Heading to your first Jewish wedding? Whether it's Reform or strictly Orthodox, there are some Jewish wedding traditions that you will definitely see. Some may sound familiar, but knowing what to expect (and being versed in the meaning behind what you're watching) will make you even more prepared to celebrate.
"A Jewish wedding ceremony is a little bit fluid, but there is a basic outline," says Rabbi Stacy Bergman. "The ceremony can also be personalized by having the officiant really speak to the couple and tell their story."
Meet the Expert
Rabbi Stacy Bergman is an independent rabbi in New York. She received her Rabbinic Ordination and a Masters Degree in Hebrew Letters at Hebrew Union College.
Wondering what else you need to know before attending a Jewish wedding? Here are some frequently asked questions, according to a rabbi:
- What should I wear to a Jewish wedding? For the 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? At Orthodox Jewish weddings, it is customary for men and women to sit on either side of the ceremony. At an ultra-Orthodox wedding, men and women will also celebrate separately with a partition in between.
- How long is a Jewish wedding ceremony? A Jewish wedding ceremony typically ranges from 25-45 minutes depending on how much the couple seeks to embellish it with readings, rituals, and music.
- Are Jewish weddings performed on Shabbat? Traditionally, Jewish weddings are not performed on Shabbat or the High Holy Days.
- Should I bring a gift? It is customary to give a gift in the form of a Jewish ritual object or money in increments of $18, symbolizing the Hebrew word Chai, which means "life."
Read on for the most common traditions you'll see at a Jewish wedding.
Aufruf is a Yiddish term that means "to call up." Prior to the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom are called to the Torah for a blessing called an aliyah. After the aliyah, the rabbi will offer a blessing called misheberach, and at that time it is customary for members of the congregation to throw candies at the couple to wish them a sweet life together.
The wedding day is considered a day of forgiveness, and as such, some couples choose to fast the day of their wedding, just as they would on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The couple's fast will last until their first meal together after the wedding ceremony.
The ketubah is a symbolic Jewish marriage contract that outlines the groom's responsibilities to his bride. It dictates the conditions he will provide in the marriage, the bride's protections and rights, and the framework should the couple choose to divorce. Ketubahs aren't actually religious documents, but are part of Jewish civil law—so there's no mention of God blessing the union. The ketubah is signed by the couple and two witnesses before the ceremony takes place, then is read to the guests during the ceremony.
During the ketubah signing, the groom approaches the bride for the bedeken, or veiling. He looks at her and then veils her face. This signifies that his love for her is for her inner beauty, and also that the two are distinct individuals even after marriage. It also is a tradition stemming from the Bible wherein Jacob was tricked into marrying the sister of the woman he loved because the sister was veiled. If the groom does the veiling himself, such trickery can never happen.
The Walk to the Chuppah
In Jewish ceremonies, the processional and recessional order is slightly different than traditional non-Jewish ceremonies. In the Jewish tradition, both of the groom's parents walk him down the aisle to the chuppah, the altar beneath which the couple exchanges vows. Then the bride and her parents follow. Traditionally, both sets of parents stand under the chuppah during the ceremony, alongside the bride, groom, and rabbi.
Vows Under the Chuppah
A chuppah has four corners and a covered roof to symbolize the new home the bride and groom are building together. In some ceremonies, the four posts of the chuppah are held up by friends or family members throughout the ceremony, supporting the life the couple is building together, while in other instances it may be a freestanding structure decorated with flowers. The canopy is often made of a tallit, or prayer shawl, belonging to a member of the couple or their families.
In the Ashkenazi tradition, the bride traditionally circles around her groom either three or seven times under the chuppah. Some people believe this is to create a magical wall of protection from evil spirits, temptation, and the glances of other women. Others believe the bride is symbolically creating a new family circle.
Traditionally, Jewish brides get married in a wedding band that is made of metal (gold, silver, or platinum) with no stones. In ancient times, the ring was considered the object of value or “purchase price” of the bride. The only way they could determine the value of the ring was through weight, which would be altered should there be stones in the ring. In some traditions, the rings are placed on the left forefinger because the vein from your forefinger goes right to your heart.
Sheva B'rachot: Seven Blessings
The seven blessings, called the Sheva B'rachot, come from ancient teachings. They are often read in both Hebrew and English, and shared by a variety of family members or friends, just as friends and family are invited to perform readings in other types of ceremonies. The blessings focus on joy, celebration, and the power of love. They begin with the blessing over a cup wine, then progress to more grand and celebratory statements, ending with a blessing of joy, peace, companionship, and the opportunity for the bride and groom to rejoice together.
Breaking of the Glass
As the ceremony comes to an end, the groom (or in some instances the bride and groom) is invited to step on a glass inside a cloth bag to shatter it. The breaking of the glass holds multiple meanings. Some say it represents the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Others say it demonstrates that marriage holds sorrow as well as joy and is a representation of the commitment to stand by one another even in hard times. The cloth holding the shards of glass is collected after the ceremony, and many couples choose to have it incorporated into some sort of memento of their wedding day.
Shouting "Mazel tov!" is one of the most well-known Jewish wedding rituals. Once the ceremony is over and the glass is broken, you will hear guests cheer "Mazel tov!" Mazel tov has a similar meaning "good luck" or "congratulations." The direct translation is actually closer to wishing the best for the future, a great destiny, or a pronouncement that the person or people have just experienced great fortune. There's no better time to say "mazel tov" than at a wedding!
Following the ceremony, tradition dictates that couples spend at least eight minutes in yichud (or seclusion). This wedding custom allows the newly married couple to reflect privately on their new relationship and allows them precious time alone to bond and rejoice. It's also customary for the bride and groom to share their first meal together as husband and wife during the yichud. Customary meals differ from community to community and can range from the "golden soup" of the Ashkenazim (said to indicate prosperity and build strength) to chocolate-chip cookies from grandma.
Hora and Mezinke
The celebratory dance at the reception is called the hora where guests dance in a circle. Oftentimes, you will see women dancing with women and men dancing with men. The bride and groom are seated on chairs and lifted into the air while holding onto a handkerchief or cloth napkin. There is also a dance called the mezinke, which is a special dance for the parents of the bride or groom when their last child is wed.