not the same thing and in the earliest times there could be a gap of several months between the two events. It is only since the Middle Ages that it became customary for the marriage to occur immediately after the betrothal, and to perform the betrothal during the marriage ceremony itself. According to the Talmud, erusin could be performed by any of the three rituals - by handing the woman a coin or object of nominal value, by handing her a document and through consummation of the relationship. However last option was largely discouraged, if not outright prohibited. In all cases the woman's consent is required even though it can be implied by her silence.

In modern times, the mainstay of erusin comprises of giving the bride an object whose value is well known, and largely constant like a gold ring without blemishes or ornamentation like a stone - just as it is hoped that the marriage will be one of essential and pure beauty. The groom takes the ring and says in Hebrew, “Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel”. The groom now places the ring on the bride’s index finger. According to Jewish law, this is the central moment of the wedding ceremony, and at this point the couple is fully married. The kiddushin or erusin is preceded by a blessing over wine and then the bircat erusin or the betrothal blessing. Originally the blessings were recited by the groom but today it is more common for someone else to recite them such as the Rabbi who is to perform the wedding.

The Ketubah

The two parts of the Jewish wedding ceremony is joined by the signing of the marriage contract or the Ketubah. The ketubah details the husband's obligations to his wife, the most important of which are food, clothing and marital relations. This document is signed by two witnesses and has the standing of a legally binding agreement. Under the chuppa or the wedding canopy, it is traditional to read the signed ketubah aloud, usually in the Aramaic original but sometimes also in translation. Couples intent on a secular ceremony though can opt for a shortened version of the Ketubah which does away with most of religious nuances. The Ketubah is the property of the bride and she must have access to it throughout their marriage. Indeed many Jewish homes display the Ketubah framed as an illuminated manuscript and signifying the togetherness of the married couple.

Some of the Jewish wedding rituals may differ according to the conventions of the particular community. For instance according to the Ashkenazi tradition, the chuppah or wedding canopy must be placed under the stars while the Sefardim generally have the chuppah indoors. The Ashkenazi custom also prohibits the groom and bride from wearing any jewelry under the chuppah based on the belief that their mutual commitment should be formed on who they are as people, not on any material possessions. Also an important part of the Ashkenazi wedding ritual is the badeken, the veiling of the bride by the groom. The veil symbolizes the idea of modesty and recalls the veiling of the biblical character Rebecca in Genesis.  In this ritual, the groom accompanied by family and friends, proceeds to where the bride is seated and places the veil over her face. The Sefardim Jews do not observe the veiling ceremony.

The encircling of the groom by the bride is yet another custom that features as a part of the Ashkenazi wedding tradition. According to this the bride walks around the groom three or seven times when she arrives at the Chuppah. The three circuits may be considered to represent the three virtues of marriage like righteousness, justice and loving kindness while seven circuits are related to the notion of perfection or completeness that is embodied by the number seven. Sephardic Jews however do not perform this ceremony.

Sheva Brachot

The next part of the Jewish wedding rituals consist of the Sheva Brachot. These are the Seven Blessings recited by the rabbi or by select guests who are called up individually. Being called upon to recite one of the seven blessings is considered an honor. The bride and groom may be offered another drink of the wine after the blessings.

Breaking of the glass

At the end of the ceremony or after the bride has been given the ring, the groom is required to break a glass by crushing it with his right foot as the guests shout "Mazel tov!" meaning “Good luck". These days, a glass is substituted by a lightbulb since the latter is not only thinner and more easily broken, but also makes a louder popping sound. The act is believed to bring to mind the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and convey the general idea that in life, joy is always mixed with sorrow.

Under the Ashkenazi wedding customs, the next ritual is yichud wherein the new couple is escorted to a private " room" and left alone for a few minutes. These moments of seclusion signify their new status of living together as husband and wife. Also at this time the couple is given something to eat since they have been fasting since the morning.

Jewish wedding ceremony is concluded with the traditional wedding feast or Seuloh. There is much music and dancing as the guests celebrate with the new couple and indeed it is customary for the guests to dance in front of the seated couple and entertain them. The Krenzl and  Mizinke and Hora are some of the common dances while the Mitzvah tantz is a ritual in which family members and honored rabbis are invited to dance in front of the bride or sometimes with her as in the case of a father or grandfather After the meal, the Birkat Hamazon  or Grace After Meals is recited and the Sheva Brachot may be repeated.