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Jewish Marriage

Marriage is considered a natural and desirable state of adult life because it provides companionship and security. This depends, of course, upon a good match. Tradition acknowledges how difficult such a match is to find. The Talmud recounts the story of Rabbi Yosi, who was approached by a Roman matron who asked him, “You say that your God created the universe. And what has your God been doing since then?”

“God has been occupied making matches,” Rabbi Yosi replied.

“Making matches? Is that all? Why anyone can do that!” And to prove her point, the Roman matron quickly returned home and lined up all her male and female servants, pairing them up and marrying them off.

The following morning, two servants knocked on her door, beaten and bruised, and complained, “I do not want the spouse you assigned me.”

The Roman matron thereupon summoned Rabbi Yosi and conceded that matchmaking is, indeed, a complex task worthy of the Creator of the universe.

Tradition also entertains the thought that good matches are beshert (destined, or designed in heaven). The Talmud goes so far as to say that forty days prior to the birth of a child, a heavenly voice proclaims: “The daughter of So-and-So will marry the son of So-and-So.”

Most of us, however, do not depend upon heaven to select our mates, but rather take measures to insure that the match is a good and positive one. In generations past, parents often relied on the services of a shadchan (matchmaker) to bring their child a proper spouse. Few engage the services of a professional shadchan these days, but many rely on introductions from trusted friends and relatives. Once the match is made, preparations for the wedding begin. Below is a brief summary of some of the customs and rituals associated with marriage. This is by no means a complete description.

Legal Aspects

Originally, a Jewish marriage was enacted in two stages: Kiddushin (betrothal) and Nisu’in (marriage). Through the Talmudic period, these two stages, each with its own ceremony, were generally held one year apart; by the Middle Ages, they had been combined, as they are today. According to the Mishnah, a Jewish marriage is a legal contract and may be contracted in any of three ways: (1) with money (as when a man hands a woman an object of value for the purpose of contracted marriage, and in the presence of two witnesses, and she accepts); (2) through a written contract; (3) or by sexual intercourse, a method strongly discouraged by the Sages.

In Jewish tradition, a marriage is termed Kiddushin which connotes that the husband and wife are sanctified to one another and enjoy an exclusive relationship. This relationship also has legal ramifications. The actual marriage ceremony is originally kinyanone of acquisition, modeled on the transfer of property in the ancient world. In the case of marriage, the woman accepts a ring — or some other token — from the man, and thereby accepts the terms of the marriage. A ketubah (marriage contract, which will be explained more fully below) is read during the ceremony. Witnesses are required not required for the signing of the ketubah but they are required for the kinyan ceremony. In the United States, when a rabbi officiates at a wedding, it is de facto a legal wedding by the law of the United States, as well; therefore, a rabbi cannot officiate for you without a civil license.

Kiddushin is a ceremony which takes place between two Jews. Most rabbis will not officiate at a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew because it is outside the realm of Jewish traditional practice.

Prior to the Wedding

Prior to the wedding ceremony, there are a number of traditions which are practiced. These vary from community to community.

In traditional communities, Te’naim (conditions for the marriage) are drawn up and signed at a ceremony prior to the wedding. Te’naim constitute a mutual agreement between the parents of the prospective bride and groom concerning the date and financial arrangements of the marriage. The drawing up of Te’naimdates back to the third century of the Common Era and serves both to discourage disorganized arrangements as well as misunderstandings which can lead to hurt feelings and strained family relationships. The ceremony at which the Te’naim are signed often serves as an engagement party for the couple and their parents. Te’naim are signed primarily in Orthodox communities these days and one wonders if it is a custom that might be beneficial to more people, given the level complication associated with weddings in our generation.

Prior to the wedding, the couple should set a date with the rabbi who will officiate and plan to meet several times with him/her. The rabbi will instruct and counsel the couple as they prepare for their wedding day.

Jewish marriages do not take place on Shabbat, festivals or the High Holy Days, because “one does not mix one occasion of rejoicing with another.” In other words, we preserve the integrity of each happy occasion to the fullest by keeping them separate. (Weddings may be held on Chanukah and Purim, however, because they are not defined as a “simchah.”) Similarly, a wedding is not traditionally held on days of public mourning either, for the overriding mood of such days would diminish the joy of the wedding. This includes Tisha B’Av, the fast of Gedaliah, the tenth of Tevet, the fast of Esther, the seventeenth of Tammuz,the period between Pesach and Shavuot, and the three weeks from the seventeenth of Tammuz until Tisha B’Av. The one exception is the thirty-third day in the Counting of the Omer (the period from Pesach through Shavuot), during which time weddings are permitted. This is an especially popular time to get married in Israel.

A wedding may take place in the synagogue, in a home, or outside. There is a tradition of celebrating a wedding outside under the stars, which serve as a reminder of God’s promise to Abraham that his progeny would be as numerous as “the stars of heaven.” In addition, Tuesday is considered an especially auspicious day because in the account of Creation (Genesis, chapter 1), we read ki tov (“it is good”) twice on the third day.

On the Shabbat prior to the wedding, the couple is invited for an aliyah when the Torah is read. This is called an Aufruf, and serves to announced the forthcoming marriage to the community and permit everyone to wish the couple mazel tov. In Ashkenazic communities, the occasion of the Aufruf further permitted anyone with information concerning impediments to the validity of the marriage to voice them. In Sephardic communities, the Aufruf was celebrated with the throwing of nuts and candy.

It is traditional for the bride to visit the mikveh prior to the wedding. The mikveh, which is associated with the laws of family purity in traditional communities, is also used to mark changes of status.

The bride and groom do not see one another on the day of the wedding prior to the ceremony. They fast on this day, by custom, from dawn until the chupah ceremony is completed, both as an atonement for sins (this being an appropriate time for spiritual self-examination) and because of the serious nature of the commitment in which they are about to enter. If the marriage takes place on a day of public celebration (Rosh Chodesh, Chanukah, Tu B’Shevat, or Purim) then the fast is suspended.

The Wedding

The Jewish wedding ceremony takes place under a chupah (wedding canopy) which symbolizes the home the couple will make together. A chupah may be made from a tallit or any piece of decorated fabric. Some congregations maintain their own chupah. The chupah may be held up by poles which are held by friends during the ceremony (a nice way to involve beloved friends in your wedding ceremony) or it may be free-standing.

Immediately prior the chupah ceremony, the couples signs a ketubah. Traditionally, a ketubah is a legal lien on the husband’s property which he gives his wife-to-be in the case of his death or their divorce, to ensure her maintenance and well-being. The wording of the traditional text of the ketubah, which is written in Aramaic, is fairly standardized, but there are options in it which a woman can negotiate. The traditional ketubah is signed by the man, read under the chupah, and given immediately thereafter to the woman; it belongs to her. There are many modern texts in circulation, and a great many artists who prepare custom-made ketubot for couples. In addition, there are many beautiful printed ketubot which may be used. In either case, the ketubah must be signed by two Jewish witnesses, neither of whom is related to either the husband or wife. It is a great honor to be asked to sign a ketubah. The ketubah is read under the chupah.

Bedeken is the ceremony prior to the chupah when the husband-to-be lifts the veil of his bride-to-be to “check” to be sure it is the woman he intends to marry, and then replaces her veil, reciting the blessing “Our sister, may you be the mother of thousands of ten thousands” (Genesis 24:60), words first uttered by Rebecca’s mother and brother to her as she left her home to marry Isaac. The purpose for this ceremony is often explained by referring to the story of Jacob, whose father-in-law substituted Leah for Rachel when he married. The husband-to-be is “checking” to be sure that he is marrying “Rachel” and not “Leah.” Not all couples have a bedeken ceremony; many are uncomfortable with its tone and meaning.

The groom arrives at the chupah first and there greets his bride. The bride is escorted to the chupah by shoshvinim (escorts). Long ago, the fathers of the bride and groom escorted the groom, and the mothers of the bride and groom escorted the bride. Today, more often you will see the groom’s parents escorting him and the bride’s parents escorting her to the chupah. (Then who escorted Adam and Eve to their chupah? The Sages imagined that angels escorted the first couple to their wedding chupah!) However, in cases where the parents of the couple being married are divorced and are not comfortable escorting their offspring together, it may be best to resort to the traditional configuration of the fathers escorting the groom and the mothers escorting the bride.

When the bride reaches the chupah, there is a tradition (not required by halakhah) that she circles around the groom either three or seven times. The origin and purpose of this ritual is not known, but explanations abound nonetheless. Some say that it symbolizes her protective care of her husband. Others say that it symbolizes that he is the center of her life from now on. Many are bothered by the unevenness of the ritual and have either made it egalitarian (each circles the other) or eliminated it altogether.

The marriage ceremony includes the blessing over wine and Birchat Erusin (the betrothal benediction). The rings are then presented, and the formula ofkiddushin pronounced. By tradition, the wedding band should be a simple gold band without any stones or designs which would obscure its value. (The wedding is, essentially, a legal ceremony and as such, everything should be open and honest.) The ketubah is then read to the assembled congregation, which must constitute a minyan. Following this, the Sheva Berachot (seven wedding benedictions) which are about the joys of marriage. The rabbi may deliver an address to the couple. The ceremony ends with the groom, or both the bride and groom, breaking a glass which has been wrapped in a cloth to prevent the fragments from hurting anyone. There are many explanations for the breaking of the glass, ranging from remembrance of the Destruction of the Temple (that is, even at our times of greatest joy, we remember our communal sadness) to the number of pieces into which the glass is shattered equals the number of years of happiness the couple will enjoy together. Some derive the custom from medieval superstitions about warding off evil spirits, but there is no basis for this. What is clear is that this is the high point of the ceremony, a moment everyone looks forward to, and it provides a release of tension.

After the Wedding

Immediately following the chupah ceremony, it is traditional for the couple to enjoy some time together alone. This is called yichud and long ago it was an opportunity to consummate the marriage. Today, it serves to give the couple some breathing space before they greet their guests and celebrate their wedding publicly. A room set aside for the couple for at least ten or fifteen minutes, with some food for them to break their fast, can be easily arranged.

A reception follows yichud. The first meal enjoyed by the couple together, along with their family and friends, is called Se’udat Mitzvah (a meal in fulfillment of a commandment) and serves to permit the community to entertain the bride and groom and make them happy. On a religious level, each couple is another first couple — Adam and Eve — and hence the community assembled is celebrating not only this wedding, but the primordial wedding of the primordial couple. The bride is a queen on this day; the groom is a king. The community waits on them, feeds them, entertains them.

In some communities, the couple is wined-and-dined for a the week following their wedding, invited to a different home each night at which the Sheva Berachotare recited and their wedding is celebrated.

The bride and groom will most likely have many questions regarding the Jewish wedding. We encourage a meeting with a member of our Ritual Committee take place where both families are present.