And so we seek our life partner, our soul mate, our other half. The Torah describes this life partner as an ezer k’negdo, “a helpmate opposite” or “against.” The deep insight here is that when two people are truly in love they challenge each other to become the people they are meant to be. Love in Judaism isn’t just about “till death do us part” - it’s about bringing sanctity and meaning to this moment, right here, right now.
Bringing together two souls in marriage is so important that we are taught that marriage is an act of tikkun olam - repairing the world!
לא טוב היות האדם לבדו
It is not good for a person to be alone. (Genesis 2:18)
The Jewish wedding is not just a one-day affair. The “wedding” rituals begin with the decision to get married. For some, a tenaim ceremony heralds the upcoming marriage by reading a document of commitment and shattering a dish. Closer to the wedding is the aufruf, where the groom (or the couple) recites a blessing over the Torah and is showered with candy. (To learn the blessings over the Torah click here.) The bride has the opportunity to prepare spiritually by immersing herself in the mikveh (ritual pool), a custom many grooms follow as well.
In preparation for a Jewish wedding, we not only send invitations, hire photographers, arrange for caterers, musicians, flowers and the rest - we also prepare for this sacred celebration by seeking out a Ketubah - a Jewish marriage contract and by meeting and learning with a rabbi or teacher.
And that’s all before the wedding day even arrives.
Before the bride and groom ever make it to the huppah there are a number of preliminaries that may take place. While these are not required, they set the stage for a beautiful day of celebration linked closely with Jewish tradition.
Traditionally, the groom lowers his bride’s veil as he recites the words, “May you be fruitful and prosper. May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” These words are followed by the priestly blessing.
A newer egalitarian tradition has the groom lower the veil over the bride and then invites the bride to wrap her groom in the kittel traditionally worn during the wedding ceremony. Others place a special kippah on their partner’s head.
Traditionally, the bride and her female guests join together for kabbalat panim – welcoming faces in which the women attend to the bride sharing advice and complements. The male guests meanwhile, sit around a tisch – table, as the groom gives a d’var Torah – a word of teaching. Knowing that their soon-to-be-wed friend is not thinking about Torah, but about his bride, those gathered customarily interrupt his talk with songs and jokes.
In more egalitarian communities, each partner hosts a tisch. Some couples choose to allow men and women to choose which tisch they will attend, not worrying about the separation of the sexes.
Kabbalat Kinyan is the act of agreeing to and accepting all of the terms of the ketubah. Grasping a handkerchief and lifting it up in the air symbolizes this acceptance.
Ketubah Signing takes place before the wedding ceremony begins. The ketubah is signed by two “kosher” witnesses. According to Jewish law, a “kosher” witness is a male Jew who is learned and observant and who is not related in any way to the bride or groom.
In many communities women who meet these requirements are also accepted as witnesses. In my own practice I require that the witnesses be serious (as defined by the couple) Jews who are not related in any way to the bride or groom.
Some ketubot allow for the signatures of both partners and the officiants as well.
Traditionally the bride circles the groom 7 times. A more egalitarian version of this tradition is for each partner to circle the other 3 times and then for both partners to walk in a circle together.
The word “ketubah” comes from the Hebrew, “katav” which means “written.” The ketubah is the written document celebrating the union of two Jews. There are thousands of different styles ofketubot (plural of ketubah) and many different texts to make each ketubah unique and special.
Which text you choose may be the most important decision you make with regard to your ketubah. While the colors, images and styles are aesthetically important, the text of the ketubah is not only binding, but also representative of your union and the sacred bond that you share.
More often than not, if you choose a traditional Aramaic text (yes, traditionally a ketubah is written in Aramaic, the language Rabbinic Judaism, not Hebrew) any English that accompanies it will not be a direct translation. That’s because a traditional ketubah is a legal document and reads like one. It’s not particularly spiritual or poetic in its language.
Many couples choose a contemporary text, which speaks more personally and emotionally about the sanctity of the marriage. While these texts draw upon the traditional ketubah text, they differ in important ways.
One of the most important things to remember when choosing a ketubah text is that no one lives on an island. We all live in a larger Jewish community and must bear that in mind when making personal decisions that may have Jewish legal implications. For example:
In preparation for their big day, Jon and Eva choose a contemporary, non-traditional ketubah text that reflects their shared spiritual journey. Many years later one of Jon and Eva’s children moves to Israel and becomes quite religious. In the course of her studies she discovers that her parents ketubah was not written according to halacha (Jewish law) and is therefore not valid. This calls her parents marriage into question by default, her status as well.
There will always be people who will judge our decisions and disagree with our practices and beliefs. It should not be our job to make personal choices solely for the sake of the unity of the Jewish people. In fact, it is our diversity that keeps us strong. At the same time, it is important to make informed decisions and thoughtful choices especially at the critical and spiritual juncture of your wedding.
One way of balancing our personal choices with that of Jewish tradition and the larger Jewish world is to sign two ketubot (plural of ketubah.) One ketubah can be your “main” ketubah that you use during the wedding and display in your home. This text can be anything you choose. The other ketubah can be signed privately before your ceremony or along side the “main” ketubah and can be a traditional, Aramaic text. This ketubah can be kept with your other wedding memorabilia.
Another important concern when choosing a ketubah is the issue of agunah. Anagunah is a Jewish legal term for a woman who is “chained” to her marriage. For a divorce to be effective, Jewish law requires that a man grant his wife a get (a Jewish writ of divorce) of his own free will. Without a get no new marriage will be recognized and any children she might have with another man would be considered illegitimate.
In the past, most aguna cases were due to a husband dying without leaving clear evidence of his demise, or becoming mentally ill (insane). Nowadays many agunah cases arise as a result of a husband withholding a get in order to extort money or extract a more favorable divorce settlement or to get even with his wife. In response, agunah groups have organized to support these women and try to find a solution to this problem. Various remedies have been proposed, but as yet, no one solution has common acceptance. Nevertheless, the Prenuptial Agreement for the Prevention of Get-Refusal is one remedy which is in use in Jewish communities worldwide and is accepted by halachic authorities.
Conservative Judaism has sought to remedy such cases by attaching a clause to the ketubah, known as the Lieberman clause, in which the parties agree that if there are civil divorce proceedings, then both must appear before a beit din (Jewish court of law) of the Rabbinical Assembly and of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Rabbi Saul Lieberman, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, proposed that the clause be added to ketubot to create a legal remedy through civil courts in case one party fails to cooperate in Jewish divorce proceedings.
Before deciding on a ketubah you and your partner will want to discuss all of these considerations. Your rabbi can also be an invaluable resource and may have his or her own recommendations and/or requirements when it comes to choosing a ketubah.
A good place to begin looking at ketubot and ketubah texts is online.
Once under the huppah the wedding ceremony is divided into two parts: Seder Erusin (also called Kiddushin) and Nisu’in. In antiquity these two parts of the ceremony were separated by up to a year but today are brought together separated by the reading of the ketubah.
The celebration under the huppah begins with words of welcome:
ברוכים הבאים בשם יהוה
May those who enter be blessed in the name of ADONAI
If the ceremony is held in a synagogue, the rabbi or cantor may add:
ברכנוכם מבית יהוה
We bless you from the house of ADONAI
Wherever the ceremony is held, the welcome continues with:
May the One who is supreme in power, blessing, and glory bless this hattan (groom) and this kallah (bride.)
B’ruchim Haba’im - Welcome
Like all Jewish celebrations, the wedding ceremony continues with a blessing over a cup of wine:
Praised are You, ADONAI our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.
This is followed by Birkat Erusin - the blessing for Betrothal:
Praised are You, ADONAI our God, who rules the universe, whose mitzvotadd holiness to our lives and whose will guides us even in the most intimate of our relationships. Praised are You, ADONAI our God, who sanctifies the people Israel with huppah, the wedding canopy, and kiddushin, the sacred wedding traditions.
Blessing for Betrothal
Exchange of Rings
Traditionally the groom presents the bride with a ring made of a solid precious metal with no stones or breaks. In many egalitarian weddings, both partners present one another with a ring made of a solid precious metal with no stones or breaks.
Reading of the Ketubah
At this point in the ceremony, the Ketubah is traditionally read aloud. To learn more about the Ketubah, click here.
Sheva B’rachot - the Seven Marriage Blessings
The Sheva B’rachot (Seven Marriage Blessings) are said over a cup of wine. It is a common custom for these blessing to be divided among honored guests. If multiple people say the blessings, the cup is passed to the person saying each blessing. What follows is one translation of the sheva b’rachot:
Praised are You, ADONAI our God, who rules the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.
Praised are You, ADONAI our God, who rules the universe, You create everything for Your Glory.
Praised are You, ADONAI our God, who rules the universe, creator of humankind.
Praised are You, ADONAI our God, who rules the universe, who creates human beings in your image, fashioning perpetuated life. Praised are You, ADONAI, creator of humankind.
May Zion rejoice as her children are restored to her in joy. Praised are You, ADONAI, who causes Zion to rejoice her children’s return.
Grant perfect joy to these loving companions, as you did Your creations in the Garden of Eden. Praised are You, ADONAI, who gives joy to the groom and bride.
Praised are You, ADONAI, our God, who rules the universe, who creates joy and gladness, groom and bride, mirth, song, delight and rejoicing, love and harmony and peace and companionship. ADONAI our God, may there ever be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem voices of joy and gladness, voices of groom and bride, the jubilant voices of those joined in marriage under the bridal canopy, the voices of young people feasting and singing. Praised are You, ADONAI, who causes the groom to rejoice with his bride.
First offered by Aaron, the High Priest to the Children of Israel (Numbers 6:23-27), the Priestly Blessing has been offered by parents to their children on Friday evenings for generations and also has a place in many Jewish lifecycle events.
May ADONAI bless you and guard you
May ADONAI’s face shine on you and show favor to you
May ADONAI lift up God’s face toward you and give you peace.
Breaking the Glass
Traditionally the groom breaks the glass at the end of the wedding ceremony. In some egalitarian weddings, the bride breaks the glass. In others, both partners break a glass. In others still, there is one glass, which both partners try to break.