Jewish Weddings: Yesterday vs. Today

A traditional Jewish wedding is full of meaningful rituals, symbolizing the beauty of the relationship of husband and wife, as well as their obligations to each other and to their Jewish heritage. These practices have given Jewish weddings the reputation for being particularly great, which is why we weren’t surprised to learn that many non-Jews (hello Cameron Diaz and Benji Madden) are including elements of Jewish marriage ceremonies into their own.

That being said, in the midst wedding planning chaos, it’s easy to lose sight of the beauty behind these customs and feel overwhelmed by the various rituals and symbols that define a Jewish ceremony. As these traditions have evolved from their ancient roots, so has the many ways that modern day couples choose to incorporate them. With wedding season in full swing, we thought it fitting to remind ourselves and the soon-to-be brides and grooms out there what traditionally comprised a Jewish wedding in the past and how couples are bringing the trend forward today.

The Bride’s Reception

Traditional Jewish weddings begin with simultaneous and separate celebrations for the bride and groom. The bride’s celebration is one where she is surrounded and honored by family and friends, many of whom spend the time both wishing her well and sharing their advice for a happy marriage.

Many reform-leaning brides do not incorporate the traditional pre-bridal reception, but rather opt for having their wedding party plan a bachelorette event many months before the ceremony. Many Jewish brides also have bridal showers, which, echoing the bride’s reception, is another opportunity for those invited to share their marriage best practices. Either way, the essence of the tradition of a bride being celebrated by those close to her remains intact. It is also worth mentioning that while historically only the groom consumed alcohol prior to his wedding ceremony, today’s modern brides are joining the cocktail bandwagon as well (thank goodness!)

The Tish

While the bride is being celebrated, the groom is among his male family, friends and the rabbi, partaking in food, drink and toasting. During the ceremony, the groom gives a speech based on religious text, but his guests interrupt and heckle him (all in good fun of course) to ensure that he doesn’t say something that may bring shame during such a joyous occasion.

Many of the elements of the tish have been incorporated into bachelor parties which — like bachelorette parties — are an opportunity for the groom to celebrate with his closest male friends and family prior to the wedding. The activities that take part during these parties usually stay with the groom’s friends, but it is likely that sharing embarrassing memories from the past and toasting to the future are part of the event.

The Ketubah Signing

More observant communities uphold the tradition that the groom and rabbi review and sign the ketubah (or marriage contract) along with two male (non-family) witnesses. This is done prior to the wedding ceremony. Technically speaking, once the ketubah is signed the couple is married under Jewish law, meaning that the ceremony is just that (though we don’t know anyone who has simply signed a ketubah and called themselves wed). The wording for traditional ketubahs are generally in Hebrew or Aramaic.

Reform and Conservative Jews, or even those who are more cultural Jews, continue to take part in the ketubah ceremony but include the bride’s signature and allow for both men and women to be witnesses on the contract. The wording may include English and can be modified to be more personal to the couple. Thankfully, the art of Ketubah design has become a sought-after industry, with many artists handcrafting these beautiful contracts into pieces of art that new couples prominently display in their homes.

The B’deken

The B’deken is a ceremony based on the biblical story in which Jacob did not see his bride’s face beforehand and was tricked into marrying the wrong sister, Leah. To ensure this doesn’t happen, the B’deken, or veiling ceremony, allows the groom to lower the veil over the Bride’s face prior to the ceremony.

Many couples, both observant and not, continue to incorporate the B’deken ceremony into their pre-wedding rituals. The personal contact between bride and groom is the first step in declaring their new life as a couple and is truly an emotional moment that sets the Jewish customs apart from others. Many times, this ritual is added into the ketubah signing ceremony where family, the wedding party and others are able to be in the room with the couple.

The Chuppah

The Chuppah dates back to nomadic days of the Jews, creating an intimate, sanctified space that simulated the home that the couple would share together. Traditionally, the chuppah is not an ornate piece or focal point of the ceremony, but is often a white sheet or talit that is held together by four poles.

Today, the chuppah has become an amazing opportunity for couples to personalize their ceremony and infuse their aesthetic taste into an ancient tradition – ranging from the handmade DIY style to more formal floral arrangements.

Circling

When the couple first enters the chuppah at the start of the ceremony, it is tradition for the bride to circle the groom seven times, representing the seven wedding blessings and seven days of creation – thereby implying and showing the guests that the groom is now the center of her world.

Many couples who want to maintain circling as a way to begin the ceremony have opted for a more egalitarian approach: the bride circles the groom, the groom circles the bride and then they circle one another together showing that they are partners in life from this point forward.

The Kiddushin

Finally, we’re onto the *actual* ceremony! The traditional Jewish ceremony begins with greetings, a blessing over the wine, sips taken by the bride and groom, the rings and the sharing of phrases – usually in Aramaic or biblical verses.

Today’s couples often choose to recite their own vows (in English) in addition to stating the traditional prayers. Another approach we like, especially for those who aren’t much for public speaking, is for the rabbi or cantor to ask the bride and groom before the ceremony what attracted them to the other person. The rabbi or cantor then reads the responses to the couple and the guests, which is a beautiful and personal touch to the more traditional elements of the ceremony.

The Sheva B’rachot (Seven Blessings)

The Seven Blessings consist of praise for God, a prayer for peace in Jerusalem and good wishes for the couple.

While these blessings are traditionally stated by a rabbi or sung by a cantor, many couples have updated this custom by selecting family and friends to recite the blessings (in English) or rewrite their own blessings that they have guests recite to make the wishes closer to their lives and future together.

Breaking the Glass

The most iconic ritual of them all and one of our faves: the breaking of the glass. While the origin of this ritual varies from person to person, it is generally agreed that it represents the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Breaking the glass continues to be a favorable element of the Jewish wedding and the chance for everyone to celebrate with a “Mazel Tov!” but its symbolism has evolved to the perspective that it is a reminder that human relationships are fragile and marriage changes individuals forever.

We’ve seen people do a lot of creative things when it comes to breaking the glass. Some couples choose to break the glass together (while traditionally it’s the groom’s task) other couples sub a traditional glass for something else breakable and meaningful to them (a friend who loves Crown Royal chose to use this to break the glass — it was quite the crowd pleaser for those on the inside).

The Yihud

The Yihud is a time immediately following the ceremony for the new couple to celebrate their partnership together. In ancient times, the bride and groom would retreat to a tent to “solidify” their relationship (if you know what we mean).

While many people joke that this continues to be the purpose of Yihud, it truly is a time for the couple, who have gone through months of planning and a day of chaos, to stop, reflect and be together. For this reason, many couples continue to take this time for themselves between the ceremony and the party.

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