You just got engaged. Congratulations! Now it’s time to pick a date for your Big Day. You look at the calendar, talk to family and friends, and call catering halls, venues… and it looks like the best time to get married for you both is a Friday evening or a Saturday during the day. You and your partner are not that traditional, so getting married on the Jewish Sabbath doesn’t seem like that big a deal. But are there things you should think about before getting married on Shabbat?
You are interested not so much in a Jewish wedding ceremony as much as a Jew-“ish” ceremony. You’d still like a Cantor or a Rabbi to officiate. You get on the phone and the web and quickly learn that there’s not a lot of Jewish clergy who will officiate during the Sabbath. There’s two reasons for that: For starters, Rabbis and Cantors are otherwise preoccupied by leading worship, study, and servicing their communities during Shabbat. The second reason is because of the sanctity of preserving the Sabbath, which is a day of rest, so many Cantors and Rabbis are observing the Sabbath in their own ways.
Don’t be discouraged, though. There actually are Jewish clergy who will officiate during Shabbat. After all, there are many lifecycle observances that happen during the Sabbath: becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah, baby namings, anniversary blessings… So why by and large not weddings? Glad you asked!
What’s so special about Shabbat?
The Jewish Sabbath, according to tradition, is the most holy day of the year—even more so than Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) or Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The Bible describes creation as happening in six days and on the seventh, God rested. God rests, people rest. You might think a wedding is the antithesis of work, but Jewish “rest” has a very clinical definition according to Jewish law.
For example, one cannot light a fire on the Sabbath. Most cars have combustable engines—they light fires! So driving is a no-go. Writing is also prohibited on the Sabbath, as is turning on electric lights. Let’s get much more explicit about the elements of a wedding service, see what potentially might break the Sabbath, and see if there are ways to navigate them.
No writing on the Sabbath—so what about the Ketubah?
The Jewish wedding contract, or ketubah, is, according to Jewish tradition, a contract. Doing any sort of business during the Sabbath is forbidden. But technically, the ketubah could theoretically be signed prior to Friday evening. It would be signed by two witnesses who have to watch the ceremony. They could sign prior to Friday night and make sure they’re at the wedding to watch what’s going on.
The exchange of rings—is it just jewelry or something else?
Most wedding ceremonies, Jewish or otherwise, include an exchange of rings. As circles, they are a sign of the union a couple wants to solidify through wedding rites. But in Judaism, the ring exchanged from groom to bride is actually a condition listed in the traditional ketubah, whereby the groom is actually acquiring the bride in exchange of a promise of a dowry. Since the ring sort of acts temporarily as actual money at the time of the exchange, it might be considered muksah, or something that is prohibited from being touched on Shabbat because it’s used for business. But as modern people, we understand that the groom isn’t buying the bride, and with double ring ceremonies being the standard for the modern couple, the ring exchange shouldn’t present a problem.
Breaking of the glass
Humans are clumsy. We break things all the time, whether we intend to or not. But on the Sabbath, we’re not supposed to go out of our way to break something. There’s an actual prohibition against demolishing with intention! If you’ve been to any traditional Jewish weddings, you’ll notice that at the end of the ceremony, the groom steps on a glass—presumably to remind the couple of the fragility of a relationship if not cared for. But this is just one of many traditions at a Jewish wedding which can be included or excluded!
You, as a couple, might not care that much if you celebrate on a Friday night or a Saturday during the day, but depending on the community in which you live, your social group, your family… you may want to field out how your attendees feel about it. This is not about getting their approval or blessing, but making sure that your guests will attend! If you have family that are remotely observant of the Sabbath, you don’t want to make them pick between attending your wedding and attending their worship.
Another thing to ponder: If you’ve decided to get married on Shabbat and you also want Jewish elements in your ceremony, think about how you want to reconcile those two points. Fortunately for you, I’ve already thought about that and have some opinions on the matter…
Why I officiate at weddings over Shabbat
Let me state from the outset: I’m not a traditional Jew. I’m not a halakhick Jew—meaning I do not observe or follow halakhah, which literally means “The Way” but actually refers to strict Jewish Law. I see Judaism as a path through which one might seek and find enlightenment, fulfillment, and connection to people and the world around us, but not a monolithic dogma which governs my every decision.
I find that many modern—and young—people understand and live their lives by the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law. So for me and for the couples I work with, tradition gets a vote, but not a veto. So the prohibitions of Shabbat are not as much a factor to me.
In fact, I think there are ways to look at the Sabbath and its symbols as things to synthesize into the wedding ceremony and its importance. For instance, according to the Jewish mystics (the kabbalists), at the Dawn of Creation, God filled the entire universe. In order to create the world, God had to contract and make room for the Earth, sun, moon and stars. In doing so, God broke apart into two—a male and female aspect. The female aspect descended to the Earth, while the male aspect stayed in the heavens. Every Friday evening, the two come together in a celestial wedding. This is where the term “Sabbath Bride” comes from. And since there is a celestial wedding, it can bless the wedding here on Earth!
On top of that, the Sabbath is traditionally a time to gather with friends and family, to share and reflect on that which is most important in one’s life. What could be more important and special than a wedding?
Ultimately, if a couple wants a wedding solemnized by a Jewish clergy person, wants aspects of Judaism brought into their wedding, and want to hold their celebration during the Sabbath, they’re going to do so, whether a Cantor or Rabbi agrees to or not. I seldom get asked to do so, but when I do, I want to be there fully for a couple, who at this singular time in their lives, need someone with whom they can craft a ceremony which will symbolize the future they will build together—and when they want to include elements of Judaism into that future, it means a potential for further Jewish learning and spirituality. And I’m happy to bless that.
How can we find a rabbi/cantor who will officiate a wedding on the Sabbath in the Philadelphia, PA/ Wilmington, DE area? Is there a list to consult?
You can certainly start with places like TheKnot.com, WeddingWire.com, etc. and use the “Jewish” filter during your search. Interview officiants and be upfront with the date & time. You might also have luck with https://www.interfaithfamily.com/. Last but not least, I officiate pretty much anywhere a couple is willing to bring me!
Thanks for the clarification … my oldest son is getting married and his brother is best-man (living by Jewish Law) and has objected to the bachelor party on Friday night …
I do give a “heads up” to couples with more observant Jewish family members that should they chose to celebrate on a Friday night to Saturday that they might wind up excluding people. However, it is not appropriate for the more observant family member to dictate how a couple choses to celebrate. They can simply be polite and understanding. Good luck to your son!