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Wedding Rituals Explained

Jewish Wedding Rituals Explained 

The Jewish wedding is both beautiful and meaningful with room to be creative and make the rituals your own. Our community leaders share their thoughts on the customs and traditions.

Commentaries written by:
Sheila Malcolm is the Professional Leader/Madrikha of Beth Ami – Colorado Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. Humanistic Judaism affirms that knowledge and power come from people and from the world in which they live.

Rabbi Marc Soloway is the Rabbi of Congregation Bonai Shalom a conservative, egalitarian, diverse, multi-generational community that values difference and individuality.

Rabbi Joshua Rose was the Rabbi of Congregation Har HaShem from 2007 - 2014, affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, an inclusive congregation in covenant with God, dedicated to prayer, learning and building community.

Ritual Rabbi Joshua Rose Rabbi Marc Soloway Sheila Malcolm
Jewish Weddings A wedding is a celebration, a gathering but also something much more.  It is a connection to something holy and transcendent, magnificent and beautiful.  A Jewish wedding sets us up to see the coming together of two people in this light. Our tradition directs us toward particular rituals, some of which are familiar to many, some of which will be new, that open us to catch a glimmer of the holy at a wedding.  These rituals help frame our understanding of the meaning of this deepest relationship in a Jewish context. The main Hebrew term for a wedding is Kiddushin, which is from the root connected to holiness, sanctity or specialness. Something about a union of a couple under the chuppah brings a unique and intense level of sacredness to the relationship that enters the hearts and souls of each partner and fuses their souls as one in a deep ritual of connection. A wedding ceremony should be a beautiful, meaningful and truthful reflection of the loving relationship between two partners. Your wedding day is the best time to be true to your values and practices. The readings and music, the clothing worn, the rituals enacted – all should be agreed upon to create an event that honors each partner as an individual, and the life they are about to begin as a couple. Humanistic Jewish weddings consider the beautiful practices of the past, open the door for creative elements, and focus on what is true and unique about the couple and their love. Humanistic Judaism supports Jewish couples as well as couples from different cultural or religious backgrounds who choose to include some Jewish traditions in their ceremonies. Jewish rituals are explained and Hebrew, if used, is always translated by the officiant.
Bedecken The profound intimacy of this moment comes to us directly from the Torah. We gather privately before the wedding itself, away from the din of the gathering guests outside. As the veil is lifted there is a silent moment of beauty, and as each looks into the eyes of the other there is a tranquil, quiet, private moment. A lovely counterpoint to the shared, communal, ecstatic celebration to follow. In very traditional circles, the couple is separated for seven days before the wedding and the electrically charged ceremony where they first see each other again, connecting to one another before standing under the chuppah, is called the bedecken. It is actually when the groom lifts up and then covers the face of his bride with a veil. A moment of intimate gazing into each other’s soul through the eyes, and then respecting the modesty and privacy of the individual. In return, the bride sometimes gives her groom a tallit (prayer shawl) as a wedding gift. The veil and the tallit both speak as symbols for each partner to say, “There will be times when I will cover up for you. I’ve got your back.” Today, some brides choose to wear a veil for part of the ceremony, and others do not. In a Humanistic Jewish wedding, it is suggested that the veil be lifted during the ceremony so that the couple can see each other clearly for this powerful and emotional event.
Chuppah In our evening prayers, we call out to God for sukkat shalomecha, the “shelter of Your peace.”  That shelter is envisioned here as a source of protection, a symbol of God’s presence, a mircocosm of the home the couple will make together. Some couples choose a tallit (prayer shawl) to use a chuppah, and then this tallit can be used for prayer services and other holy occasions. The chuppah represents physical and spiritual protection as well as the presence of community. The cover of the chuppah is like the home that the couple will build together; a structure to keep them safe and warm, God’s imminent presence and open sides at which friends and family stand in support and in love. Jewish weddings, and many others, were historically celebrated outdoors. The Chuppah, or traditional wedding canopy, may have started as simply a rain shelter. Today it can represent the new home the couple will create together, their openness to the community gathered for their celebration, and their ability to peer outwardly and include the natural world.
Seven Circles This beautiful and mysterious moment at the beginning of the wedding is a symbolic vision of what each person is now committing to the other: you are moving to the center of my life.  Traditionally the bride circles the groom and while some couples choose this, others prefer an egalitarian option. Why seven circles?  The Torah describes the creation of the world as unfolding over seven days; there are three patriarchs and four matriarchs; the seven spiritual divine forces that animate the universe manifest in each individual life.  And more… Traditionally, the bride circles the groom seven times as an acknowledgement of the domain they share as a kind of spiritual container to hold them still. Many couples honor this ancient tradition of seven bridal circles. Some couples choose to have the bride complete four circles, corresponding to the four matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) and the groom to do three for the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.) Other couples each circle three times and then they do the seventh circle together, weaving in and out of each other’s space. Seven is a very important number that connects to a deep cycle in the universe to which the couple connect through this ritual. A Humanistic Jewish wedding may include a circling around each partner, in a spirit of equality, with appropriate text or music to honor the traditional practice or create a new interpretation.
Ketubah The ketubah is a wedding contract. Traditionally it is a legal agreement between husband and wife. Often couples choose to have contemporary language which articulates their highest vision of what their relationship might be and how their Jewish life together will unfold.  In addition, many ketubot (plural) are beautiful works of art expressing a connection to the Jewish past.  The ketubah is signed by witnesses before the wedding and read during the ceremony. Ketubah literally means written and is, primarily, a legal contract. Like the written Torah, however, the text is “holy black fire” on “holy white fire.” The white fire is the space between the letters where the subtlety and privacy, the intimacy and the depth of the relationship dances with the binding, legal dimensions. The Ketubah hang in the couple’s home is an emotional transporter back to the moment of union under the chuppah. When times are challenging, the couple should hold hands in front of their Ketubah and take themselves back to the moment of standing together on their wedding day. A Ketubah was originally a Jewish “pre-nuptual agreement” which has evolved into a document of loving commitment and often a work of art to commemorate the marriage. The Ketubah may include elements of the wedding ceremony, vows and other text, and may be witnessed and signed before the wedding. There are numerous options for designing art and creating text for the Ketubah, which takes a special place in the home of the newly-married couple.
Seven Blessings The sheva berachot, or seven blessings, are a high point of the beautiful wedding ritual.  Chanted by the rabbi, (or sometimes a very proud parent, grandparent, or friend) the Hebrew words sanctify this moment and take us on a journey through Jewish space and time, from the origins of our lives to the redemptive future, from the place we celebrate now to the streets of Jerusalem.  A poetic and spiritual peak of the wedding. The seven marriage blessings, sheva brachot, are like a bridge between the past, present and future. They allude to the bliss of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the first couple to know love; they refer to the lovers themselves present with each other in joy; and the prophetic voice of Jeremiah imagines the jubilation and ecstasy of this couple to herald the dream of a new time, the age of Messianic hope. There are many modern alternatives to the traditional Seven Blessings which can be recited by the officiant or responsively by the officiant and the gathered community.
Breaking the Glass Perhaps the most well known Jewish ritual of all time: silence-crunch-mazel tov!  The Talmud tells us that a Jewish sage smashed a glass at a wedding celebration in order to bring his overly-celebratory friends back to earth (he probably wasn’t invited to the next wedding). The deep and profound meaning behind this strange story is that Judaism always calls upon us to remember – even at our most joyous moments – that there is work to be done to put together the broken pieces of the world. Couples should plan on having someone reticence the broken glass, either as a keepsake or as something that can be turned into a piece of art down the road.  Memory is so alive in Jewish tradition; the joy and the sorrow. The origins of the breaking of the glass seem to be to remind us that even in the most ecstatic moments of joy, there is a memory of loss and destruction, with Jerusalem being at the spiritual center of it all. I see it more as a reminder to a couple that, even in the depth of their love for one another and the feeling of absolute wholeness, there is still so much brokenness in the world and that in the fullness of their hopes and dreams, they together hold a piece of the responsibility to make the world more whole through their love.  Along with being married under a Chuppah, this Jewish tradition has gained momentum in many contemporary weddings. The ritual can have many meanings, which would be shared with the wedding community: the power of the couple to crush any obstacles they may face, a new step forward and a break with the past, the commitment as a couple that only they will “drink from this glass,” and so on. After each partner drinks wine from the same glass, it is placed in a protective covering. Either partner, or both, may choose to step on the glass, followed by a lively and joyous conclusion to the ceremony!
Yichud Right after the shouts of ‘mazel tov” carry the new couple floating back up the aisle, the two gather privately in a room while the guests assemble for a bite of food.  Once this was the moment when the couple consummated their relationship. What happens there is your business, I suppose, but most couples use this as a brief moment of quiet, catching your breath, saying ‘can you believe it?’ before taking their position as the honored couple for the rest of the evening. This is sometimes the only quiet time the two of you will have until tomorrow, so enjoy it! After all the planning and preparation; family and friends arriving and then the last details and the wedding itself, how perfect, how appropriate, to have some sacred moments alone immediately after the ceremony. Yichud is actually legally required after the chuppah and was, originally, when the marriage was consummated. Nowadays, it is more of a beautiful opportunity to be alone together before resuming the celebrations in community. Originally an opportunity to consummate the marriage, today the Yichud, meaning “unity,” is a chance for the couple to spend a few private moments together, reflect on the ceremony, its meaning and their emotions, and to take a breath before greeting guests and celebrating.