Even if you’ve never been to a Jewish wedding, you may have heard of (or seen in movies) the well-known rituals of breaking the glass and dancing the hora. Read on to learn more about these and other rituals that may be incorporated into the ceremony and celebration that unites two individuals – a man and a woman, two men, or two women – in marriage.
Before the Ceremony
- Celebrating the Wedding Couple: In a joyous ritual before the ceremony, close family and friends surround the couple (who generally are in two adjacent rooms, so they do not see each other before the ceremony) with good cheer and blessings. Historically, this practice was known as Hachnasat Kallah (Celebrating the Bride) and The Groom’s Tisch (The Groom’s Table) and guests visited based on gender. Today, many wedding couples – both heterosexual and same-sex – no longer divide the practice by gender. Instead, guests move freely back and forth between both rooms, visiting separately with the partners and their families. Because learning plays a central role in Jewish tradition, one or both rooms may include some Torah study and, for those so inclined, a bit of celebratory drinking and singing.
- Breaking a Plate: Historically, the two mothers breaking a plate symbolized the acceptance of the conditions of engagement (when it was a separate ceremony). It also symbolizes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and foreshadows the breaking of the glass that is part of the wedding ceremony itself.
- Signing the Ketubah: Historically, a ketubah (marriage contract) was a legal document that protected the bride’s rights and thus was her possession. Today, the text of ketubot (plural of ketubah) is more contemporary and egalitarian, often expressing the couple’s commitment to care for one another and to create a Jewish home together. Signing the ketubah is one of the oldest Jewish wedding traditions, dating back two thousand years. The couple, the officiants, and witnesses all sign the ketubah prior to the ceremony.
- Bedeken (Veiling): Bedeken means “checking,” and this practice dates back to biblical times. According to one legend, it began after Jacob was tricked by his father-in-law Laban into marrying Leah, who was presented to him as an already-veiled bride. Only after the ceremony did he discover that she was not Rachel, his intended bride. In another story, the first time in the Torah that we learn of love between two people is when Isaac and Rebecca meet. Out of modesty and humility, Rebecca lowers her veil and Isaac is so taken by her aura and beauty that he falls to the ground. If a bride is to be veiled, at some point before the ceremony – either before for after the processional – her intended places the veil over her face.
Among Sephardic Jews (those who originated in Spain and the Iberian Peninsula), the bedeken isn’t part of the wedding day. Instead, a henna party may be held during the week before the ceremony at which henna is applied to the palms of the wedding couple. These markings make them easily identifiable on the day of the ceremony and may, according to some, protect them from the “evil eye” at this joyous time in their lives.
During the Ceremony
- Chuppah (Wedding Canopy): The ceremony takes place under a chuppah, or wedding canopy, which represents God’s sheltering presence in the lives of the couple, as well as the new home they will build together. The presence of family members under the chuppah, as well as its lack of walls, signify that family and friends will always be welcome in the couple’s home. A tallit (prayer shawl) that has special meaning to the couple can serve as a chuppah as can a handmade quilt or other covering. Some wedding canopies are not free-standing, requiring four individuals, generally friends or family members of the couple, to hold the poles to which the chuppah is affixed.
- Circling: Among Ashkenazi Jews (those from eastern and central Europe), but not among Sephardic Jews, it is customary, before entering the chuppah, for one partner to circle the other seven times, alluding to the seven days of creation and as a reminder that marriage is itself a process of creation. In a contemporary update, many heterosexual and same-sex couples choose to circle each other three times, adding one final circle together. According to one interpretation, the circles represent the repetitive rhythm of Hosea 2:21-22: “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and in justice, and in loving kindness, and in compassion; and I will betroth you to me in faithfulness.”
- Erusin or Kiddushin (Betrothal): The marriage ceremony consists of two separate parts: Erusin or Kiddushin (betrothal) and Nissuin (nuptials). Originally, these two ceremonies were separated by a period of several months; today they are combined into one.
Erusin begins with the traditional blessing over a cup of wine, which is then shared among the couple and their parents. The second blessing sanctifies the couple together in kiddushin, Hebrew for “marriage,” a word derived from the Hebrew word for “holy.”
According to Jewish law, the giving and accepting of an item of value in the presence of witnesses is part of what sanctifies a marriage. Therefore, the couple generally exchange rings as they declare, in Hebrew, “Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring, in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel.” The rings are solid, without any breaks or stones, signifying the wholeness and union achieved through marriage. Each ring is placed on the right index finger, demonstrating the ancient belief that the forefinger is connected by a direct line to the heart. In Sephardic ceremonies a ring, a coin, or anything valuable, such as a piece of jewelry other than a ring may be used for this part of the ceremony.
- Nissuin (Nuptials): The second part of the wedding ceremony begins with the Sheva Brachot, or seven benedictions, which are chanted or recited – by the officiating clergy or friends of the couple – over a second cup of wine. Two cups of wine represent the fact that originally, the betrothal and nuptials were two separate ceremonies with a span of time between them. In the Sephardic community, the same cup used for Erusin is refilled for Nissuin. In both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, the seven blessings give thanks for the fruit of the vine, the creation of the world, the creation of humanity, the perpetuation of life, the continuation of the Jewish community, the joy of marriage, and the couple’s happiness.
- Reading the Ketubah: It is customary for the ketubah, or marriage contract, to be read aloud during the ceremony so that all can bear witness to the commitment the partners have made to one another. Sephardic Jews generally read only a few lines at the beginning and a few lines at the end, not the entire document.
- Breaking the Glass: At the end of the ceremony, it is customary for one and sometimes both people in the couple to break a glass. There are many interpretations of this ritual. Some consider it a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the first century, for even at the height of personal joy, we must not forget the tragedies the Jewish and world communities have endured. Others explain that the fragile glass reminds us of the delicate nature of marriage, which must always be cared for and cherished. At the sound of the breaking of the glass, guests traditionally clap and chant “Siman tov” and “mazel tov,” Hebrew phrases that offer congratulations and good luck to the couple.
After the Ceremony
- Yichud (Togetherness): Following the ceremony, the couple may proceed to a private room for yichud, which means “togetherness.” There, they will quietly share the excitement of their first moments together as a married couple. This custom is practiced among Ashkenazi Jews, but not by Sephardic Jews.
- Seudat Mitzvah (The Wedding Feast): According to Jewish law, wedding guests are commanded to celebrate, to have fun, and to increase the joy of the couple on their wedding day. There’s no more joyful way to do this than with dancing, including the hora, a traditional Jewish circle dance. During this dance, the wedding couple often will be lifted up and carried in chairs around the dance floor as part of the celebration of their marriage.
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