The Wedding Guild Series: Jewish Wedding Traditions
We love when our clients incorporate special traditions into their wedding celebrations to make the day both meaningful and personal. Over the years, we've had the pleasure of helping our clients infuse a variety of both religious and family traditions into their big day. From celebrating unions through Vietnamese tea ceremonies, to designing beautiful sofreh displays for Persian celebrations, and incorporating different religious beliefs and practices into traditional ceremonies, MLE has certainly been exposed to a plethora of different approaches.
MLE has loved celebrating all the unique and beautiful ways our clients have said "I do" over the years, and we thought our readers would enjoy learning more about these different types of unions, customs and traditions, too. Through our Wedding Guild Series, we'll be sharing a variety of posts that highlight the different types of customs and religious traditions we've had the pleasure of executing. We begin our series today by highlighting Jewish weddings and traditions, one of the most popular types of celebrations MLE has the pleasure of planning and executing.
Jewish wedding traditions are heavily rooted in the Judaic faith with a variety of customs incorporated into marital traditions. However, wedding traditions will differ based on Jewish denomination (Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative).
Orthodox Jews hold most closely to traditional beliefs and practices. Reform Jews comprise the largest proportion of Jews in the United States and reject many of the "outdated" practices of Orthodoxy. Conservative Jews follow a "middle ground" between Orthodoxy and Reform, following some of the traditions that Reform Jews do not.
Traditionally, there are two stages to the Jewish wedding process, the erusin and the nissuin.
The Erusin is the period of betrothal when the groom presents the bride with an object of significant value, most commonly a ring. However, more traditional Jewish sects believe the bride should not receive a ring until the actual marriage ceremony. Nonetheless, the groom’s gift signifies his intent to seek and create a marriage.
The Nissan is the Jewish marriage ceremony that holds many unique traditions. The ceremony is comprised of two major components: the proceedings under the chuppah (equivalent to an altar) and yichud (the couple's alone time in a room immediately following the ceremony). The more traditional Jewish sects consider the yichud to be absolutely essential to completing the marital process. Furthermore, the ceremony may be held in a variety of locations, including a synagogue, private residence, etc.
SETTING A DATE
Choosing a wedding date for a Jewish couple can be a bit tricky since they must accommodate the lunar Jewish calendar and its religious observances. For instance, Jewish weddings cannot take place on:
- the Sabbath (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday
- other holidays, such as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Shavuot, etc.
- the three weeks between the seventeenth of Tamus and the ninth of Av (commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem)
- the Omer period (between Passover and Shavuot)
- a period of mourning for an immediate family member
Since the Jewish calendar is lunar, these religious observances fall on different dates every year, making it essential for the bride and groom to meet with a rabbi to choose their date.
Once a date has been chosen, the time of day for the wedding is mostly up to the couple. Sundays are most popular since most people are off of work, but a wedding may also occur on a Saturday 1.5 hours post-sunset.
Fun fact: Traditional Jewish wedding invitations present text in both Hebrew and English. Additionally, they do not "request the honor of your presence," but rather, ask guests to "dance at," "celebrate," or "share in the joy of" the couple's wedding.
Leading up to the big day, pre-wedding traditions include the following:
- Separation - a short period of time prior to the wedding during which the couple separates to spend time alone with their respective close family and friends. This separation is often not broken until the day of the wedding.
- Henna Party - a time of henna adornment, celebration, and bonding a few days before the wedding with close women in the bride's life, most often a Sephardic tradition, although many Ashkenazic brides are also adopting it.
- Aufruf - Yiddish for "calling up," a public honoring where the couple is called upon on the Sabbath (either prior to or following the wedding) to recite the blessings before and after the first Torah reading. This is traditionally followed by a celebratory meal.
- Mikvah - a ritual bath in running water that is traditionally practiced by the bride but, more modernly by the groom as well, followed by a party with friends and family of the same sex.
- Fasting - the bride and groom begin fasting at sundown the night before the wedding and break their fast with the first cup of wine under the chuppah. Since the wedding day is seen as a day of forgiveness, fasting serves as a way for the couple to purify themselves.
On the morning of the wedding, it is traditional for the bride and groom to hold separate, simultaneous receptions for wedding guests. The bride's is typically quite lively, while the groom's is relatively more serious.
During the bride's reception, she traditionally sits on an attractive throne, surrounded by her family and friends to receive guests. Guests come to wish her well and enjoy hors d’oeuvres and light refreshments. While she is seated on her throne, musicians play while her friends dance for her. Everything is about making the bride feel celebrated. At the groom's reception, also known as the tisch, the groom sits at a table of food and drink and is accompanied by his father, father-in-law, rabbis, and other male guests. Many modern grooms opt to include female friends as well. Most importantly, the ketubah, a marriage contract, is completed at this time. This document outlines the conditions the groom will provide in the marriage, including the bride’s rights and protection, and the framework in case the couple should divorce.
Following the completion of the ketubah, some but not all, Jewish grooms go to the bride on her throne and veil her face. This ceremony is known as the bedeken and symbolizes that his love is for her inner rather than outer beauty.
The ceremony includes many traditional elements, including:
- Chuppah - both the bride and groom are walked down the aisle by their respective parents to the chuppah, a four-cornered structure with a covered roof to symbolize the home they are building together. The cover is often formed by a tallit (prayer shawl) belonging to a member of the couple or someone in their families. Often the chuppah is a freestanding structure; however, sometimes the four posts are upheld by friends and family members to symbolize their support of the couple.
- Seating - the bride and groom’s parents and immediate family members usually stand under the chuppah with them, while grandparents and other relatives occupy the first row with honored guests behind. Furthermore, guests of the bride and groom sit on the right and left, respectively, to mirror the couple’s placement before the rabbi.
- Circling - traditionally, the bride circles the groom under the chuppah either seven or three times: seven to symbolize the Biblical number of perfection or three to symbolize the three virtues of marriage (justice, righteousness, and loving kindness). In more egalitarian/reformed ceremonies, the bride and groom either circle together or around each other. The circling itself is said to symbolize the couple’s creation of their own family circle.
- Sheva Brachot - seven blessings recited over a cup of wine as part of the ceremony that focus on joy, celebration, and the power of love. Sometimes they are read by the rabbi, but often they are read by selected friends and family members as a way to include them in the ceremony. After these blessings are read in both Hebrew and English, the couple drinks from the blessed glass of wine to break their fast.
- Ring Exchange - before the presentation of the rings, two blessings are said: a blessing over a cup of wine and a betrothal blessing. Historically, the groom presented the bride with a ring, declaring, “Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the law of Moses and Israel.” Today in more egalitarian ceremonies, the bride will also present a ring to the groom and may recite a quote from the Song of Songs, such as, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Additionally, Jewish wedding rings are typically just plain gold bands.
Another major aspect of the ceremony is the breaking of the glass. One of the most well-known Jewish wedding customs, the breaking of the glass, is traditionally done by the groom, but in more reformed custom, is broken by the bride as well.
This notable tradition holds multiple meanings, including:
- the presence of both joy and sorrow in marriage
- the couple's commitment to stand by one another, even in hard times
- the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the sorrow it was accompanied by
Immediately following the shattering, wedding guests often cry “mazeltov,” meaning “good luck” or “congratulations.” However, some reject this joyous exclamation as they feel it is inappropriate since the breaking of the glass can symbolize mourning over the Temple’s destruction.
Fun fact: many couples choose to incorporate the glass shards into a memento of their wedding day.
While the ceremony is obviously the most important part of the day, we can't forget the reception, this is where the fun begins!
Before the meal, the hamotzi, or blessing, is said by the couple’s parents or another honored guest over the challah (an elaborately braided bread). Many Jewish couples opt to serve a fully kosher (fit to be eaten according to ceremonial laws) meal so as not to offend any guests. As fertility symbols, chicken and fish are typically present, but the kosher options are varied and delicious. Furthermore, in Sephardic tradition, sutlach (a sweet rice pudding) is served as the first course.
Dancing is also a major part of the Jewish wedding reception. The most well known as the hora, in which the bride and groom are lifted into the air on chairs while guests dance around them. Entertaining the bride and groom with dance is not only seen as a good deed but an obligation of the guests. Often a dance called the krenzel ends the night, in which parents who have married off their last child are honored and danced for.
Click the links below to see a variety of Jewish weddings MLE has had the pleasure of designing and planning over the years:
A big thanks to MLE intern, Clare, for her hard work and research regarding these Jewish traditions and for organizing this information in a way we could share with our readers! We hope you've enjoyed learning more about Jewish customs and celebrations, and we look forward to sharing more with you in the future!