A traditional Jewish wedding is full of meaningful rituals, symbolizing the beauty of the relationship of husband and wife, as well as their obligations to each other and the Jewish people.
Wondering what else you need to know before attending a Jewish wedding? Here are some frequently asked questions, according to a rabbi:
What should I wear to a Jewish wedding?
If you are female, this is your first question. Well, it’s probably your first question about everything, but especially here. But even if you are male, you might wonder.
Women: “Is it inappropriate to wear black?” Um, no. In some circles, you might even wonder if it’s mandatory. Although the colour is most definitely making a comeback, you can’t go wrong with basic black.
Not OK is sleeveless clothing, short clothes (you will see most guests covering the knee), and low cut tops (most guests will have collarbones covered). There is a garment you will want to know about. It’s called a “shell.” It’s basically a layering top, but dressy, with a crew neck top and long sleeves, that you can pretty much layer under almost anything you already have in your closet. Lots and lots of your fellow females will be garbed in this wonderful invention.
Guys: your basic black dress suit is perfect. Most Orthodox weddings aren’t the tux type. A nice dress tie and you’re good. But all of you have an additional complication: the yarmulke. You should wear a yarmulke to an Orthodox wedding. In theory, you can wear any old kind you like, but if you’re the type that wants to fit in, you should leave the satin one at home and find out what kind of yarmulke the crowd wears.
For the ceremony, women traditionally wear attire that covers their shoulders and men wear Kippahs or Yarmulkas to cover their heads.
Where should I sit?
Some Orthodox weddings will have completely separate seating. Some with a mechitza (this may be more for the dancing than for the seating, depending on the crowd). Some will have mixed seating, with certain tables “men-only” and some “women-only.” Others will have mixed seating entirely.
All Orthodox chuppahs that I have personally attended are seated separately. At Orthodox Jewish weddings, it is customary for men and women to sit on either side of the ceremony. At an ultra-Orthodox wedding, men and women will also celebrate separately with a partition in between.
Dancing will always be separate, as it is a feature of Jewish law not to have mixed dancing. However, this can range from with a mechitza to simply separate circles with no mechitza.
Should I bring a gift?
I have no idea why, but people don’t bring their gifts to the Orthodox weddings I’ve been to. They either drop them off in advance or after the fact.
While some brides register, many don’t, which leaves you on your own. Checks are always considered appropriate, often in denominations of “chai” – $18. If the couple is moving to Israel, this is your best bet, so they don’t have to shlep anything. Otherwise, household goods, cookbooks, crystal, or Judaica such as kiddush cups. I don’t recommend mezuzah covers, although it seems so intuitive because most of them are too small to contain a kosher scroll.
The following guide explains the beauty and joy of these Jewish wedding traditions.
On their wedding day, the bride and groom are considered royalty. The Jewish wedding begins with the Kabbalat panim, which translates to ‘the receiving of faces.’ Just like a queen and king, the couple receives their guests in two separate events – the Hachnasat Kallah for the bride and Chosen’s Tish for the groom. The bride is seated on a throne-like chair where she is usually greeted by the female guests who are there to provide her needs. During the Chosen’s Tish, which means ‘groom’s table,’ the male guests gather around the groom and drink toasts. The groom tries to read a passage from Torah while guests interrupt him by shouting song. It is intended to keep the mood light and good-spirited.
It is customary for the chatan and kallah not to see each other for one week preceding the wedding. This increases the anticipation and excitement of the event. Therefore, prior to the wedding ceremony, the chatan and kallah greet guests separately. This is called “Kabbalat Panim.”
Jewish tradition likens the couple to a queen and king. The kallah will be seated on a “throne” to receive her guests, while the chatan is surrounded by guests who sing and toast him.
At this time, there is an Ashkenazi tradition for the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom to stand together and break a plate. The reason is to show the seriousness of the commitment ― just as a plate can never be fully repaired, so too, a broken relationship can never be fully repaired.
Aufruf is a Yiddish term that means “to call up.” Prior to the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom are called to the Torah for a blessing called an aliyah. After the aliyah, the rabbi will offer a blessing called misheberach, and at that time it is customary for members of the congregation to throw candies at the couple to wish them a sweet life together.
Breaking a Plate
Historically, the two mothers breaking a plate symbolized the acceptance of the conditions of engagement (when it was a separate ceremony). It also symbolizes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and foreshadows the breaking of the glass that is part of the wedding ceremony itself.
The wedding day is considered a day of forgiveness, and as such, some couples choose to fast the day of their wedding, just as they would on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The couple’s fast will last until their first meal together after the wedding ceremony.
A traditional Jewish wedding begins with a groom’s tish, Yiddish for a table. The groom attempts to present a lecture on the week’s Torah portion, while his male friends and family heckle and interrupt him. Meanwhile, the bride is entertained in another room by her female friends and family. Bride and groom may lead the tish together in Conservative and Reform congregations.
The ketubah is a symbolic Jewish marriage contract that outlines the groom’s responsibilities to his bride. It dictates the conditions he will provide in the marriage, the bride’s protection and rights, and the framework should the couple choose to divorce. Ketubahs aren’t actually religious documents, but are part of Jewish civil law—so there’s no mention of God blessing the union. The couple signs the ketubah and two witnesses before the ceremony takes place, then is read to the guests during the ceremony.
Bedeken means “checking,” and this practice dates back to biblical times. According to one legend, it began after Jacob was tricked by his father-in-law Laban into marrying Leah, who was presented to him as an already-veiled bride. Only after the ceremony did he discover that she was not Rachel, his intended bride. In another story, the first time in the Torah that we learn of love between two people is when Isaac and Rebecca meet. Out of modesty and humility, Rebecca lowers her aura and beauty so take her veil and Isaac that he falls to the ground. If a bride is to be veiled, at some point before the ceremony – either before for after the processional – her intended places the veil over her face.
Among Sephardic Jews (those who originated in Spain and the Iberian Peninsula), the bedeken isn’t part of the wedding day. Instead, a henna party may be held during the week before the ceremony at which henna is applied to the palms of the wedding couple. These markings make them easily identifiable on the day of the ceremony and may, according to some, protect them from the “evil eye” at this joyous time in their lives.
During the ketubah signing, the groom approaches the bride for the bedeken or veiling. He looks at her and then veils her face. This signifies that his love for her is for her inner beauty, and also that the two are distinct individuals even after marriage. It also is a tradition stemming from the Bible wherein Jacob was tricked into marrying the sister of the woman he loved because the sister was veiled. If the groom does the veiling himself, such trickery can never happen.
The Walk to the Chuppah
The ceremony takes place under a chuppah, or wedding canopy, which represents God’s sheltering presence in the lives of the couple, as well as the new home they will build together. The presence of family members under the chuppah, as well as its lack of walls, signify that family and friends will always be welcome in the couple’s home. A tallit (prayer shawl) that has special meaning to the couple can serve as a chuppah as can a handmade quilt or other covering. Some wedding canopies are not free-standing, requiring four individuals; generally, friends or family members of the couple, to hold the poles to which the chuppah is affixed.
In Jewish ceremonies, the processional and recessional order is slightly different than traditional non-Jewish ceremonies. In the Jewish tradition, both of the groom’s parents walk him down the aisle to the chuppah, the altar beneath which the couple exchanged vows. Then the bride and her parents follow. Traditionally, both sets of parents stand under the chuppah during the ceremony, alongside the bride, groom, and rabbi.
Vows Under the Chuppah
The wedding takes place under the chuppah, a canopy that is open on all sides and symbolizes the home of the soon-to-be-married couple. Dating back to when the Jewish people roamed the desert, the structure recalls the tent of Abraham and Sarah, which was open and welcoming to others. There are no formal requirements regarding the chuppah’s appearance. We’ve had the privilege of working with brides on the design and floral decoration and love watching how the chuppah becomes a beautiful expression of a woman’s personality and style.
A chuppah has four corners and a covered roof to symbolize the new home the bride and groom are building together. In some ceremonies, the four posts of the chuppah are held up by friends or family members throughout the ceremony, supporting the life the couple is building together. At the same time, in other instances, it may be a free-standing structure decorated with flowers. The canopy is often made of a tallit, or prayer shawl, belonging to a member of the couple or their families.
In the Ashkenazi tradition, the bride traditionally circles around her groom either three or seven times under the chuppah. Some people believe this is to create a magical wall of protection from evil spirits, temptation, and the glances of other women. Others believe the bride is symbolically creating a new family circle.
Erusin or Kiddushin (Betrothal)
The marriage ceremony consists of two separate parts: Erusin or Kiddushin (betrothal) and Nissuin (nuptials). Originally, these two ceremonies were separated by a period of several months; today, they are combined into one.
Erusin begins with the traditional blessing over a cup of wine, which is then shared among the couple and their parents. The second blessing sanctifies the couple together in Kiddushin, Hebrew for “marriage,” a word derived from the Hebrew word for “holy.”
According to Jewish law, the giving and accepting of an item of value in the presence of witnesses is part of what sanctifies a marriage. Therefore, the couple generally exchange rings as they declare, in Hebrew, “Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring, in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel.” The rings are solid, without any breaks or stones, signifying the wholeness and union achieved through marriage. Each ring is placed on the right index finger, demonstrating the ancient belief that a direct line connects the forefinger to the heart. In Sephardic ceremonies, a ring, a coin, or anything valuable, such as a piece of jewellery other than a ring may be used for this part of the ceremony.
The second part of the wedding ceremony begins with the Sheva Brachot, or seven benedictions, which are chanted or recited – by the officiating clergy or friends of the couple – over the second cup of wine. Two cups of wine represent the fact that originally, the betrothal and nuptials were two separate ceremonies with a span of time between them. In the Sephardic community, the same cup used for Erusin is refilled for Nissuin. In both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, the seven blessings give thanks for the fruit of the vine, the creation of the world, the creation of humanity, the perpetuation of life, the continuation of the Jewish community, the joy of marriage, and the couple’s happiness.
Traditionally, Jewish brides get married in a wedding band that is made of metal (gold, silver, or platinum) with no stones. In ancient times, the ring was considered the object of value or “purchase price” of the bride. The only way they could determine the value of the ring was through weight, which would be altered should there be stones in the ring. In some traditions, the rings are placed on the left forefinger because the vein from your forefinger goes right to your heart.
Sheva B’rachot: Seven Blessings
The seven blessings, called the Sheva B’rachot, come from ancient teachings. They are often read in both Hebrew and English, and shared by a variety of family members or friends, just as friends and family are invited to perform readings in other types of ceremonies. The blessings focus on joy, celebration, and the power of love. They begin with the blessing over a cup wine, then progress to more grand and celebratory statements, ending with a blessing of joy, peace, companionship, and the opportunity for the bride and groom to rejoice together.
Breaking of the Glass
The best-known Jewish wedding tradition is the breaking of the glass. Traditionally, the groom shatters a wine glass under his foot. But it is perfectly acceptable for the bride to get in on the fun these days. The reasoning behind the ritual varies a symbol of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem; a reminder to the couple that life is full of sorrow and joy; a symbol of the fragility of relationships. For wedding guests, the sound of breaking glass means it time to shout “Mazel Tov!” and get the party started. Smashing the Glass.com is dedicated to featuring this tradition of many brides and grooms.
As the ceremony comes to an end, the groom (or in some instances the bride and groom) is invited to step on a glass inside a cloth bag to shatter it. The breaking of the glass holds multiple meanings. Some say it represents the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Others say it demonstrates that marriage holds sorrow as well as joy and is a representation of the commitment to stand by one another even in hard times. The cloth holding the shards of glass is collected after the ceremony, and many couples choose to have it incorporated into some sort of memento of their wedding day.
Shouting “Mazel tov!” is one of the most well-known Jewish wedding rituals. Once the ceremony is over, and the glass is broken, you will hear guests cheer “Mazel tov!” Mazel tov has a similar meaning “good luck” or “congratulations.” The direct translation is actually closer to wishing the best for the future, a great destiny, or a pronouncement that the person or people have just experienced great fortune. There’s no better time to say “mazel tov” than at a wedding!
It’s been a whirlwind day for the couple. The Yichud, which means seclusion, is a ritual during which the couple retreats to a private room where they can have a moment together to reflect on their new partnership as husband and wife.
Following the ceremony, tradition dictates that couples spend at least eight minutes in yichud (or seclusion). This wedding custom allows the newly married couple to reflect privately on their new relationship and allows them precious time alone to bond and rejoice. It’s also customary for the bride and groom to share their first meal as husband and wife during the yichud. Customary meals differ from community to community and can range from the “golden soup” of the Ashkenazim (said to indicate prosperity and build strength) to chocolate-chip cookies from grandma.
Seudat Mitzvah (The Wedding Feast)
It is a mitzvah for guests to bring Simcha (joy) to the chatan and the kallah on their wedding day. There is much music and dancing as the guests celebrate with the new couple; some guests entertain with feats of juggling and acrobatics.
According to Jewish law, wedding guests are commanded to celebrate, to have fun, and to increase the joy of the couple on their wedding day. There’s no more joyful way to do this than with dancing, including the hora, a traditional Jewish circle dance. During this dance, the wedding couple often will be lifted up and carried in chairs around the dance floor as part of the celebration of their marriage.
Hora and Mezinke
The celebratory dance at the reception is called the hora, where guests dance in a circle. Often, you will see women dancing with women and men dancing with men. The bride and groom are seated on chairs and lifted into the air while holding onto a handkerchief or cloth napkin. There is also a dance called the mezinke, which is a special dance for the parents of the bride or groom when their last child is wed.
Although not something you will actually see at a Jewish wedding, visiting the mikvah (ritual bath) prior to the wedding is something individuals may do before their marriage as a way to mark the transition from being single to being married.
As you can see, many symbolic rituals make up the Jewish ceremony, creating a day filled with meaning, love, and joy that celebrates the union of husband and wife.