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Understanding the Jewish Wedding

developed by
Rabbi Goldie Milgram, author of

Reclaiming Judaism as a Spiritual Practice, Meaning and Mitzvah,
& Make Your Own Bar/Bat Mitzvah

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 Rachel.

Shefa requests for silence to be held as Barry and I behold each other. My eyes meet Barry's, his are already awash in feeling, we both want to be here with all our hearts. Shefa explains that there are many veils between people, including the roles we take on in life. She had asked us to make a list of these roles in advance, to privately contemplate the impact our roles have upon our relationship.

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.

There are several basic elements that are present in most Jewish weddings:

- an ufruf, where the impending marriage is blessed up at the Torah during a Shabbat prior to the wedding. During their aliyah often the couple is pelted with candy, suggesting a blessing for a "sweet relationship".
- the day before or morning of the wedding, a private immersion ritual readying of body and soul called mikveh,
- signing of a ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract.
- ritual held under a huppah, the wedding canopy, with opening psalms, a shared cup of wine, the blessings of wine and betrothal, and a vow of holy connection coupled with acceptance of a ring or object of similar value, seven wedding blessings, and the breaking of a wine glass.
- Yikhud, the couple takes a spate of private time together after the wedding ritual and before joining the party.
- The wedding reception, called the seudah shel mitzvah, which is itself a mitzvah to attend, as well as celebrate joyfully to gladden the hearts of the couple.

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
A classic Jewish wedding model is short and simple. It was originally designed to be held outdoors, under the stars, in order to invoke the Abrahamic blessing for having descendants as numerous as the stars. Many elements considered normal to contemporary Western weddings are not authentic Jewish practices, for example, bridesmaids, best man, matron of honor, flower girl, or even the parents and siblings joining the couple under the huppah; you are unlikely to find these in the old engravings and records of Jewish weddings. These practices were brought in due to our emulation of host civilizations and are elective.

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
A delightful practice that can add immensely to your equanimity is that of having a shomer [m] or shomeret [f] at your side throughout the wedding day. Shomer is from the verb to "watch or guard", this is your best friend or the closest person to you other than your intended who it would be a pleasure to have at hand at all times. This person answers the phone and the door, not you. S/he organizes runners for the missing bobby pin or wine glass that gets broken before the ceremony. S/he listens to your fears, witnesses your tears, and fends off difficult family dynamics happening in the wings if at all possible before even wind of it gets near you.

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

Note to the reader: There are specific issues of Jewish law that you will need to have in your wedding documents and ritual for the marriage to count as valid the further right you go in the spectrum of Jewish tradition. What follows are spiritual additions which come from mystical and feminist sources which you might adopt to enhance the impact of your experience.

A Designer Ceremony
Jews don't have the rubric of "will you , Jane, take Randolph as your lawfully wedded husband, etc." A Jewish wedding is a decision to work on living with someone in a context of committed holiness. Desiring a mutuality in our commitment, Barry and I changed several practices significantly and those that follow have proven important to other couples as well:

1. We broke a long stemmed wine glass simultaneously at the end of the ritual and declared that it signified the importance of remembering that with the Temple destroyed, the cruelty of animal sacrifice was ended and an era of finding ever new ways of communicating effectively with God and each other has begun.

2. In some congregations the bride circles the groom three or seven times. Before exchanging vows, we encircled each other seven times, holding the other's ring in the palm of one hand. The Kabbalists see the wedding as an effect happening throughout all of creation as you do it, the ripples effect everything, everywhere. During the year prior to our wedding, we studied the sephirot, spiritual patterns of behavior which you will find discussed in the Holy Day chapter; we adopted these as a spiritual language for our relationship. Each turn represented one of the sephirot, such as lovingkindness, boundaries, containment, cultivation, expression and several more]. Like a havdallah candle, we braided our souls together with each turn, Barry went around me, and then I went around him, our eyes locked in an ever deepening manifestation of our commitment.

3. We held our ketubah signing under the huppah after the eirusin and before the nessuin sections. We consciously called up one female and one male witness to affirm the principle of equality of the genders we believe must be central to a Judaism which understands the evolving nature of justice.
It is considered an honor to read the ketubah aloud at a Jewish wedding, we conferred this honor on my friend and mentor, Rabbi Shohama Wiener and she read it through her remarkable spirit such that the very words danced into the air with meaning. A practical detail of successful ritual is to pre-screen those who will have public roles for the heart and persona dramatis that will most enrich the occasion.

4. We created mutual vows, combining the traditional formulation with an interpretation of a section from Hosea, words often assigned as an optional statement by the woman. This is covered in the next recipe.

5. We re-appropriated an old custom of the bride and groom leading the family and guests in toward the huppah. No giving away of the bride occurred, my parents and Barry's mother, our five children from previous marriages, their partners and our at that time one granddaughter, my soon-to-be four sisters-in-law, all of these followed us in from the unveiling ritual, to take front row, inner-circle of our lives seats and soak in the experience in comfort.

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 ReclaimingJudaism.Org.

Baruh ha bah, bruhah ha ba-ah, n'vareyh et hatan v' kallah.

Blessings on he who comes, blessings on she who comes;
Let us bless the groom and the bride

Baruh ha bah, bruhah ha ba-ah, n'vareih et ha kehillah.
Blessings on he who comes, blessings on she who comes;
Let us bless the community.

6. We used our hot tub for separate private rituals of immersion before dressing and leaving for the wedding hall. In so-doing we each focused our hearts on what needed to be released in order to be fully present to the events of the day. Then we slipped under the water three times, fully, each of us watched by a friend to make sure not even a strand of hair would escape and who inquired of us what it is that might need some talking through in order to be released. (More about mikveh and the blessing for it can be found on pages and .)

7. It is customary to visit the grave of parent(s) if one or both have passed on before one's wedding and to speak your heart to them and ask for their blessing. My parents, thank God, are very much alive, as is Barry's mom. His father died years back and South Africa is a ways to go to communicate with the dead. Barry wrote a letter to his father that he read aloud at a creative Shabbat service held at a friends home for our wedding weekend. He also dedicated the ark this friend made for us as a wedding present, to house our Torah. A sense of receiving his father's blessing pervaded our wedding and I went to his grave to thank him for creating such a fine son when we finally were able to get to South Africa a year later.

8. To give one's new life the best possible chance, it is customary to work on teshuvah, relationship healing, with anyone in your world with whom you feel there is residual or active negative energy. If someone has died and the negativity was not yet resolved, there are prayers to recite a such a person's grave that can lead to healing from this breach. The more teshuvah is done during the engagement year, the more healthy a self and sphere of influence one brings into a marriage. Plus the habit of teshuvah is a great gift in the life of a couple. Jewish South Africans have a Yiddish expression for such frictions, furribles, and we did our best to clear up any we could discern.

Vows of Understanding
For a couple to become hevruta, "study partners" with each other, is a very holy thing. Building upon our study of the traditional wedding vow for a man and the Hosea text sometimes given to women to say in response to the man at weddings, we created the following interpretive vow which has subsequently been selected by many couples' for their ceremonies. The Hosea text is also recited daily by Jews who use tefillin, which is a ritual of commitment to God. I have alter one word of the traditional vow formula - saying minhagei instead of dat, since most Jewish marriages performed today are probably not done within a full Jewish legal framework.

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:

Harai at [F] atah [M] Behold, you are made

m'kudeshset li [F] m'kudash li [M] holy to me

b'tah-ba-at zo through this symbol

k'minhagei am Yisrael. in accordance with the customs of the Jewish people:

V'eirastikh li l'olam I commit myself on every level.

V'eirastikh li b'tzedek I commit to share both challenges and resources

U'v'mishpat To will try my best to be just

U'v'khessed I will flow lovingkindness your way without judgement

U'v'rakhamim I want to hear your pain, your joy, to understand you

v'eirastikh li b'emunah I will be faithful to you

v'yahdaht et Adonai. So that you will know God.

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

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?
No, I'm not referring to marrying a member of the generous Tishman family. Tisch is Yiddish for "table". This is a ritual where, before the formal ceremony, each member of the couple has a separate reception room. There the hors d'oeuvres can be found or light refreshments to stave off hunger pangs before the big reception. In each room one side of the familyand guests gather to tell humorous or remarkable stories about the member of the marrying couple they have known longest and to offer wishes and blessings.

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 set aside.

Forgiving Family Dynamics

          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 is inevitable that some feelings have been hurt during this stressful time leading up to this ritual. You may be holding this somewhere in your body, perhaps it feels like an elephant on your shoulders, a needle in your back, a fist in your heart. This bowl of water represents Miriam's well, and you each are holding her cup of new spiritual energy, pure spring water representing the intention of restoring lovingkindness.

If you have such a painful place please find it. Take your turn sharing in this circle something to the effect that: "It hurt so much when "x", did or said, "y". Or if you have fears that you've hurt someone, say "when I did ��x', I was feeling �y' and hope I didn't ��z'" Then, without anyone responding, take a sip from your Miriam's cup and pour the rest of its contents back into the well.

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.

If it still hurts in a few weeks, initiate a teshuvah conversation about it.  For now, as you speak, sip and pour, your intention might be "I take this hurt and bless it to transform into a chance to learn more about each other, to have a closer, safer family, ever more full of love."

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