As the land "flowing with milk and honey," Israel sounds like a place that knows how to throw a good party, right? Curious about how the culture approaches our favorite parties of all time—i.e. weddings—we called up wedding planner Lisa Shiner, and real-life Israeli bride Yael Plotkin-Ezra for the lowdown on all that really takes place. "It looks like a bit of a mess," says Shiner with a laugh, "but it's a very fun mess. Israelis tend to have a much more party emphasis than other cultures when it comes to weddings." The rowdy crowds and very late late-night dancing may make for a more informal experience than many Western weddings, but Israelis are equally concerned with a ceremony that's sentimental. As with all countries, those wedding details differ based on a couple's geographic location, as well as their religious and cultural backgrounds. Shiner points out that the ceremonies of North African and Indian ethnic groups of Israel will look different than those of the various Jewish sects. Still, she was willing to walk us through some of the most common experiences one might expect when attending an Israeli wedding.
Meet the Expert
Lisa Shiner is an Israeli wedding planner and managing partner at the Tel Aviv-based event production and design company, BE Group.
Before we continue into our explanation of what an Israeli wedding looks like, here are the answers to some frequently asked questions:
- What should I wear to an Israeli wedding? Expect guests to be very dressed down. "You may even see some jeans and flip-flops," says Shiner. "Though, many couples make a point of requesting a nicer dress code nowadays." There's an unspoken internal consensus that guests are not supposed to wear white. For a Jewish ceremony, women traditionally wear attire that covers their shoulders and men wear Kippahs or Yarmulkas to cover their heads.
- Do men and women sit separately? If attending an Orthodox Jewish wedding, men and women will customarily sit on opposite sides of the ceremony. At an ultra-Orthodox wedding, men and women will also celebrate separately with a partition in between.
- How long is an Israeli wedding ceremony? If the couple is having a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, it will typically range from 25-45 minutes depending on how many readings, rituals, and music the couple chooses to include.
- Are Jewish weddings performed on Shabbat? Traditionally, Jewish weddings are not performed on Shabbat or the High Holy Days.
- Will the newlyweds kiss? The newlyweds will kiss after the breaking of the glass ritual, when they have officially become wed.
- Should I bring a gift? "Israeli guests consider it an imposition to bring someone a present to their wedding," says Shiner, although she acknowledges registries are becoming more accepted. "Still, guests won't bring anything to the wedding. They'll just give cash or something beforehand through the registry service."
Read through the various Israeli wedding customs and traditions below. Mazel tov!
Shabbat Hatan (Groom's Sabbath)
In this tradition, the groom reads the Torah at synagogue in honor of his upcoming wedding and is showered with sweets and fruit. "For Ashkenazi Jews, it's the Saturday before the wedding," says Shiner. "For Sephardic Jews, it's the Saturday after the wedding."
Mikvah Bathing Ritual
This purification ritual, that involves a woman bathing in a Mikvah pool full of a minimum of 200 gallons of rainwater, was originally considered mandatory for Jewish brides before their wedding. "These days it's typically done in a huge swimming pool-like thing, and has become almost like a spa experience for the bride and some of her friends and family," says Shiner. "They make it a bit of a party."
Bride and Groom Separation
"In ultra-orthodox communities, couples do not meet for a week before the wedding and do not live together beforehand," Shiner tells us. And on the day of? "In Israel there is a custom that the groom sees the bride only when she is ready," says Plotkin-Ezra, who got ready with close female friends and family members. "And as soon as I was ready, they called him," she says.
"Brides and grooms are moving away from Jewish traditional clothing," says Shiner. "Israeli design is typically more revealing and fitted and very flattering for brides. They'll usually choose a white or off-white or blush dress, and a bedeken (veil)." In keeping with the more informal theme, grooms will usually opt for a white button-down with chinos and a waistcoat, Shiner says, though some wear suits.
The pre-wedding henna for North African and Indian ethnic groups includes the rubbing of a reddish-orange henna paste in the palms of the bride and groom. "It's in a circle, the shape of a coin, to symbolize prosperity and good luck," says Shiner. The groom's parents rub in the bride's henna, while her parents take care of the groom's circle. Next, the to-be-weds have their hands wrapped in decorative silk ribbons. "The guests sing and rejoice to make the couple happy and are also invited to use henna themselves so that they may be included in the couple’s blessing and good fortune," says Shiner. "It's also considered lucky for the unmarried—to help them find companionship."
In Israeli cultures, the reception takes place before the ceremony, similar to a Western cocktail hour. Guests enjoy food and drink and are welcomed by both families. "While generally the couple doesn't appear until the actual ceremony, in some secular cases, the bride and groom will join," says Shiner. "Then, everyone will walk down the aisle for the ceremony together as one big family in a bit of a free-for-all!" In some Orthodox communities, there are two receptions—one for the bride and one for the groom.
The Groom's Tisch
Shiner affectionately refers to the tisch as "a period of loud and atmospheric boy time" right before the ceremony. Envision lots of boisterous singing and dancing, and since tisch translates to "table," the groom enjoys food and drink with his guests, too, before signing the wedding contract and seeing the bride.
Orthodox law commands there be a quorum of 10 male adults for a Jewish wedding to be considered legitimate, Shiner says.
Bedeken means "the veiling ceremony" in Yiddish, and is important in Jewish cultures because "the veil symbolizes the idea of modesty and shows that however attractive the bride is, her soul and character is paramount," says Shiner. Now it's time for parents to lead the bride and groom to the public marriage ceremony that takes place under the marriage canopy known as the "huppa," "huppah," or "chuppah."
Sometimes there is no formal processional; the wedding party and guests will enter as a group "singing and playing on drums," Shiner says. But in a Jewish religious ceremony, the cantor (liturgical singer) and rabbi are first to take their places at the front of the site. If the grandparents haven't been seated beforehand, they'll enter next. Traditionally, Israeli couples do not have bridesmaids or groomsmen (though this is slowly changing), but sometimes siblings or friends will join at the chuppah or even hold up the canopy themselves. (If the wedding is extremely traditional, only male relatives and friends are allowed.) Shiner says, "This is a way for couples to incorporate their friends into the wedding." Then, the groom walks down the aisle, escorted by both parents, and the bride is the last to enter—also on the arms of mom and dad.
Even in the case of more traditional Jewish religious ceremonies, the vibe is much more laid-back, explains Shiner. "If the couple is secular, they may not even have what many would consider a 'real' ceremony," she says. "Guests may stand the whole time, and everyone is mingling and embracing. There's not much formality." Given the year-round fair weather in Israel, outdoor celebrations are most popular.
Jewish Ceremony Format
While a Jewish religious ceremony is still one of the most popular marriage formats, they're "definitely becoming less rigid," Shiner says. "There's a much more modern take on things. The rabbi will even crack jokes now and again."
Bride Circles Groom Seven Times
"Just as the world was built in seven days, this practice is meant to symbolize the bride building the walls of their new home," says Shiner.
Plotkin-Ezra and her husband wanted to have a combination of religious and secular elements, and so incorporated their own hand-written vows. "The vows we read made the ceremony more personal and exciting, and allowed us to really connect with our guests," she says.
In Jewish law, the marriage is considered official once the groom has given the bride "something of great value," i.e. places a ring on her finger, explains Shiner. Customarily, the wedding band was required to be plain with no diamonds or any other adornments. Nowadays, many brides choose to also purchase a ring for their husbands, and thus exchange rings during the ceremony.
The Wine Ceremony
Since wine is considered a symbol of joy, someone—usually the mother of the bride—will often "feed" the bride wine at the chuppah.
Breaking of the Glass
"Here's the part everyone knows!" says Shiner. "At the very end of the ceremony, the groom stomps on the glass and everyone shouts 'Mazel tov!'—which means congratulations and good luck." But at an Israeli wedding, this is also the part where "all hell breaks loose," she says, laughing. "Everyone moves forward and rushes in to kiss and bless and congratulate the couple. You can't move for 20 minutes."
"The food is a big, big deal in Israeli weddings," says Shiner. "The festive meal" is a feast, usually with seemingly unlimited buffet service and huge amounts of food. While dessert tables are the more traditional route ("You'll have 30 desserts!"), Shiner says she sees an increasing number of cakes and cupcakes every year. "They're becoming more popular as symbolic and decorative elements."
What are the most popular alcohols in Israel? "Vodka, Arak, and tequila," Shiner answers immediately. "There are typically two cocktails named for the couple and a standard kind of wine."
The Seven Blessings
The dinner concludes with the recitation of the Sheva B'rachot, or "the seven blessings." This is a task usually divided between seven men who are very close to the couple, and is accompanied by lots of singing.
Speeches aren't common at Israeli weddings, beyond the occasional brief welcome from the parents or couple. Instead, friends will prepare "presentations" of paramount quality. "Sometimes friends will make a film-like documentary of the couple's relationship," says Shiner. Other times, close friends and family may recite blessings for the newlyweds or sing songs that they composed specifically for the event.
Strap in, newbies. The partying that starts after the meal can easily go until five in the morning, says Shiner, and Israeli couples like to go all out. "They're opening up more food and drink stands at midnight and there is less live music in Israeli weddings," says Shiner. "Most have a DJ for the entire event, or have one live musician who plays alongside streaming music videos." If the couple is Jewish, you can also expect the bride and groom to be hoisted in the air on chairs and other traditional Jewish dances to make an appearance.
"The dances start with a couple's slow dance, but then the music changes and becomes rhythmic and it feels just like a regular party," says Plotkin-Ezra, who replaced her heels with flip-flips for this portion of her wedding. She says because wedding parties go so late into the morning, most couples organize transportation for their guests so no one drinks and drives.
A popular wedding favor for guests include things that can be given out on the dance floor, such as t-shirts, glow sticks, or flowered leis.
Shiner couldn't pinpoint a particular honeymoon destination most popular for Israeli couples because "their honeymoons are very un-formulaic compared to other cultures," she says. "They could go anywhere, and sometimes they'll wait six months or sometimes go straight away. Israeli people are very pragmatic, so in all honesty, it usually depends on work."