I’ve noticed a recent trend among wedding couples I’ve been working with. Even though most of my couples are pretty progressive, there is a desire at times to dip into the tradition pool and pull out a few practices that seem antiquated or even on face conforming with the gender norms of last century. I’m not sure what the affinity for such practices is, but at the very least, it’s worthwhile to understand such practices, learn of their origins, and to see what that means for couples getting married in the 21st century. In particular, I’m speaking of the wearing of a veil and the idea of the “First Look”—meaning the moment when the groom first sees his bride (or whatever gender terms and pronouns work here best!).

Regarding the Veil

If you’re not familiar with the Biblical story in Genesis of Jacob, I’ll refer you to Genesis chapter 29. Here we read that Jacob in his wanderings happens upon Rachel, the daughter of Laban (and if you want to get technical, Laban is a relative of Jacob’s—like cousins, so stay tuned for some ickiness, folks!). Rachel and Jacob fall in love, and even though Jacob and Laban are considered kinsmen, Laban would not allow his daughter to be married off until Jacob served him for seven years. Well, love knows no bounds, and Jacob did work for Laban, during which time he could not be intimate with Rachel in any way. After the seven years, Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my time is fulfilled, that I might cohabit with her.” So Laban threw a party for the happy couple.

But wait! What’s this? Laban had two daughters! Rachel was the younger, and the elder was Leah. Laban pulled a switcheroo and after the party, in full veil, he sent Leah to “cohabit” with Jacob, sealing the deal, for back in the day, if you “got busy,” you were de facto married.

Jacob was none too pleased. But Laban said, “Is it not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older (Gen. 29:26)?” So Laban made the offer that Jacob could marry Rachel, provided Jacob worked for Laban another seven years. So yeah, that happened, and he was allowed to then marry Rachel.

The veils that such women would have worn back in the day would be nothing like the translucent ones most American brides wear now. They would have been more akin to the muslim burka which is opaque, covering most of the face and making it almost impossible to figure out who is under it.

This story is what lead to the practice of bedeken during which the groom and others actually puts the veil on the bride just prior to the start of the wedding ceremony. This was designed to ensure that the groom could guarantee no switcheroo at the wedding altar.

Of course, with the more modern veils, this act is more ceremonial than anything. As well, since it’s the bride that gets veiled and not the groom, there are a couple of implications that are a little difficult to reconcile: 1) That women should be veiled as a sign of modesty because even their face alone can be too sexually stimulating to men that they would not be able to control themselves; 2) That women are property of men, for why do women “need” to be veiled and men do not? The de facto power here is granted to the groom.

So how can we reinterpret the veil or even the practice of bedeken so that the more liberated couple can enjoy the practice?

There is the old standby of “tradition.” For many, the very practice of tradition is enough to enjoy many rites and rituals. But for those with a little more intellectual curiosity or with a flair for the creative, they can reinvent the meanings behind these rituals. A great source to explore for this purpose is ritualwell.org, a repository for many new and dynamic takes on older practices. For example, this article talks about parity for both bride and groom, whereby the groom wears the traditional kittel or white robe worn by very traditional grooms on their wedding day. The bride assists the groom into his kittel, and the groom assists with the donning of her veil. The moment can be a reflection back to the first time the groom and the bride met. Rabbis Weiss, Handler and Koninck even wrote a ritual for same-sex brides where there is a double bedekken.

The First Look

It fascinates me still that there are couples—especially ones where they have been intimate or even living together—who want to enjoy a “first look” at their wedding ceremony. To begin, the origin of this practice (and from my bit of research, the actual origins are somewhat dubious, so if you heard otherwise, please email me and let me know!) seems to be from the days of arranged marriages. If you don’t have a first look at the stranger you’re about to marry, you still have time to bail! Second, from a practical standpoint, there is at the very least the practice at a Jewish ceremony of signing the ketubah, during which presumably the bride and the groom would both be present. Also, many photographers like to get the posed shots out of the way before the partying begins, but the photographer works for you, so don’t be shy to remind them of that!

A few of the weddings I’ve officiated at where the groom and the bride wanted to have a “magic moment” like this had some creative ways of dealing with the situation—one couple had two rooms set up for the ketubah signing so the document was go from place to place to be signed before the ceremony. It’s a bit impractical, and as far as I’m concerned, the ketubah signing ceremony is part and parcel of the ceremony entire, but most couples consider the walking down the aisle to be the definitive start. Another couple used an artificial blinder in the form of a plate so the groom could shield his eyes from his bride.

Making a Moment of Magic

Rituals are really about bringing heightened meaning to otherwise mundane practices. Weddings are celebrations and magical, but by definition, they are the creation of a limited liability company between two parties or two spouses. The rites surrounding the creation of such an entity is what we call a wedding. I know, I know… so clinical! But only until the last century or so, marriages, arranged or otherwise, were contractual agreements and not the greater spectacle they are today. This is why we have rituals. And rituals only hold meaning when we give them meaning. Human beings are poetic and have the ability to see beauty wherever we seek it. So yes, we are making magic during a wedding ceremony. If by wearing a veil, a kittel, or having a first look adds meaning to the day for you as a couple, then you should include it. No one should participate in a rite which they find empty, irrelevant or offensive. But if you can look to the past for inspiration on your Big Day, embrace the rituals.

I offer one caveat to this advice: Unless you’re eloping, you have family and friends with you on the Big Day. Doing that doesn’t mean doing entirely everything and anything you find meaningful with that audience present. If you like being nudists, for a hyperbolic example, you better make sure grandma and grandpa are okay seeing you both in the buff. My point is that hopefully you know your friends and family in attendance well enough to know that, although the ceremony is for the two of you and should embody your relationship, there might be words shared or rites practiced in more private of circumstances rather than in front of 200 guests.

Have fun making magic with these and other rituals!