Whether you’re two traditional Jews, are more Jew-“ish” than Jewish, or a couple from different faith traditions, if you’re reading this blog, you probably want to know a bit more about some of the more common Jewish Wedding Traditions because you want to see how they’ll fit into your wedding ceremony. As a Reform Jew, I like to say I’m an “Informed” Jew, and I love to teach couples about the meanings, origins, and reasons to include (or exclude) rituals in your Big Day. Here are five of the most common Jewish Wedding Traditions and how they might enrich your wedding day:
The Signing of the Ketubah
If you’ve already read my article about the ketubah (traditional Jewish marriage contract), you’ll already be familiar with what a ketubah is and who signs it, but perhaps not any of the ceremony around its signing. In its basest sense, its signing is merely contractual and can be as unceremonious as the procurement of the marriage license from City Hall. But its signing is a great opportunity to have a “calm before the storm” moment with your closest family and friends before the formal wedding proceedings.
For example, when I conduct weddings, I will make sure we get the photographers and videographers in to do a posed “fake” signing so that they can get the shots they need, but then ask them to leave so that the happy couple can take an intimate and reflective moment surrounded by their “inner circle”. This usually includes parents, grandparents, the witnesses of both the secular license and the ketubah, and whatever bridesmaids, groomsmen, or other attendants that the couple considers the closest to them.
Once gathered, we all take a breath, remind everyone that we are all here in joy and gratitude for getting to this day, and that this is the formal beginning of the wedding ceremony. We begin by having the witnesses sign the secular marriage license. Once done, I’ll then invite the couple to read aloud the text of the ketubah. I then ask (rhetorically, of course!) do they agree with this text. If they do (and thankfully they do!), I invite them first to sign their names. It can be signed in English, Hebrew, or in whatever way they feel most comfortable.
I then invite the witnesses to come forward, reminding them that when they sign the ketubah, they are committing to witnessing the entirety of the ceremony, especially the exchange of rings (should the couple include this). This is why they are witnesses in the first place! After their signature, I usually sign the ketubah (presuming there’s room for the officiant to sign! Sometimes the artist doesn’t include a line for the officiant, but in most cases does).
Now is a moment to invite forward the couple’s parents to hold the ketubah together and then with a symbolic gesture, state that this is a time of continuity, where one generation bestows the gift of their values and love to the next generation, and the parents hand the ketubah to their children.
Last, I like to have everyone present offer their own prayers aloud in turn to the couple, wishing them well for a blessed marriage.
At traditional (read: “Orthodox” or “many Conservative”) weddings, once the bride has walked down the aisle and reached the khuppah (wedding canopy), the bride walks around the groom seven times. The number seven appears repeatedly in Judaism and numerologists and mystics imbue the number seven with things good and lucky: Seven days of the week; seven days of creation… Seven are also the number of years the biblical Jacob had to work in order marry Rachel (and because his father-in-law tricked him by having his older daughter, Leah, wear a veil when Jacob married her, Jacob had to work an additional seven years to finally marry Rachel!). Although there is the lovely visual of the bride walking around the groom offering an implied amulet to ward against evil, there is a bit of misogyny inherent in the practice, where a bride circles her groom.
I don’t push my couples one way or the other when it comes to circling. Just like all rituals, the meaningfulness comes from the meanings we see in them, not what the past dictates. Further, for same-sex couples, the historicity of the rite might appear meaningless. At the same time, there is a great beauty in defining new meaning to old rituals.
One way to deal with the visual imbalance is to make the circling more equal: One member of the couple walks around the other three times; then the other does the same; finally, to make seven times, the couple holds hands and turns once. Thus, the number seven, the circled amulet, and the implied blessing is preserved.
Having said all that, if there is no circling, no worries—many of the blessings contained in the remainder of the rites will bear many heartfelt sentiments wishing the couple a bright future.
The Ring Exchange
From the most traditional to the most liberal of weddings, there is almost always an exchange of rings. In the most traditional of weddings, this is a gift only from the groom to the bride as a condition of the ketubah. According to Jewish law, this ring which is exchanged is supposed to be of value and unbroken (read: no holes, jewels, or engravings). This is all based on traditional contract law. It should be pointed out that in the United States, marital law is governed by states. Thus, the marriage license you sign before your ceremony is the true “legal” agreement, and any acknowledgement of Jewish law is really up to how much the couple wants to adhere to tradition. The point here is that if you pick out a ring (or rings, considering most couples today are egalitarian and an exchange goes both ways!), they can look pretty much any way you wish. The rings, being circles, tend to be more significant to couples based on the symbolism of a shape that has no beginning or end.
Sheva Brakhot (the Seven Wedding Blessings)
The main liturgical centerpiece of a Jewish wedding is the “Sheva Brakhot” or “Seven Wedding Blessings.” The number seven has many positive connotations in Judaism: Seven days of creation; seven days of the week; seven years of plenty in Egypt; seven times seven are the days leading up to the festival of Shavuot (the holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah)… Seven is considered a number of luck and fortune.
The traditional wording of these blessings starts out by blessing the very general (the fruit of the vine, praising God for creating everything, praising God for creating people) to the very specific (praising God who makes Zion rejoice, describing joy in Jerusalem). For the more traditional of Jews, there is great comfort and meaning to hearing these familiar words at weddings. Conversely, the tribalism described in these blessings can be off-putting for some couples, especially for those who come from different faiths—or even two Jews who have a more universalistic view of the world.
Lately, I have incorporated more universal interpretations of the seven blessings in the services I conduct. RitualWell has an abundant source of versions of the Sheva Brakhot that range from translations which are close to the original but deviate from the particularistic sentiments towards broader blessings, to versions which are seven in number, but far from the original. In any case, if a couple finds a version that most speaks to them, that is what we generally use.
The Sheva Brakhot gives us another opportunity for creativity during your ceremony. Because there are seven blessings, it is a chance to let guests important to the couple to participate in the service. I’ve had a line up of seven individuals or families come up and bless the couple with one of the seven blessings in whatever language they find most meaning at many services. It adds to the personalization of the ceremony; but just be aware that not everyone that you’d like to honor are also comfortable with public speaking!
The Breaking of the Glass
If you’ve ever been to a Jewish wedding, you’re aware that it usually ends with the smashing of a glass. There are many reasons and interpretations of this act, not the least of which is to remember the destruction of the Temple in Israel two thousand years ago. I personally don’t mention this reason unless a couple insists, simply because it takes us out of the moment revolving around a couple and into something that is potentially political. For a few years, if a couple was okay with it, I mentioned that we break a glass in defiance—that as long as there are those among our family and friends who cannot legally marry whom they wish, we must continue to make our will known until there is true marital justice. But the reason I share the most often is the one that I believe has the most relevance to the couple themselves: A glass is fragile if not handled with care, just like a relationship. And so the glass is broken with an implied prayer—we break it now, knowing that a relationship needs to be cared for, lest it meets with the same end.
A word about stepping on a glass: Don’t use a drinking glass! They are made to hold liquid and to withstand the occasional drop. I’ve heard horror stories of individuals who, upon stepping on a regular glass, had a shard of glass go through their shoe! A trip to the emergency room is no way to celebrate one’s wedding! Instead, use a regular 60 watt light bulb, the one with a filament. Do not use a CFL, florescent, LED, or any other kind of bulb. Just a regular incandescent bulb. There’s two reasons to do this: 1) The glass is very thin on these bulbs and makes it very easy to break; 2) They make an awesome “pop” sound! I instruct couples to wrap said bulb in a cloth napkin tied off on either side with masking tape. They even have kits to take the broken pieces to make into a mezzuzah for your home, or even put the bulb back together in an action pose in lucite as a memento. Just be careful with the pieces of broken glass!
Shehekheyanu—do or don’t?
The Shehekheyanu prayer is something you hear at synagogues and Jewish homes all the time. It’s a pretty common blessing which states, “Praised are you, God, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.” You might have even heard it at weddings before. There might be a reason to do so, but traditionally, it’s not said at weddings—and for a very good reason.
We learn that shehekheyanu is recited when one does something for the first time. However, the shehekheyanu prayer is all about the “reaching this season” part. It’s all about things that happen over and over, but the first time in any given season. So for example, if you have an apple for the first time in the harvest season, a shehekheyanu is recited. When you get to a Jewish holiday, a shehekheyanu is recited because it’s the first time that year you reached it—which is also why you recite this blessing on the first night of Hanukkah, but not on any other night of Hanukkah. You can even say a shehekheyanu on your birthday or anniversary since it occurs every year once a year.
So if you’re following the logic and intention of the blessing, you’ll see clearly why you wouldn’t want to recite a shehekheyanu on your wedding day. You don’t want to think that you’re going to separate and marry someone new in a year! You ideally want to get married once!
But as I said, it’s a very familiar blessing and people like its sentiment. The workaround? We can couch it the following way: Since we are blessing the couple on their wedding day, we are implying that there will be future blessings in their lives as a couple, such as having or adopting children, moving into a new house, moving to a new city, etc. So the wedding day is the first in a series of new experiences the couple will share throughout their lives.
Here’s the beauty of this and all the rituals mentioned above: Judaism allows for a multiplicity of meanings behind its rituals, each of which is right if a couple embraces those meanings. Perhaps you will bring your own creativity and meaning to your special day, and maybe even invent a new ritual or two to enrich your wedding. And if you need guidance in doing so, I’m here to help!