“You got another wedding invitation!” my brother yelled from the kitchen. I couldn’t believe it. It was the fifth one this year! All of a sudden I had this crazy feeling of déjà vu, and soon I realized…the last time I had such an influx of invitations was during bar and bat mitzvah season in middle school! And here I was at the inauguration of wedding season. Time really does fly.
So far I’ve seen three fellow Bruins tie the knot, and there are quite a few more in the works. (Shout out to Shaina Sedighim and Daniel Levine!) In case you ever find yourself at an Orthodox or Traditional Jewish wedding in the near future, here are a few interesting fun facts and tips to guide your experience. (I don’t know about you, but I was totally lost the first time I attended an Orthodox wedding!)
The Invitation — Mazal Tov!
You may notice that the wedding invitation to a typical Orthodox wedding is a bit different from the average invite. Generally speaking, the invitation includes both a Hebrew side and an English side. Don’t worry if you can’t read the Hebrew — the English side says the exact same thing! Orthodox wedding invitations (as well as invitations to other semachot) usually acknowledge G-d for the upcoming momentous occasion. The wording will be something along the lines of, “It is with profound gratitude to Hashem that…” which points to the centrality of spirituality during the wedding. For Orthodox Jews, the wedding day is not just the celebration of love — it is a commitment to giving, to supporting one another’s spiritual growth.
Shabbat before the wedding — the Aufruf
During the Shabbat preceding an Ashkenazi couple’s wedding, the groom is called upon to recite a blessing over the Torah, after which the congregation often throws nuts, almonds and raisins at him in supplement to the exclamations of “Mazal tov!” The nuts and sweets are symbolic of the congregation’s wishes that the couple may have a sweet and fruitful marriage. The Aufruf creates a clear connection between the Torah and the couple’s wedding, setting the tone for sanctity and reminding the couple of their responsibility to build a home dedicated to truth and goodness.
Meanwhile, on the same Shabbat, the bride’s family and friends often organize a party — or Shabbat Kallah — where blessings and stories are exchanged in anticipation of the big day.
The wedding day — Boker Tov!
The wedding day is considered a personal Yom Kippur for the couple — their previous transgressions as individuals are erased as they receive their new, complete soul. In order to tap into the same spiritual energy present during Yom Kippur, the bride and groom include Yom Kippur confessions in their prayers; Ashkenazi couples also fast until the wedding ceremony. The bride dresses in white, which is universally symbolic of purity. (Ashkenazi grooms traditionally don a white robe as well, called a kittel). Persian grooms wear a distinctive kippah, embroidered with gold and known as a kolah naghdeh, to the ceremony.
Before the wedding, a Persian or Sephardi bride will usually give her groom a special tallit (prayer shawl), over which the groom makes a blessing. The couple then stands under the wedding canopy together, draped in the tallit.
Pre-ceremony festivities — Kabbalat Panim and/or henna
If the invitation says 5:30 pm, we all know that according to Jewish time, the wedding really begins at 6:30. However, it is worthwhile to come on time to partake in Kabbalat Panim (the pre-ceremony reception) and to guarantee a good view during the Badeken (more information to follow below). During Kabbalat Panim, the bride and groom receive relatives and friends (the bride receives women and the groom receives men). Jewish tradition holds that on the day of their wedding, a bride and groom are like royalty, so the bride often sits on a throne-like chair surrounded by beautiful flowers, and the groom is surrounded by guests partaking in song and toasts. As the guests approach in congratulation, the bride and groom offer beautiful blessings, since on their wedding day, Jewish mystical sources hold that a couple possesses a power of prayer even greater than that of the holiest person alive. So it’s worth it to come on time to receive some pretty intense blessings!
Before the wedding, many Sephardi and Persian couples have a henna party, in which henna dye is smudged into the palms of the bride and groom as a symbolic gesture of good wishes and marital success. (Persians refer to the event as hanna bandoun). Family and friends may be given henna herbs or swabs soaked with the dye, as well.
Also at this time, it is an Ashkenazi tradition for the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom to partake in the joint effort of breaking a plate, symbolic of the commitment being made. This tradition carries the wish that just as the breaking of a plate is irreversible, so too may the wedding be irreversible.
Making sure it’s the girl I picked! — the Ashkenazi Badeken
We’re all familiar with the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah. (Long story short…Jacob works seven years to win Rachel’s hand in marriage. Laban, Rachel’s father, tricks Jacob into marrying his older daughter, Leah. Leah was veiled, and thus Jacob did not know which sister he was marrying. Jacob was then forced to work another seven years to marry Rachel and ended up with two wives. [As a side note to the side note, the Torah definitely does not recommend taking more than one wife — Adam and Eve were the ideal match — and there’s a lot more to the story if you are interested in delving deeper. Contact your local JAM, Hillel or Chabad rabbi for some more insight!])
It is in reminiscence of this story and also of our foremother Rebecca (who veiled herself upon setting eyes on her future husband, Isaac) that the context of the Badeken is understood. During this ceremony, the groom himself veils his bride. The bride remains veiled for the duration of the chuppah ceremony, giving her privacy during this important time of prayer. The veil is representative of the idea of modesty and points to the idea that the groom is not only interested in the bride’s external beauty, which fades, but more so in her internal beauty, which she will never lose. However attractive physical appearances may be, the central focus in Judaism is the soul and character of an individual.
The Badeken happens to be my favorite part of an Ashkenazi wedding. It is the first time that the bride and groom see each other after a week of separation — a tradition which adds to the anticipation and excitement of the wedding day, culminating in the most adorable smiles and tears of joy as the groom lays eyes on his bride. So if you are a girl, make sure you get a spot toward the front of the crowd surrounding the bride in preparation for the Badeken. You’ll get a front row view of the world’s cutest “googly” eyes. If you’re a guy, get ready for some intense singing and dancing as you escort the groom to his bride!
Wedding ceremony under the canopy — the Chuppah
The wedding ceremony generally takes place under the open sky in order to recall the blessing G-d gave to Abraham —that his children shall be “as the stars of the heavens.” (Some Sephardim conduct the ceremony indoors.) The couple stands under a canopy, or chuppah, reminiscent of Abraham and Sarah’s tent that was open on all four sides, a sign of their immense hospitality. The chuppah represents the couple’s new home. The bride and groom do not wear any jewelry under the chuppa, in representation of the idea that they are getting married for the person and not for their material belongings.
The bride is escorted to the chuppah by her parents, who carry candles. Rabbi Katz of Neve Yerushalayim, a women’s school in Jerusalem, explains that the candles are reminiscent of the “streaks of lightening that came down on Mount Sinai when G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people.” He emphasizes, however, that “there is no symbolism in a Jewish wedding. The lights are not symbols of a past experience. Rather, the rituals at a wedding are in themselves recreating the spiritual energy of the Sinai experience.” In light of this explanation, Rabbi Katz goes on to draw many parallels between the wedding ceremony and the giving of the Torah. “Just as we received a contract at Sinai — the Torah — the bride also receives a contract — the ketubah. The mountains were pierced with lightening, so too the bride is escorted with light. And the mountain, which hovered over the heads of the Jews during the giving of the Torah, is no different than the chuppah, which hovers over the heads of the bride and groom.” All of these components of a wedding are not meant to symbolize the Sinai experience, but rather are means to relive and tap into the energy of the Sinai experience, where G-d married the Jewish people.
After the entire wedding party has made their way down the aisle toward the chuppah, the bride is escorted out, for “the very last is the most precious” (Bereishit Rabbah 78:11). A Sephardi or Persian bride is traditionally escorted halfway down the aisle by her parents; the groom then leaves the chuppah to walk to her and escort her the rest of the way, himself. At an Asheknazi wedding, once the bride and groom are under the chuppah, the bride proceeds to circle around the groom seven times. Just as G-d created the world in seven days, the bride is creating the couple’s new world, figuratively building an environment of completion and wholeness that the couple can only attain together. One interpretation holds that the bride is creating the “walls” of the couple’s new home, fashioning a fortress that will spiritually protect her husband and family. (Persian couples, however, may consider the practice to be a negative omen.)
At some Sephardi weddings, it is customary for the couple to face away from the audience when standing under the chuppah together. The emphasis is thus not on the audience but rather on the two people building a life together.
Betrothal Blessings — Kedushin
Kiddush, a symbol of joy and sanctification, is a mainstay of Jewish special events. After the betrothal blessings, the couple drinks from the cup of wine.
Giving of the Ring
According to Halacha, or Jewish law, the marriage becomes official after the groom gives the bride something of value — i.e. a ring. The groom recites a blessing: “Behold, you are betrothed unto me with this ring, according to the Law of Moses and Israel” after which he places the ring on the bride’s forefinger. The ring must be a simple gold band, without stones or blemishes. The simplicity of the ring is an unspoken prayer that the couple’s marriage be one of simple beauty. At this point in the ceremony, the couple is officially married!
Marriage Contract — the Ketubah
After the ring is given to the bride, the Ketubah, or marriage contract, is read out loud. This contract details the husband’s obligations to his wife and formally constitutes the betrothal agreement. After the reading, the groom hands the ketubah to his bride.
Some Persians may have the custom to sign the ketubah several weeks in advance of the wedding. In fact, the custom of signing the ketubah at the wedding is a relatively new one, since for much of Jewish history, they were signed months — or even a year — in advance of the actual wedding.
Seven Blessings — Sheva Brachot
Next, seven blessings are recited over a second cup of wine. The couple honors friends and relatives with the recitation of these blessings, which thank G-d for the joyous occasion and wish the bride and groom much love, happiness, unity, friendship and children, among other specifications. The first blessing is over the cup of wine and the following six are blessings for the bride and groom. At this point in the chuppah ceremony, the couple becomes a single, completed soul.
Breaking the Glass
The breaking of the glass is a reminder that even at the height of this amazing simcha, we must still remember that the Temple remains destroyed, and that our hearts must yearn for a rebuilt Jerusalem. After this point, the crowd breaks out with “Mazal Tov!”
Bride and groom only — Yichud
The wedding day is a pretty hectic day. The time for yichud, or seclusion, affords the couple some private time to really focus on the day’s true meaning — their partnership. This personal time occurs right after the chuppah ceremony and usually lasts around 15 minutes while the guests are mingling and enjoying appetizers. This seclusion period is also significant in that it is the first time that the couple is together behind locked doors, signifying their new status as a married couple.
The custom of yichud in a private room is generally an Ashkenazi one, although it is practiced by some Sephardim as well. Most Sephardim and Persians, however, who have the aforementioned custom of the bride and groom standing under the chuppah draped in a tallit, consider that time to be yichud, instead.
When the newly married couple emerge from the yichud room and make their way to the reception hall, the guests greet them with music, singing, and dancing. The men and women generally dance in separate circles, with a mechitzah, or divider, in the middle of the dance floor. It is a huge mitzvah to make the bride and groom happy on their wedding day, and the dance floor is usually constantly filled with dancing surrounding the bride and groom, with various entertaining shticks (tricks) like juggling, amateur acrobatics, funny dances, costumes, and other stunts.
At the end of the reception, “Grace after Meals” is recited and the Sheva Brachot are repeated. It is customary for friends and family of the bride and groom to host festive meals for the new couple for a week following the weddings. These meals are referred to as “Sheva Brachot” because the meal concludes with a recitation of these blessings.
Shabbat after the wedding — the Sephardi and Persian post-nuptial party
On the Shabbat following the wedding, when Sheva Brachot meals are still being hosted, Persians and Sephardim often have the custom of additionally celebrating the couple. Sephardim honor the groom with a call to the Torah, which is referred to as Shabbat Chatan (“Shabbat of the groom”). The groom is then blessed to have success in marriage and build a Jewish family with sons and daughters. A communal toast is raised to the newlyweds during the recitation of the Sheva Brachot at the subsequent meal.
Persians traditionally host a festive meal, called Shabbat aroosi (“Shabbat wedding”) for the couple and the celebrating community. The meal might be held at the synagogue in order to maximize the number of celebrants, as at a Jewish wedding, joy is considered to be at its height when shared with as many people as possible.