Helping Holiness Happen
In a marriage ceremony, how does holiness happen? So much can get in the way: aggressive photographers, clergy who take center stage instead of helping you experience transformation there, family quarrels, often there is the experience of pure anxiety about anything from commitment itself to whether you can pull all the details together. Kodesh, "holiness", also termed rukhaniyut, "spirtuality", is the missing element in many life cycle rituals. I believe it is what leads couples to eschew the justice of the peace process and seek out clergy. How can you help the holiness to happen?
Journal from the Journey
Will people accustomed to witnessing weddings, rather than participating, raise their voices in blessing and song? Rabbi Shefa Gold tells those gathered it is our heart-felt desire for them to help us unite in marriage by chanting a verse from the Song of Songs for which she will teach a simple chant she has composed: kol dodi hinei zeh bah - "The Voice of My Beloved, Here It Comes." Oh how wonderful to take in the holy sound of our families and friends together. Their faces around us are the most wonderful decor a wedding could have, which is fortunate since the center pieces and decorations haven't arrived. [and never do.]
We begin walking through the circle of sacred sound toward each
other, dimly aware of being outdoors surrounded by cool breezes amidst
warm autumn colors. It is the moment of bedeken,
"unveiling". Neither of us is wearing a physical veil, the
symbol of the male coming to make sure he is acquiring the right
female and not in a ruse, as happened with Jacob in Genesis 29:23 when
he was tricked into marrying Leah, the elder sister of his beloved
A chant to help us remove the veils of our roles begins. Those gathered pick it up and join in easily. Aneini Yah Elohai, ha-meir eynai, "Answer me, oh my God, enlighten my eyes." Weeks before she had instructed Barry and I to begin to make lists of the roles we have in life, this was one of many stages of spiritual preparation that made it possible for us to arrive at the huppah open and joyful and able to shrug off details like the painstaking planned and now missing decor.
We begin chanting softly, drop our focus on each other and let the chant become a prayer, our eyes turn inward. I hear Barry whisper the first role on his list, "doctor" and I look up into his eyes. Out through the portal of that loaded role word pour an ocean of meaning and memories, some shared, many from before we ever met. I move my hands as though lifting a veil from his face and his role as a physician and psychotherapist are lifted on wings of chant. There are many more levels of Barry beneath, some will take years to discover, this is a good beginning.
I whisper, "rabbi" and the word
hovers so rich in meaning and implications for our life together, its
weight in our public conduct and demands upon our time. Internally I
gently unhook the feeling of rabbi and quickly feel lighter, facing
him as more me than "it." He lifts the veil of rabbi, we continue on
the wings of chant, becoming lighter and lighter "mother", "father",
"author", "gardener", "feminist", "critic", "detail person",
"American", "South African", "woman", "man", etc." Each a veil over
our core selves; 'til no more words or veils need be lifted, we stand as shimmering,
golden souls. No words can describe the remarkable sense of ourselves as
beings of pure flickering light.
Behind this list of terms is a world of spiritual beauty which it is helpful to study in order to be fully able to appreciate the power and mystery of the Jewish wedding. Beyond these basic elements are many magnificent ritual, liturgical and mystical options and elaborations for wedding preparation, as well as for the wedding itself.
The journey toward the wedding day can become a spiritual process which fortifies the future of the relationship while opening hearts and preparing souls for the experience of unification. In this chapter we will look a bit more historically at the basic elements of the standard, inherited Jewish wedding model and then explore spiritual enhancements drawn from perspectives as diverse and sometimes overlapping, as those of the Hassidic, feminist, denominational, gay and lesbian communities.
The Basic Model
Even the wedding canopy itself only seems to go back to our sojourn under Greek civilization and may descend from a pavilion practice which symbolized the bride's transfer from the home of her father to that of her husband. Somewhat prior to that huppah probably meant the symbolic act of a single woman entering into a single man's tent/home was indicative of their formal coupledom.
Creating the Support You Need
These shomrim have another vital role to play. S/he will witness the first step of the ritual of rebirth, immersion in a body of mikveh mayyim, living waters. Just like a womb, this pre-wedding practice when done in a place that respects its spiritual potential, can be an experience of transformation and preparation for being joined with one's beloved. Mikveh is also a great place to release inner tension and re-center during a time when privacy is otherwise quite difficulty to come by.
Spiritual and Egalitarian Customizing Options
For this time of entry, Rabbi Shefa Gold graced the group with yet
another of her renewals of traditional liturgy. Usually in masculine form,
the ritual officiant proclaims baruh ha ba b'shem Adonai,
"Blessed is he who enters in the name of God. Now this verse means a
lot to me, as it invokes the most sacred written and unpronounceable name
of God, you can see it in the center circle on the cover of this book.
This name, as we will study in greater depth in, I hope you will excuse
the expression, the God Chapter, is a form of the verb "be" that
gives a sense of God as evolving. What a perfect God metaphor for a life
cycle ritual which highlights the unfolding of two humans and whom they
are becoming. Shefa has reworded this verse and its intentions for
inclusivity, you can find a connection to her recorded versions on
I encourage you to study each verse with your life partner talk and to
about what it means to each of you. During a wedding, each of you takes a
turn reciting what follows after placing the ring on your partner's index
finger, and afterward it is transferred to the wedding ring finger:
The Historical Model
The three ancient formal components of a Jewish wedding still peek through the rituals of today. Shidduhim, the making of a shidduh, a "match", today refers to all the various ways of helping someone search for their beshert, "intended." In times gone by, establishing the beshert resulted as in a pre-marital contract of commitment, which, in some regions and periods of history, was established from birth. Such a contract would contain things such as withdrawal penalties and statements assigning obligations on the part of the families and partners. While such formal shidduhim exist in a small part of the spectrum today, help in finding a beshert is something everyone can offer to friends and family.
For reasons of companionship and progeny, marriage is fully encouraged in Judaism. However, it is not required. The Torah specifically uses the term "if" a person marries, not "when". It is interesting to note that the re-emergence of pre-nuptial agreements may well have authentic roots either in early shidduh contracts, or the betrothal practice called tanaiim, "dependent" clauses of understanding written a signed as part of the marriage year process. We'll reclaim a strong spiritual connection to this practice later in the chapter.
Following the shidduh, is eirusin, a "betrothal" ritual. Eirusin was once a ritual performed as much as twelve months before a couple would live together and did not involve huppah. Eirusin consists of a betrothal blessing which stipulates outside relationships that are now forbidden to them, and the blessings said over a cup of wine, the giving from the man to the woman of an object valued at the worth of an ancient currency called a perutah (today usually a solid gold band) and the man's saying: hah-rey at m'kudeshet li b'tah-bah-aht zo k'dat Mosheh v'Yisrael, "Behold you are made holy to me with this symbol according to the laws of Moses and Israel."
Perhaps a year or less after the betrothal ritual, then the Jewish wedding process would be completed under a huppah with a ritual called nessuin. Now there would be chanted seven blessings for the joy of having been created, and wishes for happiness, prosperity, progeny, connection to Zion, deeds of lovingkindness and community. (Visit Anita Diamant's excellent New Jewish Wedding Book for diverse translations and interpretations.) Then the couple would be sent off for their presumed first experience of being alone together ever for any amount of time at all, termed yihud, "unity".
Later, the Talmud records, the breaking of a glass was added, originally intended to startle some overly celebratory guests. Despite this explanation, many speculate this practice may have had origins as diverse as the common model for sealing of an oath by breaking a glass in the fireplace, the anticipated breaking of the hymen, or Jewish sources also suggest it is a way of adding a tincture of appropriate sadness to all rituals since the destruction of the Temple.
As the centuries have progressed, eirusin and nessuin
became one unified wedding ritual. Psalm verses and songs that can be sung
during the ceremony have been added, as it is customary to embroider a mitzvah
with beautiful song, clothes, delicious food, etc. In some communities an
intellectually interesting homily, or meaningful story from a guest or
clergy person is also offered at the time of the huppah ritual.
The wedding contract is now known as a ketubah and is signed on the wedding day either publicly, or privately and then held aloft and read aloud during the wedding ritual. This requires the signature of two independent Jewish witnesses (guests or clergy, not immediate family). A ketubah generally comprises halahic, Jewish "legal" phrases, formal Hebrew names and specifies the city and country where the ritual was help. Ketubot often contain language stipulating the couples' philosophical orientation and even duties in creating a home together.
Different templates for ketubot abound within the various denominations and couples need to review and select among them in advance to ensure that the ketubah chosen will reflect what the pair really intend to contract for with each other, or alternatively, to commission a professional ketubah artist. In my experience, the Hebrew, or the more traditional Aramaic on pre-printed ketubot do not always match the translations that appear on them as well. Have a qualified Hebrew reader review the ketubah to which you are drawn, to ensure its accuracy. Depending on your part of the spectrum, it will also be important to obtain rabbinic consultation regarding content issues so that your ketubah will be considered valid within your religious community.
It is not presently possible to use a ketubah to create an intermarriage or same sex marriage that will be regarded as valid throughout the entire spectrum of Judaism. Still, the creation of a contract of marriage can be a valuable process to undertake as a creative spiritual process. Civil marriage documents must also be filed, this are binding for conventional as well as intermarriages. States vary on this matter regarding same sex marriages, check with your state authorities to be certain of your legal standing. Proxies for health care and financial decisions are essential additions in some states and countries to ensure that a same sex partner will have the rights automatically assigned when a woman and man marry each other.
Do you want to have a Tisch?
Some follow a tradition of the person about to be married giving a scholarly teaching at this time. Roasting is common, and some communities interrupt the person's very serious, planned teaching with folk songs that pick up in a silly way on the theme of their "scholarly" lecture. This all becomes a time of loosening up after travel, of tightening the circle of intimacy, of sharing stories that bind together this kehillah, "community" of the moment in shared history.
1. Appoint an trusty friend or relative as organizer for each tisch. Their job is to make sure the room set-up is finalized, to pre-seed shills in the audience who are prepared to speak, and work with or be song-meisters to punctuate the experience with joyful and humorous song.
2. Plan an hour for this, fifteen minutes for folks to hang up their coats, find the right room, get settled, half an hour for the festivities, and fifteen minutes for them to move on to the next ritual space and those being feted to re-center.
3. Alternatively, you might do as we did, and interrupt the wedding reception with a pair of friends who climb on stage to MC a roasting/testimony to you as individuals and a couple. This is a good time to take a page from the lives of our Russian friends, invite everyone to formulate a toast and offer it, along with a bit of a story or a blessing. If too many people cue up, alternate dancing and sharing.
4. Provide name tags, color-coded for your friends and which side of
the family. Many more people will talk to each other more freely when the
initial barrier and embarrassment of establishing identification has been
Nothing disrupts well-laid plans like the family frictions that inevitably surround life-cycle events. Whenever possible, I gather the inner circle of the wedding family together in one of their hotel rooms before the formal proceedings and say:
It may also be that some of your family members decided not to attend the wedding. This ritual is a good place to speak as though that person is present. To say how you feel, what you wish, and to bless that person to evolve on their issue or problem.
One of the mystical names for God is Ma'yan Raz, "Well of Mystery." Let the mystical process of this ritual lift the weight of your hurt such that you can enter this special day with a fully open heart and soul, wishing only joy to come to this new couple about to be blessed under the huppah.