Table of Contents
Rituals are a way of actualizing events that happened at a mythical time, an illud tempus, as mythographer Mircea Eliade puts it. This is why every performance needs to be exactly like the last, and with all probability, as they had been performed the first time. Jewish weddings are among the most ritualized of all religions. Here are ten of the most important and sacred traditions that Jewish weddings need to follow.
10. Kabbalat Panim
The groom and the bride are forbidden to see each other for a week before the marriage celebration. And when the ceremony starts, they both welcome their guests separately, while guests sing folk songs.
The first part of the wedding is called the kabbalat panim, and it is during this phase that both groom and bride are seated in their respective ‘thrones’ and the groom is ‘danced’ by his family and friends towards the bride.
Then, both mothers break a plate as a symbol, meaning that what is once broken can never be brought back to the original state. A kind of warning.
Similarly, at the end of most Jewish weddings the bride and groom are left alone in a private room for a few minutes (usually between 8 and 20). This is called the yichud (togetherness or seclusion) and some traditions consider it the formal closing of the wedding commitment.
9. Seven circles
According to the Biblical tradition written in the book of Genesis, the earth was created in seven days. This is why, during the ceremony, the bride circles the groom a total of seven times.
Each of these circles is supposed to represent a wall that the woman builds to protect their house and their family. Circles, and circular motion, have a deep ritual meaning, as the loops do not have a start nor an end, and neither should have the happiness of the newlyweds.
For most religions, wine is a sacred beverage. The most notable exception to this rule is Islam. But for Jewish people, wine symbolizes cheerfulness. And in such capacity, it is an important part of the wedding ceremony.
The bride and groom are required to share one cup, which will be the first element they will both possess in their new journey. This only cup is to be refilled permanently, so that the happiness and joy are never exhausted.
7. Glass Breaking
Probably the best-known Jewish wedding tradition is when the groom breaks a glass by stepping on it. This is a highly symbolic moment that takes part at the end of the ceremony, as it is a reminder of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.
The glass is wrapped in a white cloth or aluminum foil and it needs to be stomped by the man with his right foot. Shortly after it is crushed to small shards of glass, cheerfulness ensues, and all the guests wish good luck to the newlyweds by uttering a loud Mazel Tov!
Every part of the Jewish wedding ceremony is highly ritualized. The clothes, not only of the bride and groom, but also of the guests, is also rigidly prescribed by the kohanim tradition.
In recent centuries, however, this rigidness seems to have somewhat subsided, and now the only unfailing prescription is for every attending man to wear a kippah or yarmulke, the well-known Jewish brimless cap. As for the bride’s dress, it has to be white in order to represent purity. This is especially fitting, as according to the Jewish law, all the sins are forgiven on the day a woman is to be married and the woman (with the man) is allowed a clean slate and a new start.
This is an aspect in which Jewish ceremonies are the exact opposite of Catholic ones, for example. In the latter, the bride enters church with her head covered by a veil, and it is the groom who uncovers it when she reaches the altar.
In Jewish weddings, on the contrary, the bride arrives with her face showing, but the groom covers her with a veil before entering the chuppah. The veil has two separate and quite important meanings for Jewish people.
First of all, it implies that the man married the woman out of love, and not because of her looks. And in second place, the woman who is to be married is supposed to radiate a godly presence, which is emanated through her face. And this presence needs to be protected by the veiling of the face.
Ketubah is the Hebrew word for a marriage contract. In it, all the duties of the husband towards the wife are described in detail.
The first and foremost of them all is the honoring of his commitment to his wife before every other commitment he may have, except the one with God.
This is a private contract, although in Israel it can be used even today in a court of justice to hold the husband accountable for failing to honor the code.
The tallit is a prayer shawl worn by most Jews. It symbolizes the equality of all men before God. Every Jewish faith has some form of tallit, but while most Orthodox Jews have their kids wear it since their Bar Mitzvah, Ashkenazis usually start wearing it from the day of their marriage onward. In this sense, for the Ashkenazi tradition, it is a crucial milestone within the wedding ceremony.
Chuppah is the Jewish equivalent of an altar but is more accurately described as a canopy. It consists of a square piece of white cloth stretched over four poles, under which the bride and the groom will stand to exchange their vows. In the past, it was required that this part of the ceremony took part on an open court, but nowadays, especially since many Jewish communities live within cities, this rule does not apply anymore.
Just as the seven circles the bride makes around the groom, the rings are circles too, without an and or a beginning. This is what guarantees that the contract is unbreakable. When presenting the ring to the bride, the groom usually says the words ‘With this ring, you are consecrated to me in accord with the law of Moses and Israel’. The bride’s response is ‘I belong to my beloved, and my beloved belongs to me’.
Jewish weddings may be among the more ritualized ceremonies of any modern religion, but they share a few traits with other rituals such as Catholic weddings. In the end, it is only a private contract between a man and a woman, but mediated by the power of their God and His laws. More profoundly, on a symbolical level, it represents a sacred union before God, and the creation of a new world by creating a new family.