A Jewish wedding isn’t just a ceremony binding a man and a woman in matrimony. It also binds the young couple to the generations of Jews before them, in reading the same ancient texts used for almost 2,000 years.
Originating in Talmudic times, the ancient ceremony has been adapted and elaborated over the centuries.
A case and point is engagement. There was a separate engagement ceremony in ancient times, which became incorporated into the wedding itself - only to reappear in new form in modern times.
Today Jewish lovebirds get engaged like any other couple in real life or in a Hollywood rom-com, with an engagement ring and all. But before the 19th century, the match was arranged by parents in a religious ceremony, and Jews didn't use engagement rings (originally a Roman tradition). Wedding rings were also adopted from the Romans, in Talmudic times.
The importance of marriage in Jewish tradition is grounded in the Bible, with God declaring before he creates Eve that “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Indeed, the institution of marriage as it has developed in Judaism transmits a clear message that companionship is no less important a reason for marrying than the commandment to be fruitful, and multiply. Rabbis have taken this verse in Genesis very seriously over the years, and the Bible also explicitly says: “Who so findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favor of the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22).
In the days leading up to the wedding, the bride is supposed to wash in a mikveh (ritual bath) to purify herself for the momentous occasion. In Israel, the rabbinate will refuse to grant a marriage license if mikveh certification isn't provided.
Traditionally, the couple shouldn't see each other during the week before the wedding and bride and groom both fast on the wedding day, until after the ceremony. Less observant couples will often modify these customs.
Under Jewish law, the process starts with the signing of the ketubah (Hebrew for “written thing”), which is the marriage contract.
The ketubah is traditionally written in Talmudic-era Aramaic. As the groom is unlikely to be fluent in Aramaic, the rabbi will read the ketubah aloud and explain what it stipulates.
The ketubah details the groom's responsibilities toward his future wife after marriage. and also states how much the husband must pay if he decides to divorce without cause.
Once the ketubah has been signed, the main event may begin. Family and friends assemble around the chuppah – the wedding canopy. This is a piece of cloth symbolizing the couple's new home, under which the marriage ceremony takes place.
The cloth may be ornate and specially made for the wedding; it can just as well be a tallit (prayer shawl) or a plain piece of fabric. It is usually attached to four poles, which are customarily held up by male friends or relatives during the ceremony. In more progressive streams of Judaism, women also hold the chuppah poles.
In traditional ceremonies, the groom comes to the chuppah first, accompanied by his parents or by his father and the bride’s father. Then the bride follows, again accompanied by her parents or the two mothers, and music.
In Ashkenazi ceremonies, before the bride reaches the chuppah, the groom will approach her and perform a ritual called bedecken (Yiddish for covering) – after ensuring that the bride is his intended (to avoid being tricked into marrying someone else as Jacob was fooled into marrying Leah instead of Rachel), the groom covers her face with a veil. Then the groom returns to the chuppah and is joined by the bride.
Once bride and groom join the rabbi under the chuppah, the ceremony of kiddushin (“sanctification”) begins.
This is not technically the marriage ceremony, but the engagement ceremony of old, which in ancient times would take place as much as a year before the wedding. The two ceremonies were joined during the Middle Ages. Why is a matter of conjecture, but it has been suggested that it was because of the precarious nature of life in the Diaspora.
The kiddushin goes as follows: The rabbi blesses a glass of wine and hands it to the groom, who sips from it. He then gives his bride a sip (very carefully so as not to stain her dress) and her mother has a sip, too.
Then the groom recites the formula: “Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the law of Moses and Israel” (in Hebrew) and places a wedding band on the bride’s right index finger.
The couple is now engaged, according to Jewish law. At this point the rabbi will read the ketubah out to the crowd and often give a short speech. Once this is done, the actual wedding ceremony begins.
Nisu’in and sheva brachot
The nisu’in (Hebrew for marriage or literally “lifting up”) consists of the recitation of seven benedictions, all but the first of which are listed in the Talmud (Ketubah 7b-8a).
Sometimes the rabbi recites these, but it is customary to have different friends and family members do it. The first benediction is on the wine, the second blesses God for creating the world, the third for creating man, the fourth for making man in his image, the fifth for blessing Zion with children, the sixth for making brides and grooms rejoice, and the seventh, final and longest benediction praises God for creating happiness and especially making bridegrooms rejoice in their brides.
Breaking the glass
At this point the groom recites two verses from psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy” (5-6)” and then breaks a glass (or often a light bulb) with his right foot. The crowd shouts “mazel tov!” (literally “good luck” but also congratulations).
The glass shattering is supposed to remind those present of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, even at this joyous moment. Over time, though, it has somewhat ironically become associated for some with celebration, not sadness and loss.
As the guests applaud the newly married couple, in many cases, the bride and groom will take leave for 10 or 15 minutes of yichud (“unification”), a brief period when they are alone together, which signifies the real beginning of their shared life together.
Historically, this would actually be the moment when they would consummate the marriage. Nowadays this time is usually spent eating. The couple then rejoins the guests for the remainder of the festivities. As it is a great mitzvah to make the bride and groom merry on their wedding day, music and dancing traditionally accompany the Jewish wedding ceremony.
What about intermarriage?
Orthodox Judaism has remained adamant that mixed marriages are unlawful and impracticable according to Jewish law, although the Bible itself seems to sanction it. The Bible stipulates a list of Canaanite peoples which Jews may not marry with, which presumably means that they could marry other people and in fact many Biblical characters do marry foreign women. (See King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Boaz and Ruth, Moses and Zipporah, etc.)
For the most part, the progressive Jewish movements, that is, Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism, have also kept to Jewish law as codified in the Talmud, and encourage non-Jews interested in marrying its members to undergo conversion before wedding. That said, though not official policy in the Reform Movement, many Reform rabbis will marry Jews to unconverted non-Jews. And in recent years, the conversation among some Jews has shifted when it comes to intermarriage.
In Israel, the religious ban on intermarriage is enforced by law.
Israel’s legal code on marriage and divorce is based on the old Ottoman law, which gives Orthodox rabbis a monopoly on marrying Jews. Since there is no recourse to civil marriage, Jews who want to marry non-Jews have to do so abroad. When they return, usually from Eastern Europe or Cyprus, proof of their union in hand, the State of Israel does recognize their marriage.
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