The Jewish Wedding Ceremony:
Being Made Holy to One Another
The theme of a Jewish wedding is holiness. These ancient rituals are rooted in the concept of consecration; through enacting them in the presence of loved ones and friends, two beloveds are made holy to one another. The rituals can be modernized or even “transvalued” (reframed with new meanings congruent with contemporary sensibilities), creating a ceremony that ties past to present and beyond. What follows are the elements of a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony.
Making it “your own” is what I do with each couple and is a wonderful part of planning your wedding
The Processional – Each partner is escorted to the chuppah by his/her parents. A note: it is not customary to ask guests rise for the bride(s), as in Jewish tradition, we rise only in reverence for God.
Chuppah – The wedding canopy symbolizes the home that the couple will establish together. The chuppah’s sides are open, demonstrating the couple’s value of hachnasat orchim, hospitality. Traditionally, the chuppah consists of four poles to which a large tallit (prayer shawl) is tied; it is carried in at the beginning of the processional. Today, most couples choose a chuppah which has been set in place prior to the ceremony, and many choose a covering that has special meaning to them. It is traditional for parents to stand at the four corners of the chuppah as a symbol of the foundation they have provided for their children on the cusp of their marriage, but some couples choose other chuppah “holders” while some do not have any.
Circling – The tradition of the bride circling the groom has its roots in the Book of Joshua, where, according to the story, Joshua circled Jericho’s walls seven times, and they fell to the ground. The circling is said to make any walls that the groom has around his heart crumble as well, so he can give himself fully to his bride. A contemporary metaphor is that the circling shows that the one’s beloved is becoming the center of one’s universe.
In today’s egalitarian world, brides and grooms often circle each other. Some couples choose my variation of this tradition which is for each partner to circle the other three times, followed by the couple linking arms and making one circle together, joyously entering the chuppah together.
Kiddushin – Sanctification, Welcoming & Thanksgiving
The rabbi welcomes all to the ceremony at the beginning of the Kiddushin (sanctification) ceremony. Guests fulfill an important role as loving supporters of the couple at this liminal time—the very threshold of their marriage. The Shehecheyanu, a blessing of thanksgiving for having arrived at this special moment, is chanted.
The Jewish wedding ceremony was actually once two ceremonies which took place a year apart. While the Kiddushin (sometimes called Erusin, betrothal) and Nuptials (“Nisu’in”) merged long ago, we retain the betrothal blessing and the couple’s sharing of a sip of wine. Like many rabbis, I substitute a contemporary blessing for the second blessing of Kiddushin, as the traditional one has to do with outmoded notions of sexual propriety.
Nisu’in – The Nuptials
The heart of the wedding ceremony is called Nisu’in (nuptials), and the heart of the Nisu’in is the exchange of vows (if desired), rings, the reading of the ketubah, and the chanting of the Sheva B’rachot, the seven traditional blessings.
Vows and Ring Exchange – While the recitation of vows is not a traditional part of the Jewish wedding ceremony, many couples choose to include words of promise and devotion to each other during the ceremony.
Once, rings were not actually exchanged; only the groom would give a ring to his bride, a symbol that she was being consecrated (made holy) to him. Today’s couples exchange rings with each other, making each holy to the other.
Reading the Ketubah – The traditional marriage contract (“ketubah”) was legalistic in tone and served to protect a woman’s rights in a pre-modern paternalistic society wherein a woman forfeited her property to her husband should a divorce occur. Today’s ketubot (plural) serve a very different purpose. The couple chooses (or, in some instances, composes) a text which best describes the marriage they wish to have—it becomes a strong values statement that underpins their marriage. In addition, the ketubah itself is a beautiful work of art. Couples choose a style and design which reflects their aesthetic; the finished work often becomes an artistic focal point in their home. The text is read as part of the Nisu’in.
Sheva B’rachot – The Seven Blessings
Seven blessings are chanted in Hebrew at the culmination of the Nisu’in. Many couples follow the tradition of being wrapped together in a tallit (prayer shawl) as these blessings are chanted. Contemporary translations of the blessings may be offered in English by family members and close friends.
Following the recitation of the seventh blessing, the couple shares one more sip of wine, after which the nuptials have been completed. While they are now officially married, many rabbis offer a final blessing, often the Birkat haCohanim (the “Priests’ Blessing), which asks that the couple will always be sheltered under God’s compassionate presence and grace.
Breaking the Glass – Everyone’s favorite thing! While “the glass” is more likely to be a light bulb wrapped in a napkin these days, after the rabbi announces that the couple is now married, one partner (or both!) steps on the glass, which breaks with a loud and satisfying POP! Everyone shouts “Mazal Tov!” (Congratulations!)
Yichud – Many brides and grooms choose to spend the first minutes of their married lives in seclusion together for a short while before re-joining their guests.
After the bridal party has recessed, the celebration begins! Mazal Tov!