by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2004-05-16
A Jewish wedding is one of the cornerstones of the Jewish life cycle and as with all religions, is a great cause for celebration. Although there are many laws and traditions associated with the wedding itself, other rituals take place in the weeks leading up to the big day.
In the past, it was common for Jewish marriages to be arranged by the parents, with the help of a match-maker, known as a Yenta, and some ultra-Orthodox communities still follow this practice today. Even though the union was arranged, the man still had to ask the father of the bride-to-be for his daughter's hand in marriage, and to secure the engagement by paying a dowry.
The rituals associated with Jewish weddings begin as soon as a couple are engaged, with a ceremony known as tena'im (terms). It involves breaking a plate to symbolise the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, as a reminder that even in the midst of celebration Jews still feel sadness for their loss. This is a theme that is repeated at the ceremony of itself with the breaking of the glass.
The wedding itself can be held on any day of the week apart from during the Jewish Sabbath, which runs from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday, or on major Jewish festivals such as the Day of Atonement or Jewish New Year (when Jews are required to refrain from work). In the UK, Sunday is the most popular day for Jewish weddings to be held - in countries such as the US it is also common for weddings to be held on Saturday night after the Sabbath (this is more popular in the winter when Sabbath ends early). Ultra-Orthodox couples often hold ceremonies on weekdays.
Date of the wedding
There is no specific time of year when a wedding cannot take place, although many couples tend to avoid the period between the festivals of Passover (Pesach) and Pentecost (Shavuot) which is known as the Omer and is a reflective and sad time in the Jewish calendar. As many people refrain from parties involving music and dancing during this period, it is not considered to be a good time to hold a wedding. However, this is more of an Orthodox tradition.
The week before the wedding is an exciting time. A special ceremony is arranged for the groom known as an Ufruf. This involves him going to the synagogue and taking an active part in the service, as well as announcing the impending wedding to the congregation. Often when the groom is playing his part in the service, members of the congregation will shower him with sweets, (younger members of the community tend to throw harder, in a jovial manner!). Often the service is followed by refreshments in the synagogue (known as a kiddush), where platters of food, drink and wine will be served to congregants.
This is also often followed by a private celebration lunch for the respective families.
The bride, meanwhile, will often visit the ritual bath known as the Mikveh in the week before the wedding, so that she may cleanse herself spiritually and enter marriage in a state of complete purity. Mikvehs vary from country to country - some are up to the standard of health clubs. Men sometimes visit as well in the week before their wedding, but will use separate facilities. In order to properly fulfill the requirements of the mikveh, the woman must remove all jewellery and even nail polish before entering the bath and must fully immerse herself in the water while reciting a special prayer. She will be supervised and assisted during the ritual to ensure it is done correctly.
It is also traditional for the bride and groom not to see each other in the week before the wedding, although as in other religions it is less common these days.
Jews are traditionally married underneath a special canopy known as a chupa, which symbolises the home that the couple will share. The ceremony used to take place outdoors in a field or grounds. Nowadays, it is more common for the ceremony to be held indoors to avoid any problems with the weather, though some people still have the ceremony outdoors. More often than not the ceremony takes place in a synagogue, but there is no rule saying that it must be held in a synagogue - as long as the chupa is present and the ceremony is under a rabbi's supervision it can be held anywhere - these days it is increasingly common to hold Jewish weddings in hotels and other venues.
There is no specific traditional dress for a Jewish wedding. Men will often wear black tie or morning suit, while women usually wear a white wedding dress - however, religious background will often depend on the type of outfit worn, with Orthodox women being more modest.
It is also traditional for the bride and groom to fast on the day of the wedding itself as a symbolic statement. Just as Jews fast on Yom Kippur - the Day Of Atonement - to cleanse themselves of their sins and start afresh - so Jews fast on their wedding day to cleanse themselves of sin and come to their marriage with a clean slate.
Although the ceremony has to be under a rabbi's supervision - as they will be familiar with all the laws and customs of the wedding - it does not necessarily have to be performed by a rabbi, as long as one is present. Most couples opt to have a rabbi conduct the ceremony, although it can be performed by a friend or family member, provided they have the permission of a rabbi.
The ceremony itself begins with the signing of the Ketubah - the Jewish marriage contract which sets out the legal terms of the marriage. The origins of the Ketubah go back to the days of the Sanhedrin - the Jewish Supreme Court - in Jerusalem a few thousand years ago - in order to protect the bride by the terms of her dowry.
The signing is done prior to the main ceremony and is in the presence of four witnesses and the officiator of the service. During the signing of the Ketubah, many men will sign an agreement saying that they will not contest a Get (Jewish divorce) in the event of the couple separating. This is significant for those Jewish women whose husbands refuse to give them a Get, meaning they are unable to remarry.
This is accompanied by a ceremony known as Bedecken (veiling), in which the bridegroom places the veil over the bride's face. This symbolises the groom's intent to clothe and protect his wife, and dates back to Biblical times, when Rebekah covered her face before she married Abraham's son Isaac.
There is no rule as to what music can and cannot be played during the ceremony, although many couples feel uncomfortable playing music by Wagner (such as The Wedding March) due to his anti-Semitic viewpoints and popularity with Germany's Nazi party during the 1930s and 1940s. Most couples opt for traditional Jewish music to be played during the entrance of the bride and after the service - much of this is centuries old.
There is also no firm rule about who escorts the bride to the Chupa, but traditionally it is the bride's father who accompanies her (sometimes both parents will do so). The bride is the last person to enter, and upon reaching the Chupa will walk round the bridegroom several times - this number varies. Some brides walk around their husband-to-be once while more Orthodox brides walk round seven times.
The number seven is significant in the Jewish wedding - seven cups of wine are also drunk during the ceremony and celebrations afterwards. This is because God created the world in seven days and in doing so, the bride is figuratively building the walls of the couple's new home.
During the service, the bride and groom drink the first of the seven cups of wine, and several prayers are said binding the couple together. One of the most important parts is the giving of the ring. The ring itself must belong to the groom - it must not be borrowed - and must be a complete circle without a break, to emphasise the hope for a harmonious marriage, and must be plain without stones or decoration. It is not a requirement for the groom to wear a wedding ring, but many men do. As with other religions, the ring is held by the best man until it is time for the groom to give it to the bride. When the groom gives the bride the ring he recites the following verse: "Behold you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel."
During the ceremony, the officiator of the service, usually the Rabbi, will make a speech about the couple and bless them as they begin their new life together. The service also features a prayer, usually sung by a cantor, about the sadness Jewish people at the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. As with the engagement ceremony, Jews remember that even in their happiness at being married, they still remember this, and the fact that other sad events have happened in Jewish history, and pay respect to those who have suffered.
The ceremony ends with the breaking of a glass by the groom, which is also linked to remembering the destruction of the Temples. Many men joke that the breaking of the glass also symbolises the last time a newly married man will ever be able to put his foot down! Once the glass is broken, congregants will convey their congratulations to the couple.
Afterwards, it is traditional for the newlyweds to spend some time alone together in a special room before greeting their guests. As with all communities and religions, Jews like to film their weddings and take photographs, and often this is done between the ceremony and the wedding party. Sometimes, especially in the case of evening weddings, the official photographs will be taken before the ceremony to make best use of the time available.
Even though some weddings take place in a synagogue, it doesn't mean that the reception will be there as well - often it is at another location such as a function hall or hotel, depending on the budget and needs of the couple, and the number of guests.
Wedding party and catering
The party itself can take a number of different formats, depending on how religious the couple are. Within Orthodox communities, it is likely that men and women will have separate dancing during the event, while other people will allow mixed dancing. When it comes to catering, many people opt for kosher food - however, some people who are not Orthodox or follow Orthodox tradition may have a fish meal or vegetarian meal from a non-kosher caterer. From time to time this can be difficult for some family members or friends who may keep to the dietary laws, and often special individual meals can be brought in for them. However, most couples tend to opt for kosher catering in order to avoid any problems with guests who keep kosher.
Jews fall into two main ethnic camps - Ashkenazi, the Jews of European origin, and Sephardi, Jews of Middle Eastern and Spanish and Portuguese origin - and the traditions of their backgrounds will often influence the style of their wedding and of the catering requirements. Ashkenazi Jews often serve common staple foods such as roast chicken, potatoes and vegetables, as the main course, while Sephardis may have lamb or some spicy chicken with couscous or rice.
Many other aspects of the wedding party are similar to those in other religions - the best man, bridegroom and father of the bride will give speeches, presents will often be given to members of the wedding party, including mothers of the bride and groom and the bridesmaids, and music will be supplied either by a DJ or, more commonly, a band.
Both DJ and band will be expected to play an element of Jewish music - Jewish dancing to traditional songs (known as a Hora) is a big part of the wedding party. More Orthodox Jews will play strictly Jewish music and Jewish themed music, while other Jews will opt for a mixture of different sounds including Jewish music.
Among the religious rituals at the party are the blessing over the Challah bread which is traditionally made before a meal, and the seven blessings which are made to the bride and groom. Often these are given as an honour to seven guests as their way of having some participation in the ceremony.
After the wedding, the bride and groom will go on their honeymoon, their first chance to spend time together as husband and wife.