While you might assume all Israeli weddings are Jewish weddings, Israeli weddings are actually as diverse as the Israeli population today: filled with immigrants from North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America, along with Arab-Israeli and Druze people, to name just a few. And while the majority of weddings in Israel are Jewish, there are also Muslim and Christian weddings.
“Israel is a melting pot of cultures and traditions, so often some of the first questions in the planning process surround cultural background and tradition,” says wedding planner Arielle Tayar. “It’s very common to have a very eclectic mix: say, a bride of Hungarian and Libyan descent marrying a Finnish-Iraqi groom (true story!).”
Because of this, Israeli weddings often incorporate the traditions of other countries, like throwing sacks full of rose petals at the brides (a Persian custom); an Indian or Moroccan henna ceremony days before the wedding; or even the Georgian custom of opening the gifts and reciting the dollar amounts out loud. And if it’s a Jewish wedding, you can expect many of those traditions to be integrated, too.
Meet the Expert
Arielle Tayar is a Jaffa, Israel-based creative director, event planner, and founder of Whip Creative Studio.
Before the actual wedding, there may be one or several other events leading up to the wedding itself, sometimes beginning as much as a week in advance. If it is a Mizrahi (person from North Africa or Middle East with Sephardic traditions) couple, there will likely be a Henna ceremony and party a few days or a week before. At a Henna, the bride, groom, their families, and some guests dress in traditional clothes, exchange gifts (often of elaborately wrapped fruits and sweets), eat traditional foods from their country, and dance traditional Mizrahi songs. The night ends with the red henna painting ceremony, which is said to protect the new couple from the evil eye and also bless them with a happy marriage.
Israeli-Arabs have a custom of a week full of celebrations that involve handwriting invitations to all the guests, says Tayar. If the bride and/or groom are Ashkenazi, they may have a Shabbat Chatan the Shabbat before the wedding, where the groom reads from the Torah at synagogue and is then showered with candies and other treats. There will be a Kiddush or reception after prayers are over honoring the couple. Mizrahim do this the Shabbat after the wedding.
If the couple is Druze, there is a religious ceremony, called the akid, for males, and the groom takes part in a shaving celebration with his friends. The bride has a Henna ceremony.
Bride and Groom Separation
Some religious couples may not see each other a few days or even up to a week before the ceremony. They are often re-introduced to each other right before the reception, in a private photo session, or if it is a very religious wedding, they will not see each other before the bedeken. Mizrahis will have seen each other at the Henna ceremony.
The reception nowadays resembles typical Western wedding cocktail hours, but there is always a large spread of appetizers made up of Israeli salads, meats, and fish. It is easy to fill up on this food, but there will still be an extravagant meal after the ceremony as well. There will also be plenty of alcohol, including wine, beer, and liquor.
The ketubah is the Jewish wedding contract, which includes the financial and conjugal obligations of the man and wife as well as other frameworks for the marriage. The couple will sign the ketubah in front of two witnesses, who also sign it. The signing is sometimes done at the Chatan’s Tisch, or a mini party with the groom and mostly men, where there is lots of singing, dancing, and drinking before the ceremony.
If the couple is Ashkenazi, this is the beginning of the formal ceremony, and it begins with the groom being danced by his friends and family into the room where the bride awaits. She is seated, usually with her mother and mother-in-law by her side. Bedeken is a Yiddish term that means “veiling ceremony” and when the groom reaches the bride, he lifts her veil over her face and recites a blessing. The bride’s father and sometimes other people in her life will also give her a blessing. Mizrahi/Sephardic weddings do not have a bedeken and the bride goes to the ceremony already veiled.
The Processional and the Chuppah
Many Israeli weddings don’t have a long processional, and there aren’t usually bridesmaids and groomsmen. Sometimes the whole wedding party walks from the bedeken to the chuppah (wedding canopy usually made from a four-cornered cloth attached to four poles, under which the ceremony occurs), and sometimes there aren’t even seats for the guests during the ceremony—they all just crowd around the chuppah. A religious wedding will have men and women seated on separate sides of the aisle. The groom and bride are each walked down the aisle by their parents to the chuppah, where the rabbi is waiting. The parents stand off to the side, on the edges of the chuppah, during the ceremony.
At a Muslim Israeli-Arab and at a Druze wedding, men and women will sit separately, and if it is in a Mosque you will need to remove your shoes.
An Ashkenazi Jewish ceremony consists of the Sheva Brachot (seven blessings), the reading of the ketubah, and the exchanging rings. It typically starts with the bride walking seven times in a circle around the groom, although some less religious couples split that, and each walk around each other, or they walk around in a circle together. Seven blessings are recited, with the first one being over a cup of wine that the couple will then drink from. Sometimes the couple invites friends and family members to come and sing one of the seven blessings. There is an exchange of rings (traditionally, rings are plain gold or silver bands without extra adornment). The rabbi or someone else might speak about the couple, but typically the couple does not recite vows to each other, although they do recite a line saying they accept the marriage while exchanging rings. The ceremony ends with the groom stomping on and breaking a glass, which is said to symbolize that there is always some sadness in the world, even at joyous occasions. The guests usually yell “Mazal Tov!” (congratulations/good luck) and the bride and groom will kiss. The couple is often danced back down the aisle to music.
In a Mizrahi wedding, the bride does not circle the groom seven times, and the groom will lift the bride’s veil when they exchange rings (in an Ashkenazi wedding she remains veiled until they kiss). The chuppah is often made of the groom’s tallit (prayer shawl).
In an Israeli-Arab wedding that is Muslim, the traditional Nikah ceremony will be performed. It consists of mehr, a ceremonial presentation of gifts (which may include the engagement ring) to the bride from the groom; and the recitation by both bride and groom of qubool hai three times each when asked by the imam, which means they consent to the marriage; and nikah-namah, which is the Muslim marriage contract that is read aloud and that the bride and groom sign in front of their guests. After the ceremony, as the couple recesses, the bride is showered with coins, in a tradition called savaqah.
At a Druze wedding, the ceremony is led by an imam and an oral contract is made. Specific passages from the Druze religious book are read and the imam ties a handkerchief that symbolizes the union. The groom gives his money, jewelry, personal items, and other gifts.
This traditional Jewish wedding contract outlines a man's financial and conjugal obligations to his wife and must be signed by the groom and two male witnesses to satisfy Jewish law. As soon as his signature dries, the groom will head to see his bride in a "first look" ceremony.
After the ceremony, there is a festive meal, which will include challah (braided bread eaten on Shabbat and holidays) and a blessing over it before the meal begins if the couple is Jewish. The meal is usually large, with a dessert spread and plenty of drinks.
“Food is always very opulent and can even seem over the top to the non-Israeli eye,” says Tayar. “There is no such thing as not enough food at an Israeli wedding, and even the most basic wedding has a rich, colorful and delicious spread.”
Music and Dancing
There is typically a music and dance portion right after the ceremony and before dinner that might tie into where the couple comes from. There might be a Horah (Ashkenazi Jewish circle dance) and other traditional Israeli music and dances, or Moroccan music associated with a Henna ceremony, or traditional Kurdish dancing. “Even if the couple is not connected to a certain culture, Israelis love to borrow, so you still might hear some Moroccan tunes at an Ashkenazi wedding, for example,” says Tayar. After dinner, things often get kind of wild, with alcohol flowing and loud electronic dance music spun by a DJ. Many wedding celebrations go until very late at night (or early morning, even).