My rabbinical colleagues have been having an animated exchange about merits of traditional elements in the Jewish Marriage Ceremony. I offer the following essay to couples to help them decide how they wish to structure their ceremony.
“It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting partner for him.” (Genesis 2:18) In this verse one finds the initial expression of what became the classical Jewish view of marriage. The ancient Rabbis considered marriage both the norm and the ideal. They frowned upon celibacy and viewed marriage as a necessity for complete human fulfillment.
Because the Rabbis viewed marriage as God’s desire for humanity, they carefully examined scripture for insights into this divinely ordained relationship. In pondering the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, the Rabbis asked, ‘Why does scripture portray Eve as evolving from Adam’s rib?” They answered their own question by asserting, “She was not taken from his head to be superior to him, or from his foot to be beneath him. Rather, she was taken from his side to be equal to him and from near his heart to be loved.”
The Hebrew word for marriage is kiddushin, which literally translated means “holiness”. Through the marriage ceremony a man and a woman consecrate themselves (i.e., make themselves holy) to one another. The Hebrew concept of holiness contains the notion of uniqueness. In the marriage ceremony the partners set one another apart from the rest of the world and enter into a uniquely holy partnership.
Often, on the day of their wedding, a bride and groom will fast until the ceremony. Jews ordinarily fast on the Day of Atonement, the solemn holy day on which the Jew seeks forgiveness for his/her wrongdoings of the past year.
Jewish tradition emphasized the unique holiness of a couple’s wedding day by considering it, like the Day of Atonement, a day when their past misdeeds are forgiven. When a couple affirms this traditional outlook, they begin married life with their hearts and minds focused on the future they will build together, not on past errors.
The Jewish marriage ceremony takes place under a chupah, a wedding canopy which symbolizes the home the couple will establish. Whether the chupah is simple or ornate, its purpose is to remind the bride and groom of the important role each must play in the creation of a meaningful Jewish home life.
In traditional Jewish weddings, the bride will walk around the groom seven times when she joins him at the chupah. By encircling him seven times, the bride symbolically enters into the seven spheres of the husband’s soul referred to in Jewish mystical tradition. The act of circling represents the intimate unity, understanding, and mutual concern which the couple will, hopefully, strive for in their married life. She also symbolically presents herself as a wall of protection for her husband.
An important feature of the wedding ceremony is the couple’s sharing of the cup of wine sanctified by the appropriate blessing. Wine is a religious symbol of joy and a prominent ritual feature at all Jewish festive occasions. By sharing the wine cup under the chupah, their symbolic home, the couple sets a pattern for observing holidays and festivals according to Jewish custom in the real home they will establish. Also, by sharing from the same cup at their wedding, the bride and groom affirm that they will share together whatever joy or sadness the cup of life offers them.
In addition to the traditional blessing over the wine, the ceremony contains six other benedictions, making a total of seven wedding blessings appropriate to the occasion. Because of its prominence in Jewish biblical, rabbinic and mystical tradition, seven is considered an extremely fortuitous number.
In the period of the Talmud (from 200 BCE to 500 CE) there were two formal ceremonies leading to marriage. The first was a ceremony of betrothal which could be dissolved only through divorce proceedings. A year later, in most cases, the actual wedding occurred. In time, it became the custom to combine the two ceremonies. At traditional Jewish weddings today, the couple will share the goblet of wine at two points in the ceremony to symbolize the once—distinct rites of betrothal and marriage which are now celebrated together.
A vital feature of traditional Jewish weddings is the reading of the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract. The ketubah, which delineates the conditions under which a marriage occurs, was originally designed to carefully protect the rights of women in married life. The Rabbis considered Jewish marriage as a legal covenant in which both partners have dearly defined rights and obligations. At the same time, the Rabbis viewed marriage as the quintessence of personal relationships characterized by love, growth and mutual sharing.
Often, the ketubah, which is a legal document under Jewish law, is beautifully hand-lettered and ornately decorated. Such artistic ketubot (plural of ketubah) symbolize both the legal guarantees and romantic ideals of the marital relationship.
The repetition of the Jewish marriage formula by the groom is an essential feature of any Jewish wedding ceremony. As he places the wedding ring on his wife’s right forefinger (where it can be most clearly seen), the man repeats the Hebrew formula which means “Be consecrated to me as my wife with this ring according to the religion of Moses and Israel.”
In every ceremony that I conduct the bride also places a wedding ring on her husband’s finger and (changing “wife” to “husband”, of course) will repeat the exact same formula as the groom. This act symbolizes that not only does the husband acquire a wife, but the wife acquires a husband as well. Jewish law stipulates that wedding rings be of plain metal, containing no gems or stones. The metal of the ring, it is felt, should be unbroken by gems just as the harmony of the couple should be undisturbed by outside influences.
The ceremony concludes with the groom crushing with his right foot a glass which has been carefully wrapped to prevent shattering. Although the origins of this custom are shrouded in mystery, several explanations have been offered for its familiar place in the wedding ceremony. One of them is that the breaking of the glass symbolizes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a sorrow which the Jews should remember even during happy times. For many modern couples, the breaking of the glass is significant as a reminder that even in moments of supreme joy, we remember that there are many in the world whose lives are broken by sadness and pain.
The groom’s act of forcefully breaking a glass also provides a reciprocal response to the wife’s circling him at the outset of the ceremony. Just as her act is a sign of her vow to protect him, his breaking of the glass serves as a warning to any who might intrude on the sanctity of the marriage.
Immediately following the ceremony, the couple repairs to a private room to break their fast with a brief meal and spend their first precious moments as a married couple alone together. After a few brief minutes of privacy, the couple emerges to greet their guests.
Not all Jewish weddings contain all of the features mentioned here, because couples vary in their desires for traditional elements in their ceremony. No matter what practices it includes, though, a Jewish marriage ceremony endeavors to give warm expression to meaningful religious symbolism. A ceremony, no matter how rich or warm, cannot insure a successful marriage. Hopefully, though, the Jewish couple who are aware of the meaning behind the ritual will emerge from their chupah with greater appreciation of the rabbinic ideal of mutual affirmation and protection in marriage and the hope that the Eternal One will bless their union.