The modern-day Jewish wedding ceremony is a combination of a couple of ancient ceremonies blended into one. We have set out below the main components of such ceremonies. Please keep in mind however that traditions and practices varies in different parts of the world and depending on if you are Ashkenazim or Sephardim, orthodox, conservative or liberal etc. Our intention is to give a brief background for those of you who may not be familiar with Judaism or Jewish traditions from our liberal, egalitarian modern-day perspective.
Ketubah (Wedding Contract)
In Jewish tradition there is a marriage contract, called a ketubah, that defines the relationship in terms of commitment and financial aspects. The word ketubah literally means "that which is written" and traditionally is a contract that a man makes with a woman, obligating the chatan (the groom) to serve, cherish, sustain, and support the kallah (the bride) in truth. Many couples today prefer to write their own contract reflecting their own joint perspective of their commitment, one to the other. The ketubah is signed in private in the presence of the Rabbi and two witnesses before the wedding ceremony.
Bedeken (Veiling of the Kallah)
After the ketubah is signed and before the wedding ceremony takes place, the chatan approaches the kallah and lifts the veil over her face. Some say that this custom of bedeken, i.e. the veiling of the kallah, recalls the predicament of Jacob, our forefather, who thought he was marrying Rachel only to discover, after the ceremony, that he had married Leah. The tradition now is that a chatan and kallah see each other before the ceremony thereby avoiding such confusion.
The veiling of the kallah has a number of different explanations. One is that, similar to the huppah (the marriage canopy) and also the tallit (the Jewish prayer shawl), it represents the new home that the couple will establish together. According to another explanation it makes the kallah hekdesh (literally, set apart in holiness) and symbolizes what the chatan values most in the kallah. Beauty may fade with time but the woman's spiritual qualities are something she will never lose. The veil, which physically separates chatan and kallah, also serves to remind them that they remain distinct individuals even as they unite in marriage.
Huppah (Marriage Canopy)
The chatan and kallah, accompanied by their parents and future in-laws, are led to the huppah, which represents the new home they will establish together. Open on all four sides, the huppah indicates that the couple’s new home should be open, welcoming and an integral part of their extended family and community.
Kiddushin (the Ceremony)
The wedding ceremony, kiddushin (literally holiness), is in two parts, separated by the reading of the ketubah.
The erusin (betrothal) begins with two blessings recited by the Rabbi over a cup of wine. Both the chatan and kallah partake of the wine, after which the rings are exchanged.
Only one ring, given by the chatan to his bride, is required by Jewish law. However, double-ring ceremonies are now the norm. The ring must be made of plain metal, usually gold, with no precious stones and of one piece and the ring to be given to the kallah must belong to the chatan. The chatan starts by declaring, "Harei at mekudeshet li betabaat zo kedat moshe veisrael", "Behold, you are consecrated unto me with this ring in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel." This traditional formula known as the Harei-at contains 32 letters. In Hebrew, the number 32 is written out using the letters lamed and beth. This spells out the word lev, which means heart. The chatan then places the ring on the index finger of the kallah's right hand. This custom made it easier to show the witness that the bride had received the ring. By accepting the ring, the kallah agrees to enter the marriage. The kallah then places the ring on the chatan’s finger and recites words from the biblical book “Song of Songs.” ("Ani ledodi vedodi li" - I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine) or other words expressing the love the couple shares. The first ceremony is completed.
The ketubah is then read after which seven nuptial blessings (sheva brachot) are recited (nissuin, or elevation). These blessings acknowledge the creation of humanity not only in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense, transcending time and spanning the generations of Jewish existence. While only the last two blessings mention the chatan and kallah explicitly, read as a whole the seven blessings place the couple in the chain of Jewish history and express their wish for personal and universal joy and peace.
Concluding the ceremony, the chatan breaks a glass as a reminder of the destruction of the second Holy Temple, the frailty of human relationships and the existence of human suffering. This action is a personal reminder that just as we accept joy into our lives we recognize that there may also be times of sorrow.
Immediately after the ceremony, the couple retires to a room for a few private moments to reflect on the day's events and share in one another's company. In biblical times, the Yichud was when the physical consummation of the marriage occurred to make sure that the bride was a virgin and that the couple was compatible and could withhold the mitzvah (commandment) of having children.
The chatan and kallah then rejoin their guests amid great joy, singing, and dancing. The Jewish wedding is unique in that there is an explicit mitzvah to help the bride and groom rejoice. The active celebration of each guest enhances the personal joy of both the bride and the groom.