Jewish Wedding Customs: Guide

Rituals & Customs

There are a number of rituals taking place in the weeks leading up to a wedding. A Jewish wedding is a great cause for celebration, and although there are many laws and traditions associated with the wedding day itself. 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. However most of our clients tend to be secular Jews, who find their partners on JDate, in bars, clubs, at university, work or friends weddings!

Jewish wedding don’t have a specific traditional dress. Usually men will wear black tie or morning suit, while women will wear a white wedding dress – however, religious background will often dictate the type of outfit worn, with Orthodox women dressing more modestly.
The dawning wedding day heralds the happiest and holiest day of a couple’s life. This day is considered a personal Yom Kippur for the Chatan (Hebrew for groom) and Kallah (bride), for on this day all their past mistakes are forgiven as they merge into a new, complete soul. As on Yom Kippur, both the Chatan and Kallah fast but in this case, from dawn until after the completion of the marriage ceremony.

The rituals associated with Jewish weddings begin as soon as a couple are engaged, with a ceremony known as a Vort. 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. In the course of this celebration, non-written assurances are received from the parties, in which they pledge to go through with the marriage. The more formal written agreement regarding the marriage and the conditions attached thereto, known as the Tena’im, are formalized on the day of the wedding itself.

Choosing the Wedding Date

The wedding itself can be held on any day of the week apart from during the Jewish Shabbat (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. In the UK, Sunday is the most popular day for Jewish weddings to be held, or on Saturday night after Shabbat in the winter when the Sabbath ends early. Ultra-Orthodox couples often hold ceremonies on weekdays.

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.

The wedding invitation may be a two-sided text. The left side of the text will be in Hebrew and the right side in English. The Jewish invitation often does not “request the honour of your presence” but to “dance at” or to “share in the joy of”.

The Traditions Just Before the Wedding

The week before the wedding is an exciting time. A special ceremony is arranged for the groom known as an Aufruf. This involves him going to synagogue and taking an active part in the Shabbat service, 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, and then a private celebratory lunch for the respective families.

The bride will often visit a 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 – but most are modern and up to the standard of health clubs. In order to properly fulfil 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, as in other religions this practise is less common these days.

The Chuppah

Jews are traditionally married underneath a special canopy known as a Chuppah, which symbolises the home that the couple will share. The ceremony used to take place outdoors, but nowadays it is more common for the ceremony to be held indoors to avoid any problems with the weather, although many Orthodox Jews 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 Chuppah 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.

The Ceremony

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 marriage document, called a Ketuba, is a contract, written in Aramaic, which outlines the bridegroom’s responsibility for and to the bride. The signing is done prior to the main ceremony and is in the presence of two witnesses and the officiator of the service. In religious circles this part of the ceremony is called the Tisch where the groom and his male guests sing and drink whiskey to get things going.

After the signing there is a ceremony known as Bedecken (veiling). This is a ritual based on a tradition which requires that the groom see the bride before the ceremony and cover her face with the veil. This custom dates back to the Biblical episode in which Jacob was deceived into marrying Leah instead of his chosen bride, Rachel, because she was hidden behind the veil.

There is no rule as to what music can and cannot be played during the ceremony. 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 Chuppah, 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 Chuppah will walk round the bridegroom seven times.This is often very funny to watch when the bride has a particularly large dress and it gets entangled around the groom’s ankles!

The number seven is very significant in Jewish weddings – seven blessings (Sheva Brachot) are recited during the ceremony by seven honoured guests, and also during the 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.

There is a tradition to throw dinner parties for the new couple each night during the week following the wedding. At the end of each of these meals, after Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals), Sheva Brachot are also recited. In fact, these meals themselves are popularly referred to as Sheva Brachot.

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 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 of the 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. 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.

Immediately after the Chuppah, the bride and groom proceed to the Yichud (seclusion) room, where they spend a few minutes alone. Jewish marriage is comprised of two stages, and there are certain Halachic authorities who maintain that the final stage, the marriage, is not finalized until the groom takes his bride to a private area where they spend some personal time together.

The couple remain secluded in the room for at least six minutes. The Chuppah witnesses must ascertain that there is no one in the room besides for the bride and groom, and observe the door being shut and locked. They then wait outside the room for the aforementioned amount of time.

Inside the room, the couple breaks their wedding day fast. It is also a time when the bride and groom can exchange gifts. The bride also dons all her jewellery which she removed before the Chuppah.

As with all communities and religions, Jews like to take photographs of family groups, and often this is done between the ceremony and the wedding party.

(Seudah)The Festive Meal

The meal is begun with a blessing over a wedding challah (a large braided loaf of egg-rich bread). The wedding celebration is full of lively Israeli folk music creating involvement of people rather than couples. The music need not only be Jewish music, but whatever it takes to encourage the crowd to celebrate. It is a mitzvah (act of kindness) for guests to bring simcha (joy) to the couple on their wedding day. There is much music and dancing and some guests entertain with feats of juggling and acrobatics.

The “Hora,” or traditional dance of celebration when the bride and groom are lifted in chairs on the shoulders of their guests happens when things get really noisy. Sometimes the couple will be whirled around each other, holding the ends of a handkerchief or they may be paraded around the room.

In the Jewish tradition, a wedding meal should be Kosher with no pork or shellfish, and meat and dairy products not served at the same meal. After the meal, Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) is recited, and the Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings) are repeated.

Hayley Lehmann is a Wedding Photographer Professional Wedding Photographer and School Photography.