By Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD
Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney
Judaism has been particularly successful in the ceremonies it has created to mark life-cycle events. Skillfully interweaving poetry and prose, custom and law, awesomeness and emotion, they have a remarkable power to attract, move and impress.
Central to the Jewish pattern of ceremony and celebration is the marriage service. It is a rich mosaic, deriving much of its language and imagery from the midrashic account of the first wedding ever conducted – the union of Adam and Eve, solemnised by God Himself under a sevenfold chuppah. Hence the Sheva B’rachot address the Almighty with the prayer, “Make these loving companions rejoice, as once You brought joy to Your creation in the Garden of Eden of old.”
Every bridegroom is Adam and every bride Eve. Their hopeful dream as they stand under the chuppah is that, like the first man and woman, they may create happiness together and lay the foundations of destiny.
The normal Jewish marriage is both a civil and a religious ceremony. The legal requirements of both Jewish and civil marriage law must therefore be met. The forms that have to be filled in advance of the wedding day and other necessary information, will be provided by the officiating rabbi or his office.
Before booking the reception, the date has to be approved by the rabbi as there are certain days when marriages may not take place. It is also advisable that the wedding should not take place when the bride expects to be niddah (menstruating).
The Aufruf (call-up)
On the Shabbat before the wedding the bridegroom is usually called to the reading of the Torah, together with members of both families. This recalls a tradition dating back to the time of King Solomon, when the congregation, assembled at a specially designated gate of the Temple, would greet and congratulate a bridegroom. Originally a special Torah portion was selected for the chatan, but this custom lapsed in medieval times.
In some congregations the groom is showered, when he recites the b’rachah, with nuts, raisins or sweets. Deriving from a usage recorded in the Talmud, this practice may have been a symbol of fertility, expressing the hope that the couple would be blessed with children.
Within four days before the wedding, the bride immerses in the mikvah (ritual bath). Her immersion is accompanied by a b’rachah and an appropriate prayer. The purpose of the immersion is to effect spiritual purification in preparation for the physical relationship of marriage.
Wedding day fast
It is customary for bride and groom to fast on the day of the wedding until after the ceremony. This assists them to come to the chuppah as a spirit of solemnity akin to that of Yom Kippur. The wedding day fast is first recorded by Rabbi Elazar ben Yehudah of Worms (12th to 13th century); it is based on the Talmudic teaching that when a person marries, their sins are forgiven.
It is important to enter upon marriage as a new chapter in life with one’s conscience cleared of the errors or lapses of the past. The point is reinforced by a bride and groom, when praying Minchah before the wedding, adding to their Amidah the Yom Kippur confession of sins.
No fast takes place on Rosh Chodesh or minor festivals or during Nisan.
The bride wears a white dress, reminiscent of the white vestments that symbolise purity on the High Holydays. In some communities the groom wears a tallit or a white kittel – yet another reminder of the dignity, purity and spirituality of the occasion.
Before the bride comes under the chuppah, the groom formally accepts the terms and conditions of the ketubah (the marriage covenant). Written in Aramaic, the Jewish vernacular of Talmudic times and instituted over two millennia ago, this document was created in order to protect and provide for the wife.
A commonly observed preliminary to the ceremony is bedecken, whereby the groom is escorted to where the bride is seated; he covers her face with the veil as a prayer is said for her, based on the words spoken to Rebecca (Gen. 24:60).
The ceremony takes place under a canopy, the chuppah (literally, “cover”). It symbolises the marital home in which husband and wife will create and build their own privacy. In some communities the chuppah is set up in the open air; others prefer the more formal setting of the synagogue. The groom comes under the chuppah first in order to await the arrival of his bride. The bride stands on his right, in fulfillment of the Biblical words, “At thy right hand does the queen stand” (Psalm 45:10); on their wedding day, bride and groom are regarded as royalty.
In many communities, the groom is led under the chuppah by the two fathers and the bride by the two mothers. This is varied in other places, with the bride being escorted down the aisle by her father, with the mothers, bridesmaids, etc. making up the rest of her procession.
The custom of having unterfuhrers is ancient. They do not necessarily play any role in the religious ceremony, though it is usual for them to hand the cup of wine to the bride and groom after the blessings are said. They do not “give the bride away”; this is not a Jewish concept.
The unterfuhrers stand at each side of the chuppah. Other members of the wedding party – best man, groomsmen, bridesmaids, etc. – are positioned near the chuppah but have no specific religious role.
Encircling the groom
Frequently the bride, as she arrives at the chuppah, will walk around the groom three or seven times. Some explain the custom as deriving from Jeremiah 31:21, “A woman shall surround a man,” since it is the wife who creates the environment of love, beauty and family loyalty.
Three circuits may represent the three virtues of marriage spelt out in Hosea 2:21: righteousness, justice and loving kindness. The alternative custom of seven circuits derives from the Biblical concept that seven denotes perfection or completeness. It is also worth noting that the three Patriarchs and four Matriarchs add up to seven – suggesting that happiness, like Jewish history, comes from the intertwining of the personalities of husband and wife.
The ceremony is often introduced by the singing of traditional wedding songs or, in more formal settings, by Mah Tovu and Psalms 100 and/or 84, followed by the chant of welcome, Baruch Haba. Next comes Mi Addir, a fragment of an old wedding hymn, praying that God, Who is mighty, blessed and great above all beings, bless the groom and bride. Many congregations will now insert an address to the couple by the rabbi, though in other communities this comes later, and in other places there is no address at all.
Two Blessings of Betrothal are recited over a cup of wine. Later there will come the Sheva B’rachot, the Seven Blessings of Marriage. The two sets of blessings reflect the fact that originally there were two quite distinct ceremonies of betrothal and marriage, with a year or so between them. Betrothal was a more binding arrangement than the modern engagement. Since medieval times, shortly after the geonic period, they have been combined in the one ceremony, separated by the reading of the ketubah.
The union of husband and wife is established by the groom placing the wedding ring on the first finger of the bride’s right hand. He recites or repeats in Hebrew the Harei At declaration (“Behold you are consecrated to me by this ring according to the law of Moses and Israel”). Hence it is not the rabbi who marries the couple; they marry each other in the presence of witnesses.
The ring must be the groom’s property. It should be plain and without jewels in order to make no distinction between rich people and poor, and to avoid any deception or misunderstanding as to its monetary worth. It must be an object of value, but need not cost more than the lowest common coin. The bride should not wear any other rings or jewellery during the ceremony.
The ring – introduced into Jewish marriage in post-Talmudic times – is probably not based on Roman or other non-Jewish precedents. It replaces the giving of kesef, a monetary object, which is one of the three classical modes of effecting Kiddushin. The round and endless shape of the ring suggests the hope that the couple will enjoy well-rounded and lifelong happiness.
Reading of the ketubah
The ketubah is read in the Aramaic original and usually also in an English abstract and is subsequently handed to the bride. She should look after it carefully since it is her interests which it safeguards; if lost it needs to be replaced. The obligations her groom assumes towards her, apart from financial considerations, are maintenance, clothing and conjugal rights. The ketubah also sets out the spiritual and ethical obligations that give the union a poetical dimension.
The Seven Blessings of Marriage commence with the b’rachah over wine and then set this marriage within the scheme of Divine creation. They praise the Creator who brought the world into being, created man in His image and made woman out of man’s very self, instituted marriage and placed the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden.
These blessings show that Judaism sees marriage as God-given, creative and holy. The final words speak of ten kinds of joy that come with marriage and pray that this couple may have “love and brotherhood, peace and companionship”.
Bride and groom now drink from the cup used for the blessings, in the same way that they shared the cup used for the Blessings of Betrothal, symbolising the fact that henceforth they share the same cup of life, whatever it may bring.
Breaking the glass
A glass is now broken by the bridegroom stepping on it, a custom which originally expressed mourning at the loss of the Temple. Not even the excitement of a simchah should make a Jew forget the pledge to “set Jerusalem above my chiefest joy”.
The custom is linked to an occasion reported in the Talmud. When Mar the son of Ravina saw at his son’s wedding that people were overdoing the merriment, he took a costly cup and shattered it before them, sobering their spirits and making them see that joy must be tempered with reality.
Other explanations quote the folk belief that bride and groom would have good fortune if dishes were broken on the wedding day, or the significant lesson that marital happiness can be broken by one irresponsible act and once the damage has been done, it takes great effort to restore the fabric and foundations of the marriage.
Despite the fact that Jews do not believe in mazal (luck), it is customary at this point for all present to call out Mazal tov to the bride and groom.
In many places the rabbi or a kohen conclude the ceremony with the priestly benediction, wishing the couple blessing, protection, Divine grace and peace.
The couple now sign the marriage certificate and leave the chuppah in procession. They spend a few minutes together in private (yichud), denoting their newly acquired status as husband and wife entitled to privacy under the same roof.