In traditional Jewish literature marriage is actually called ‘kiddushin’, which translates as ‘sanctification’ or ‘dedication’. The word ‘sanctification’ indicates that what is happening is not just a social arrangement or contractual agreement, but a spiritual bonding and the fulfilment of a mitzvah, a Divine precept. ‘Dedication’ indicates that the bride and groom now have an exclusive relationship that involves total dedication to each other, to the extent of them becoming, as the Kabbalists state, “one soul in two bodies”.
The very first stage of a traditional Jewish marriage is the shidduch, or matchmaking. In this manner, the process of finding a partner is not haphazard or based on purely external aspects. Rather, a close friend or relative of the young man or woman, who knows someone that they feel may be a compatible partner, suggests that they meet. The purpose of the meeting is for the prospective bride and groom to determine if they are indeed compatible.
The meetings usually focus on discussion of issues important to marriage as well as casual conversation. The Talmud states that the couple must also be physically attractive to each other, something that can only be determined by meeting. According to Jewish law physical contact is not allowed between a man and a woman until they are married (except for certain close relatives), and they may not be alone together in a closed room or secluded area. This helps to ensure that one’s choice of partner will be based on intellect and emotion and not on physical desire alone.
When the families have met, and the young couple have decided to marry, the families usually announce the occasion with a small reception, known in Yiddish as a vort. Some families sign a contract, the tenaim(conditions) that delineates the obligations of each side regarding the wedding and setting its final date. The tenaim symbolise the groom’s commitment to fulfil the promise to marry his bride. They are just as binding as the marriage contract itself, so they are usually signed before the ceremony. One week before the wedding the bride and groom, the chatan and kallah stop seeing each other in order to enhance the joy of their wedding through their separation.
On the Sabbath that precedes the wedding day, the groom is called up in the synagogue to read from the Torah. In Hebrew this is called an Aliyah and in Yiddish it is called an Aufruf. It shows that the bride and groom will hold the Torah central to their lives in their marital home and is a tradition dating back to the time of King Solomon. The groom-to-be takes precedence over all others who would usually be called up to the Torah on that day. It is customary for the bride and her family to throw sweets down to the groom as he completes his recital.
Prior to the wedding day, the bride is required to visit the mikveh, the ritual bath, and immerse herself, to ensure a purified spiritual state as she prepares herself for married life. The bride must show proof of having visited the mikveh before she is eligible to sign the marriage contract.
The idea of purity is also reflected in both the bride and groom wearing white at the wedding. The groom’s white robe, known as a kittel, and the bride’s white dress indicate that for both of them, life is starting anew with a clean white slate, without past sins. In a further rite of purification, the bride and groom usually fast on the day of the wedding until after the chuppah. They are encouraged to fast and pray for forgiveness for any wrongdoing they may have committed by saying Viddui, the prayer for confession, as on Yom Kippur.
At the wedding itself, the first thing usually done is the completion, signing and witnessing of the ketubah,or marriage contract. This contract is ordained by Mishnaic law (circa 170 C.E.) and according to some authorities dates back to Biblical times. The ketubah, which is written in Aramaic, details the husband’s obligations to his wife: to provide her with food, clothing, dwelling and pleasure. It also creates a lien on all his property to pay her a sum of money and support should he divorce her, or predecease her. The document is signed by the groom and witnessed by two people, and has the standing of a legally binding agreement that in many countries is enforceable by secular law. The ketubah is often written as an illuminated manuscript, and becomes a work of art in itself which many couples frame and display in their home.
After the signing of the ketubah, which is usually accompanied by traditional lechaims (the Jewish salute when drinking, which means ‘to life!’) with snacks and some hard liquor, the groom does the bedekin, or veiling. Musicians and the male guests accompany the groom together with his father and future father-in-law, to the room where the bride is receiving her guests. She sits like a queen, on a throne-like chair surrounded by her family and friends. The groom, who has not seen her for a week (an eternity for a young couple!), covers her face with her veil. This ceremony is mainly for the legal purpose of the groom identifying the bride before the wedding.
The next stage is known as the chuppah. The chuppah is a decorated piece of cloth held aloft as a symbolic home for the new couple. It is often held outside, under the stars, as a sign of the blessing given by God to the patriarch Abraham that his children shall be “as the stars of the heavens.” The groom is accompanied to the chuppah by his parents and the bride by her parents, while a cantor sings a selection from the Song of Songs. As she approaches, the groom prays that his unmarried friends will find their true partners in life.
When the bride arrives at the chuppah she circles the groom seven times with her mother and future mother-in-law, while the groom continues to pray. This symbolises the idea of the woman being a protective, surrounding light of the household that illuminates it with understanding and love from within and protects it from harm from the outside.
Under the chuppah, an honoured rabbi or family member recites a blessing over wine, and a blessing that praises and thanks God for giving us laws of sanctity and morality to preserve the family life of the Jewish people. The bride and groom then drink from the wine cup. The groom then takes a plain gold ring and places it on the finger of the bride, and recites in the presence of two witnesses, “Behold you are sanctified (betrothed) to me with this ring, according to the Law of Moses and Israel.” The ketubah is then read aloud, usually by another honouree, after which it is given to the bride.
After this, the sheva brachot, or seven blessings, are recited; either all seven by one rabbi, or each one by different people whom the families wish to honour. The blessings are recited over a full cup of wine and begin with praise for God for His creation in general and of the human being. They proceed to praise for the creation of the human as a ‘two part creature’, woman and man. The blessings also include a prayer that Jerusalem will be fully rebuilt and restored with the Temple in its midst and the Jewish people within her gates.
At this point the couple again share in drinking the cup of wine, and the groom breaks a glass by stamping on it. The usual explanation for this custom is that it reminds us that even at the height of our personal joy, as Jews we must recall the sadness in our history, beginning with the destruction of our first Temple in Jerusalem.
After the ceremony, the couple enter a private room where they have a brief and quiet time together. This seclusion is known as yihud. Since they are legally married, they may now be alone in a closed room together. In fact, according to many Jewish legal authorities, the very fact that they are alone together in a locked room is a requirement of the legal act of marriage, and hence their entry into the room must be observed by the two witnesses of the marriage. Food and drink is placed in the room so that the bride and groom may break their fast whilst they share this private interlude before rejoining the wedding guests to celebrate their marriage.
The festive meal is preceded by ritual washing of the hands, and the blessing over bread. Everyone joins in dancing around the bride and groom. The dancing, in accordance with Jewish law, requires a separation between men and women for reasons of modesty, and hence at Orthodox weddings there is a mechitzah, or partition, between the men and women.
The main focus of the dancing is to entertain and enhance the joy of the newlyweds. Large circles are formed around the ‘king and queen’, and different guests often perform in front of the seated couple. It is not unusual to see jugglers, fire-eaters and acrobats at a wedding (most of whom are guests, not professionals!) The meal ends with the Birkat Hamazon, Grace After Meals, and again the seven blessings are recited over wine, shared afterwards by the bride and groom.
LINKS to Other Sites and Pages about Jewish Marriage
Judaism 101: Marriage
Ohr Somayach: The Jewish Wedding Ceremony
Aish HaTorah: Guide to the Jewish Wedding
Ahavat Israel: Jewish Wedding
Aish haTorah: Guide to the Jewish Wedding
Aish haTorah: Here Comes the Bride … No Stress in Sight
Being Jewish: Jewish Weddings
Being Jewish: About the Jewish Marital Laws
Eliezer Segal: The Path of Life – Marriage
Jewish National & University Library: Ketubot Data Base
Judaism 101: Marriage
Jewish Agency: The Jewish Attitude to Marriage – the View from Bereishit [Genesis]
Jewish Agency: The marriage as ceremony – examining the ritual
Jewish Bride: The Customs & Traditions of Jewish Weddings
Jewish Virtual Library: Marriage in Judaism