Traditional Jewish weddings have many, beautiful rituals. When fully understood, the significance of these traditions is even more rich and distinctive. Many of our wedding customs date back to the time of Abraham.
In the Jewish faith, the joining of husband and wife is a holy act, one of our most important obligations. The very first blessing that a parent says over their child when they are naming them expresses the hope to see them under the chupah, as a bride or groom.
There are several customs that occur prior to the wedding ceremony. One of them is even the marriage of the couple.
Prior to their wedding, many women visit the Mikvah. The word Mikvah literally means collection. A Mikvah is a ritual bath or a collection of water. Women will immerse themselves in the water of the Mikvah as an act of spiritual purification. Men, also, visit the Mikvah for spiritual elevation, typically prior to Shabbat or holidays.
The laws governing the practice of family purity are some of the most beautiful mitzvot, enhancing the relationship between husband and wife. The importance of these laws is illustrated by the fact that the Torah requires a community to build a Mikvah prior to building a synagogue or purchasing a Torah.
On the Shabbat prior to the wedding, the groom is traditionally called to the Torah with an Aliyah. It is an appropriate beginning to the wedding festivities as it is a reminder to look to the Torah for guidance throughout their lives. The bride will commonly not be present at the Aufruf since most couples do not see each other during the week prior to the wedding.
Twenty-four hours before the wedding, the bride and groom are each in the company of a Shomer (“bodyguard”). On their wedding day, the bride and groom are likened to a Queen and King. A King and Queen are never left alone. The presence of the Shomer helps to ensure that nothing will go wrong. They assist the bride and groom – running errands, keeping things in order and emotions in check.
The day of the wedding is a private Yom Kippur for the bride and groom. It is a day of fasting and introspection. As they begin their new life together, they are given the opportunity to begin with a pure soul. On this day, the bride and groom ask and are forgiven for any transgression from their youth.
As a symbol of purity, it is customary for the couple to wear white. The groom wears a Kittel, the garment traditionally worn by a man during the High Holidays and Passover seders.
Preceding the wedding ceremony, the marriage of the two individuals actually occurs at the moment the Ketubah is signed. The Ketubah is a marriage contract, written in traditional Aramaic, and expresses the groom’s physical, financial, legal and emotional commitment to the bride.
The men are in one room and the women are in another. The Ketubah is signed by two unrelated witnesses, and the mother’s of the bride and groom stand together and break a plate. The broken plate symbolizes a broken relationship – it is something that cannot be put back together. When the Ketubah is signed, the couple is married!
The men, who have been seated at a table with the groom, gather around him and dance and sing their way into the room where the bride is sitting like a queen in a throne-like chair.
The Torah tells us of the wedding between Jacob and Rachel. Rachel’s father veiled his daughter, Leah, in place of Rachel and sent her to marry Jacob. Jacob did not discover this deceit until after the wedding had taken place.
It has become customary for the groom to veil his bride prior to the Chupah ceremony. This ensures that he is being married to the woman he has chosen. Another reason for the veil is to cover the bride’s physical beauty, allowing the bride and groom to focus on the spiritual qualities within each other.
When the groom walks into the room escorted by all the men, it is the first time he and his bride have seen each other in a week.
These rituals above are still part of many Jewish weddings today, although they are often distorted to fit with modern needs. The woman, for example, may be present at the Ketubah signing and may not have waited a week before seeing her groom.
But, many people still hold the practice to its ancient custom. I recall my own wedding and seeing my husband-to-be for the first time in a week. Watching him be escorted by friends and family to the B’Deken was one of the most meaningful parts of our wedding.
In my next article, we’ll explore what actually happens under the wedding chupah.