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Culture Shock: What Jewish Weddings Typically Entail
Getting married is integral to God’s plan, and this makes it one of the cornerstones of Jewish life, and an event that is greatly celebrated. The wedding day is considered a personal Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement – for the bride and groom, where all past transgressions are forgiven, and you and your partner start life on a clean slate, as a new, complete soul.
Most wedding traditions are consistent among the denominations, but they differ based on the culture and personalities of the couple. If you’re attending your first Jewish wedding, this is your guide to the order of matrimonial events.
This is an event for the kallah, bride, and it’s held on the Shabbat, Saturday, before her wedding. It’s for women only, attended by her friends, family and guests. It’s about having fun and making the bride forget about any stress she may have about her wedding day.
The chassan, groom, also has a special event and it’s on the Shabbat before his wedding. He is called up for an alliyah – the honour of reciting a blessing before and after the Torah reading. When the groom leaves, he’s showered with candy to wish him a sweet, new life.
The mikvah, or ritual bath, is taken within the final four days before the wedding. It’s the bride’s spiritual purification before marriage.
Custom dictates that the bride and groom don’t see each other for the week before they get married. On their wedding day they host a separate kabbalat panim, which is a reception to welcome their guests. On this day, the bride and groom are viewed as queen and king, and they’re treated like royalty.
At the bride’s event she is placed on a special seat, that resembles a throne, and she’s surrounded by her friends, family and guests. It’s typically quite lively, with people dancing as music is played. The groom’s reception is called the tisch and it’s more informal, with his friends and family singing and toasting him. This is also usually when two documents are signed: the tenaim and the ketubah.
This is the Hebrew word for “conditions” and it’s a contract that sets out the terms of the marriage. It’s written in Aramaic, and the honour of reading it aloud is given to a prominent Rabbi, or a close friend. This is followed by the mothers of the bride and groom breaking a plate together, to show the seriousness of the engagement. It’s considered a huge breach of honour to break this arrangement, and so it’s typically signed on the day of the wedding.
This is the marriage contract and it must be signed before the wedding can begin. Historically it detailed the husband’s obligations to his wife, including how she would be supported if he divorced her, or died before she did. A modern ketubah focuses more on love, commitment and the couple’s responsibilities to each other. It’s a beautifully created document that is often framed, like a work of art, and hung up in their new house.
If you follow convention, this is the first time in a week that the couple will be face to face. Badeken means “to cover over” and it’s where the groom pulls a veil over his bride’s head, to signify that he will protect, clothe and provide for her. This custom comes from two stories found in the Bible. The first is when Rebecca veiled herself as she saw her future husband Isaac, and the second is when Jacob was misled and married Leah, instead of Rachel – her sister. The badeken is to make sure he marries the correct woman. In some modern ceremonies the bride will place a wedding kippah, or skullcap, on the groom.
The chuppah is a piece of cloth that is held up on four poles, and it represents the first roof that the couple share. The canopy is open on all sides to show guests that their home is always open. The wedding ceremony takes place under the chuppah, and it happens in two parts: the kiddushin and the nissuin.
The grandparents get seated at the chuppah, with the groom’s family on the left and the bride’s family on the right, but depending on how traditional your wedding is, men and women may be required to sit on opposite sides.
The groomsmen walk down the aisle, followed by the groom, who is escorted by his parents. The bridesmaids, maid of honour, ring bearer and flower girls follow suit, and stand on their side of the chuppah. The bride walks down the aisle with her parents as a canto sings blessings to the couple. The bride will take the final three steps to the chuppah on her own, to indicate her willingness to enter into the marriage.
The number seven is important, as it’s the amount of times Joshua circled Jericho before it fell down. The bride walks around her groom seven times, to symbolise that the wall between them has also fallen down, and then she stands on his right-hand side. During this the groom recites prayers, often to ask that unmarried friends find their true life partners, or to pray for people who are sick.
Speaking in English and Hebrew, the Rabbi recites a blessing over a cup of wine, to preserve the sanctity of family life and the Jewish people. The couple both drink from this cup.
In Jewish law the marriage is official after the groom has given the bride an object of value. It used to be a coin, but in modern times it’s a simple gold ring, without stones or markings. Just like the plain ring, married life should be beautiful and uncomplicated. It’s placed on the index finger of the right hand, as the finger was believed to be closest to the heart, and the right hand was considered the hand of strength. If the groom is getting a ring it happens afterwards, not under the chuppah. The ketubah is now read aloud, and translated from Aramaic, so the bride and groom understand the terms of the marriage contract.
This is the second part of the ceremony, where the sheva brachots, or seven blessings, are recited. This is either done by the Rabbi or seven people the family want to honour, each saying one blessing. A second cup of wine is poured and the couple both drink from it.
Breaking the Glass
Even if you haven’t been to a Jewish wedding, this is the one part of the service that you’ll know about – the breaking of the glass. The best man wraps a glass in a cloth, and puts it under the groom’s right foot, where he stamps on it. This is to remind everyone about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and to reaffirm that joy must always be tempered. When it’s broken the band starts to play and the guests yell mazal tov – good luck! The couple are then declared husband and wife and they share their first married kiss.
The newlyweds are escorted to the yichud, or a privacy room, where they are alone for the first time. Because both bride and groom fast from dawn until they’re married, this is a moment to have a bite to eat, but it’s more significant than that. It’s time to take it all in, catch your breath and share this very personal moment, when the realisation that you’re finally married really sinks in.
Dinner and Dancing
Jewish weddings are quite unique as there is a mitzvah – a commandment – that the guests entertain the newlyweds, and enhance their joy. As dancing and music are major features, guests customarily entertain the couple by performing dances in front of them.
This is also the moment you may recognise from movies, where the seated couple are hoisted into the air, chair and all, in the hora – the popular term for circle dancing. Again, depending on how religious your wedding is, men and woman may dance together, or they could be separated by a mechitzah or partition.
The meal is preceded by ritual hand washing and blessing of the bread, and during dinner there are usually toasts made. The meal ends with the Birkas Hamazon, the Grace after Meals, and the seven blessings are recited once more over wine.
Many traditions in a Jewish wedding are thousands of years old, and they keep the couple grounded, by focusing on their commitment to each other, and to God. But make no mistake, with a happy couple, lively music and excitable guests, the wedding is full of energy, love, celebration, and toasts to L’chaim – to life!