Thoughts on the Wedding Service

This period between Tisha B'Av and Rosh Hashanah is considered as a period of reconciliation between God and the Jewish people following the catastrophes commemorated on the Ninth of Av. The relationship between Israel and God is often depicted by the prophets and the sages as that of two lovers who had temporarily separated, but now were coming back together. The month of Elul that begins in little over a week is called by some “the month of lovers.” The four Hebrew letters of its name, alef, lamed, vav, lamed, are seen as an acronym for the verse from Song of Songs, “Ani l'dodi v'dodi li, I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.” The rabbinic reading of Song of Songs sees the Beloved as none other than the Almighty. This verse is often engraved on wedding rings and many rabbis, including me, have the bride recite it when they present the groom with his ring under the chuppah. Reflecting on this, I thought I would write about Jewish weddings this week and the prayers that are part of the ceremony.

It is a little difficult to begin describing a Jewish wedding ceremony, since while the official prayers can all fit on a single page, often the celebration and its rituals extend over the course of several hours and, for some, continue throughout the following week. Many weddings I have performed over the years have focused on that brief ceremony with a couple of preliminary rituals. I have, however, attended a number of more elaborate events and have even conducted a couple myself. My favorite bride, some twenty years ago, was a young doctor who read up on Jewish wedding rituals in preparation for the ceremony and the more she read the more she urged me to incorporate into their ceremony. I complied with her wishes and we began the day with the preliminary events in the late morning, followed by the actual ceremony, and continuing all afternoon and into the evening when I finally led the blessings after the meal with the repetition of the seven wedding blessings over two cups of wine to conclude the evening festivities.

So, I've decided to describe this kind of joyful and exuberant wedding which is usually seen among more traditional brides and grooms, to one degree or another. It is customary for the bride and groom to fast on their wedding day and to recite the Yom Kippur confessional prayers prior to the ceremony. On this day, as they begin a new life together, the rabbis believed that their sins were forgiven and they set off together with a clean slate. The invited guests, however, are not under any obligation to fast and, at a Jewish wedding, the food never stops. No punch and cookies reception for us. There are numerous variations and customs, but the following is pretty much what I have experienced at such occasions.

When you arrive at the wedding venue, there often is a large smorgasbord set out and people gather around the hall to socialize, to eat and to drink, in anticipation of the ceremony. Eventually, the bride emerges and is brought by her attendants to a kind of throne set up on a platform where she sits in regal splendor as the guests come up and offer congratulations and then eat some more. The groom is off in another room filled with men, who having sampled the smorgasbord, now come in and sit around a table that contains mainly some simple cake and cookies and various alcoholic beverages. The officiating rabbi sits at the head of the table next to the groom and is busy filling out the appropriate documents, often a pro forma engagement agreement, the tenaim, the marriage license from the state, and the ketubah, the Jewish marriage document that the groom will later present to his bride. Many couples opt to obtain their own artistic ketubah, either pre-printed and filled in by a calligrapher or a specially commissioned document entirely created for them.

At the groom's table, it is customary for the assembled to sing various wedding songs and for the groom to offer words of Torah, particularly if he is scholarly to some degree. The guests, however, all in fun, keep interrupting with more songs and the idea is to prevent the groom from actually completing his dissertation. The tenaim or engagement agreement written between the fathers of the bride and groom is a mere formality these days and many people do not bother with it at all. If they decide to do so, the rabbi completes the document and reads it aloud and the mother of the groom and the mother of the bride enter and customarily break a plate to seal the agreement.

After this, two witnesses come forward to sign the ketubah, the marriage document. They should both be observant Jews, not related to either the groom or the bride nor to each other. Often the rabbi and the cantor serve in this role. With this document completed, the rabbi takes out a handkerchief or a napkin and the groom takes hold of the other side, thereby accepting the provisions of the ketubah. Now, we are ready to move on to the main event. The groom is escorted by his friends amidst clapping and singing and brought into the main reception hall to see his bride, whom he has not seen sometimes for a whole week beforehand. .Jewish law says one should not marry a woman one has not seen, so he should see her just before the ceremony, lest he marry the wrong woman as happened to our ancestor Jacob. The groom places the veil over his bride's face and the rabbi recites the prayer that Rebecca's family gave to her when they sent her off to marry Isaac. “Our sister, may you be the mother of thousands of myriads.” He then adds the traditional blessing of our daughters, “May God make you like the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. To this he adds the priestly blessing as well, “May God bless you and keep you. May God shine His face upon you and be gracious unto you. May God lift up His countenance to you and grant you peace.”

Following this, all break into song once more as the crowd goes to the location where the ceremony will take place and the wedding party forms a procession to enter for the ceremony. While non-Orthodox ceremonies usually take place in the synagogue sanctuary, Orthodox ceremonies frequently occur in a wedding hall or even outside, so men and women might sit together in a less formal atmosphere.. Some wedding halls have a portion of the ceiling which will open up so that one might see the stars even inside, in remembrance of God's promise to Abraham that his children would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.

In the front of the assembly is a chuppah, a marriage canopy. Some simply have four people holding poles with a cloth or a tallit attached to it under which the ceremony will take place. Others have a free-standing structure with a covering on top or even a floral bower decorated by a florist.. “Chuppah” means a covering and while nowadays most everyone uses a canopy of some kind, in medieval times there were other interpretations of the term including the veiling of the bride, the draping of a tallit by the groom over his bride's shoulders, or even the yichud, the privacy of bride and groom immediately after the ceremony. Some make it a point to do all of those things to make sure they fulfill all the possible meanings of the term.

There are different ways that people choose to enter the ceremony. Generally the rabbi (and cantor, if there is one) enter first, followed by the groom and the best man. Frequently the groom may be escorted by his parents on either side as he comes down the aisle and they bring him to the left side of the chuppah and stand next to him on that side. The best man who follows in the procession stands beside the groom and a bit behind and other groomsmen then enter as well and take their places. There may be a flower girl or two and a ringbearer if there are younger family members that need to be included. Then comes the bride's party. First the various bridesmaids enter one by one and take their places opposite the groomsmen. There is no specific number of bridesmaids or groomsmen, though most couples try to have the same number of each to stand on either side of the chuppah. The maid or matron of honor follows next and stands to the right of the chuppah awaiting the arrival of the bride. As all of these young women enter, the groom continues to face the rabbi with his back to the procession. Finally, the bride enters escorted by her parents and the groom turns around to greet her. Before reaching the chuppah, her parents push back the veil for a moment to give her a kiss and then replace the veil as they hand her over to the groom. He extends his right arm and escorts her to the chuppah, where she will stand to his right. Her parents follow and stand on the right side of the chuppah.

The rabbi or cantor greet the couple and the assembly with the words, “Baruch haba b'sheim Adonay.” “Blessed are those who come in God's name”. In the synagogue we add the words, “We bless you from this house of the Lord.”

A poetic blessing is sung next and the bride circles her groom seven times. Some have the two mothers escort her around the groom, one leading her and the other holding her train. In a symbolic way, she is putting a protective barrier around her bridegroom. There are some variations in the blessings sung. The version I use begins with alphabetical references to God, “Mi adir al hakol, mi baruch al hakol, mi gadol al hakol, mi dagul al hakol” “He who is glorious above all, He who is blessed above all, He who is great above all, He who is distinguished above all, may He bless the bridegroom and the bride.”

The bride finishes circling and takes her place to the right of the groom. A cup of wine is brought forward and the rabbi may explain that this is the first of two ceremonies performed under the chuppah. The first is the kiddushin or eirusin, the betrothal and the second, over a second cup, will be the nisuin, the marriage ceremony proper. These rituals were in the past two separate events, often separated by a year or more, but since the Middle Ages, they have been combined into one. Two blessings are chanted over this first cup. The first blessing is the standard “borei p'ri hagafen, who creates the fruit of the vine.” This is followed by a second blessing, “Praised are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe, who sanctifies us by His commandments and commanded us concerning forbidden unions (arayot), forbidding us those who are betrothed, permitting those who are wedded to us through the rite of the chuppah and the marriage ceremony (kiddushin). Praised are You, Lord, who sanctifies His people Israel through the chuppah and the marriage ceremony.” The cup of wine is then given to the groom and the bride who each sip from the cup.

At this point, the act of betrothal takes place. The groom is given the ring usually held by the best man before the ceremony. In some places, the rabbi will invite two witnesses to come forward to attest to the value of the ring, that it exceeds a perutah in value. He will ask them to watch carefully as the groom takes the ring and places it on the bride's right index finger and recites the words of betrothal. The groom says, “Harei at m'kudeshet li b'tabaat zo, k'dat Moshe v'Yisrael.” “Behold you are consecrated to me by this ring in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel.” The bride's acceptance of the ring is sufficient to complete the act of betrothal. To severe the relationship from this point on they would require a Jewish divorce, a get. However, as we said in the blessing, betrothal is not enough to allow a complete intimate relationship. There is more to come in the ceremony.

In modern times, most brides want to present a ring to their groom as well and this raises various halachic issues as well as questions as to what she should say in presenting this ring. Brides used to say, “With this ring, I pledge you all my love and devotion.” As I mentioned, I usually ask the bride to say the verse from Song of Songs, “I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.” Other colleagues of mine have come up with a variety of alternative statements. In some strictly traditional circles, there may not be a second ring or if there is, the rabbi may suggest presenting it to the groom following the ceremony as a gift.

At this point, the ketubah is read aloud in Aramaic and a translation or a paraphrase in English may follow. The ketubah traditionally states when and where the wedding is taking place and lays out the responsibilities undertaken by the groom in marrying this woman. In recent years, some have re-written the ketubah to reflect the mutual obligations of husband and wife and the language used is more egalitarian. After the reading, the rabbi hands the ketubah to the groom who presents it to the bride and it is set aside as the ceremony continues.

The officiating rabbi usually gives a short talk either at the beginning of the ceremony or at this point. It usually includes words of Torah along with words of congratulations and blessings for the future happiness of the couple. I often ask the couple to write some words about their partner which I may share during this talk. Following the talk, we come to the second ceremony, the blessings of marriage, recited over a second cup.

All of the blessings may be chanted by the cantor or rabbi or frequently seven guests are honored to each come forward and recite one of the seven marriage blessings. Once again, the first blessing is the blessing for wine, borei p'ri hagafen. After this blessing, as Rabbi Sacks notes, the blessings progress from the universal to the particular. The second blessing is on behalf of the assembled guests and praises God, “shehakol bara likvodo” who created everything for His glory. This is followed by a third blessing which recognizes that God is the creator of humankind, “Yotzer ha-adam.” After this, the blessings are a little longer. The fourth blessings speaks more precisely about the creation of humans: “Who made humanity in His image, the image of His likeness” and then referring a bit obliquely to Eve's creation from Adam, described in Genesis, chapter two, we read, “and out of His very self formed a building for eternity. Praised are You, Lord, creator of humanity.” Sacks suggests this building for eternity refers to their offspring.

The Psalmist tells us to set Jerusalem above our chiefest joy and so at this moment of great joy, we mention Jerusalem in the fifth blessing and then more extensively in the seventh. This blessing and the next are linked to the other blessings and do not require an opening bracha formula, but simply state, “Bring great happiness and joy to the one who was barren (Zion), as her children return to her in joy. Blessed are You,, Lord, who gladdens Zion through her children.” The sixth blessing returns our attention once more to the happy couple,”Bring great joy to these loving friends (re-im ahuvim), as You gave joy to Your creations in the Garden of Eden. Blessed are You, Lord, who gives joy to the bridegroom and the bride.

The last blessing is much longer and can stand on its own in the rare case when there is no minyan at a wedding. In a couple of spots the congregation often sings along. We begin with the bracha formula, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who created joy and gladness, bridegroom and bride, happiness and jubilation, cheer and delight, love, fellowship, peace and friendship. Soon, Lord our God, may there be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, the sounds of joy and gladness (kol sasson v'kol simcha) the sounds of bridegroom and bride (kol chatan v'kol kallah), the joyous sounds of bridegrooms from their wedding canopy and of young people at their feasts of song. Blessed are You, Lord, who makes the bridegroom rejoice with the bride.”

Once again, the couple share the wine, the veil is now pushed back from the face of the bride as the rabbi concludes the service. He may formally pronounce the couple husband and wife in conformity with the laws of the state and according to the laws of Moses and Israel. I usually have the congregation rise for a closing blessing and I chant the priestly blessing once more for all. Finally, a glass or a lightbulb wrapped in a napkin is placed under the right foot of the groom. It symbolizes the destruction of Jerusalem that we always remember even in times of joy. The groom smashes it and everyone cries out “Mazal tov”

The ceremony over, the groom kisses his bride and all process out of the area in couples and the newlyweds are escorted to a private room for yichud. Generally plates of food from the smorgasbord have been set aside for them, and they are able to break their fast and catch their breath before meeting their guests. Witnesses guard the door to confirm that they have fulfilled this final version of chuppah by being together alone.

Meanwhile, as if the smorgasbord were not sufficient, the hors d'oevres are being served and when the couple emerges, song and dance commence with wild enthusiasm. It is considered a mitzvah to dance before the bride and groom and bring them joy on their wedding day. Blessings are recited before the formal meal and then course after course is served with much dancing and song in between courses. At the end of the meal, over a cup of wine, birkat hamazon is recited with a special introduction, and then a second cup is raised as the seven wedding blessings are repeated by seven guests, leaving the blessing for wine for the end. At that point, both cups are poured into a larger vessel and the bride and groom share the cup.

In traditional circles, it is customary to celebrate all week long and to invite people who may not have been at the wedding to dinners hosted by various friends and relatives, and as long as there are panim chadashot, new faces, the sheva brachot, the seven blessings, are repeated once more. Some couples purposely travel from city to city to visit friends who hold these sheva brachot dinners throughout the week. Their honeymoon thus becomes a continuing religious celebration.

The language used for these joyous occasions gives us some sense of their significance. Kiddushin is an act of holiness, the groom sets his bride apart from all other women and thereby sanctifies their relationship. Nisuin implies a raising up of the couple through their love and affection. In this upcoming month of Elul, this month when we return to our Heavenly Lover, we seek a similar spiritual uplifting and an opportunity to bring greater holiness into our lives in the year ahead.

(Please note: There will be no column for the next two weeks during the rabbi's vacation.)

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