What are the Elements of a Jewish Wedding Ceremony

  

A Jewish wedding has two major sections: erusin (betrothal) and nissuin (marriage). The central part of erusin is the exchange of rings. The central part of nissuin is the seven wedding blessings. Though erusin and nissuin were originally two separate ceremonies, they now take place one immediately after the other, and together they make up the Jewish wedding ceremony. There are many ways to personalize your wedding ceremony and include elements from other religious traditions. As with all aspects of your wedding ceremony, you should discuss with your officiant what you do and don’t want to include in your ceremony.

Processional

There are no set Jewish rules regarding the processional, just customs, so the processional offers interfaith couples a great opportunity to weave in traditions from other faiths or include other cultural elements.

In traditional Jewish weddings the entire wedding party processes down the aisle, with the rabbi going first or simply starting the ceremony waiting at the chuppah (wedding canopy—you can read more about the chuppah here). In heterosexual weddings, the processional typically continues with the groomsmen walking single file, followed by the best man, and then the groom with parents on either side of him. Then the bridesmaids walk single file, followed by the maid or matron of honor, and then any other members of the wedding party (flower girls, ring bearer, etc.). Finally, the bride processes with parents on either side. It is traditional for the bride and her parents to stop before arriving at the chuppah and for the groom to walk to the bride, and then walk together with her under the chuppah. Under the chuppah, the bride stands to the groom’s right (which is the reverse of traditional Christian or American weddings).

In same-sex weddings, and in many Jewish heterosexual weddings, couples use various processional configurations.

Music for the processional usually includes pre-processional music, to which the grandparents process, a piece chosen for all the attendants including ringbearer and flowergirl. The bride and her parents usually come in to another piece of music. Traditional wedding marches including Wagner’s “Here Comes the Bride” are not typically used in weddings with Jewish families/guests due to the musicians’ association with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Like all details of the wedding, be sure to clear music choices with your officiant(s) and family members.

Circling

Most liberal rabbis offer couples the choice of whether or not to include circling in their wedding ceremony. Many modern couples adapt this ritual to make it egalitarian, with each partner circling the other. A typical mutual-circling ritual would see one partner circle the other three times in a clockwise manner, followed by the other circling the first one three times in a counter-clockwise manner. They then complete one last circle together. Some modern couples view circling as a symbol of the way they’ll define the home space for the couple, each seeing themselves responsible for protecting and supporting the other.

The circling is usually done while music is playing, before the couple enter under the chuppah together.

The First Cup of Wine

After a brief welcome, the ceremony typically begins with a blessing of the first of two cups of wine (or grape juice). In Judaism, wine is a symbol of joy. In a traditional Jewish wedding, a second blessing is also recited before the couple sips the wine. This blessing is called birkat erusin. To learn about birkat erusin, click here.

After reciting the blessing(s) the rabbi invites the couple to sip from the cup. Traditionally, in a heterosexual wedding, the rabbi gives the cup of wine to the groom, who sips from it, and then the cup is presented to the bride, who sips from it.

The Ring Ceremony

In liberal Jewish communities, both partners give each other a wedding ring to symbolize their love and commitment. When exchanging rings, each partner recites a verse expressing their commitment to one another. The exchange of rings completes the first part of the wedding ceremony.

The ring ceremony is a good time for couples to exchange vows with each other—something that isn’t part of a traditional Jewish ceremony, but which many couples like to include. Additionally, some couples like to write something personal that they can each say to the other when exchanging rings.

Traditionally, there are no “I Do’s” in a Jewish wedding ceremony. However, if you want to have your officiant ask, for example, if you “promise to love, honor and cherish” your partner, and then respond “I Do,” you should ask your officiant if this is something they are comfortable with. To read a blog about one couple who wanted to say “I Do” in their wedding ceremony, click here.

See sample ring ceremonies here.

The Seven Blessings and the Second Cup of Wine

The second part of the ceremony typically begins with the seven wedding blessings, which includes the second blessing of the wine. The seven blessings give thanks for the joys of love, intimacy and marriage, for the creation of humanity and for the community’s happiness.

Most Jewish officiants sing the blessings in the original Hebrew and translate each blessing into English. These blessings are ancient, and a lot of contemporary couples prefer to use modern creative translations. Also, the original wording of the blessings refers only to heterosexual weddings. Creative Jewish liturgists have written modified versions of these blessings, in Hebrew and in English, which honor same-sex weddings.

The first of the seven blessings is the blessing over a second cup of wine, and after all of the blessings are recited the couple is invited to take a sip.

After the seven blessings, some rabbis will recite another set of traditional blessings. These words, known as the “priestly blessings,” ask God to bless and protect, enlighten and give peace to the couple. Some rabbis will ask if the couple want to have a tallit (prayer shawl) draped over their shoulders while this blessing is recited. If this is something you would like to do, you should speak to your officiant about it.

Read more about the seven blessings and sample programs here.

Breaking the Glass

Jewish weddings end with the breaking of a glass. In heterosexual weddings, it’s usually the groom who stomps his foot down on a thin glass (wrapped in a cloth for safety), though some couples (heterosexual or same-sex couples) will do it together or break two glasses. Many couples also want to have a kiss at the conclusion of their ceremony, which can fit nicely right before or after the breaking the glass. Here you can see a fun short video taken from a same-sex wedding in which we see both grooms breaking a glass. And in this blog post, a groom tests out breaking a glass before the big day.

Progressive or traditional, religious or secular, Jewish weddings almost always include a breaking of glass at the end of the ceremony. The glass-breaking is typically followed by a communal “Mazel tov!,” which means “good fortune” in Yiddish and is the equivalent of “Congratulations!” In addition to the communal congratulations, Siman Tov u’Mazel Tov is sometimes sung after the breaking of the glass. Watch this video to learn the words.

There are countless interpretations for the tradition of breaking a glass. Some see it as a reminder of the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem. Others say it is meant to remind us that marriage is as fragile as glass. It also has been interpreted to demonstrate how life is so fragile that the couple should enjoy every day as if it were their last together.

Read more about breaking the glass here.

Recessional and Alone Time

At the end of the ceremony, couples typically walk back down the aisle, accompanied by music. The recessional can be deliberately “messy,” with the couple heading off down the aisle and then everyone else simply mixing and mingling with the guests, or it can be structured and more formal.

Couples often take time for yichud (seclusion) after the ceremony. This gives couples an opportunity to have a little time to be alone together in a private space immediately following the ceremony. The rabbi may mention, just before the breaking of the glass, that the couple is going to do this, and may offer any other short practical instructions to guests at this point as well. Taking a little time to be alone together before returning to your celebrating guests can be rewarding and grounding.

Including Elements from Other Religious Traditions

Sometimes couples want to include elements of other religious traditions in their Jewish interfaith wedding. There are many options for doing so as well as sensitive issues that may arise. Some couples decide to have separate wedding ceremonies in order to allow both of their traditions to be fully expressed.

For issues specific to Jewish-Christian weddings, click here.

For issues specific to Jewish-Muslim, Jewish-Hindu and Jewish-Buddhist weddings, click here.

More Resources:

How a Slightly Disorganized and Overwhelmed Interfaith Couple Organized a Jewish Wedding Ceremony

  

I tried incredibly hard to make the wedding planning process as organized as I could. I had spreadsheets upon spreadsheets of guest lists and vendors that I shared with my fiancé, Andy. I had folders with links saved and an extensive private Pinterest board of DIY wedding planning ideas that required far more creativity than anything I would ever be capable of and which, closer to the main event, I had completely forgotten about.

As our wedding date loomed ever closer, as our work lives became more hectic, and as we closed on our first home two weeks prior to the wedding, I realized that we were still missing vital last minute details and items.

It was two weeks before the wedding and I had forgotten to buy my shoes, to create the wedding programs, to give the music requests for the ceremony and reception to the DJ, and to top it off, the kiddush cup we had ordered still hadn’t arrived.

Oops.

But somehow, despite a few last-minute glitches, it all came together to be one of the most unforgettable, special, and happiest day of our lives.

As mentioned in my first InterfaithFamily blog post, we started our wedding planning journey with the book A New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant. Together, we carefully selected Jewish wedding traditions that were meaningful to us:

TenaimTenaim is the pre-wedding ceremony where the families of the bride and groom decide on the financial and logistical arrangements of the marriage. Our rabbi drew up a progressive tenaim document which we and our ketubah witnesses, our two sisters, signed. The document stipulated that we would bring a physical reminder of our love and our spiritual gifts for one another (in lieu of a traditional object of value/dowry) which in our case, was a kiddush cup from our wine fountain set. We had originally ordered a new kiddush cup but soon realized it was not going to arrive in time so we ended up using the cup that we regularly use for Shabbat.

Tenaim includes the pre-wedding tradition of the mother-in-laws breaking a plate together. Two nights prior to the wedding, Andy and I trudged to Pier One to buy the cheapest, most breakable looking plate we could find. The rabbi had warned us to break the plate beforehand and glue it back together but we figured the plate would break easily. Lo and behold, as our mothers, the rabbi and then Andy desperately tried to break the plate in various ways, it was clear that we should have followed instructions. No matter what we did, the plate would not break. I will never underestimate the strength of Pier One plates ever again. We all laughed, the rabbi called it a “symbolic breaking” of the plate and we agreed that our mothers would break it at our house warming in two months.

KetubahA ketubah is the Jewish wedding contract which conveyed our commitment to each other and to building a loving and supportive home together. It requires the signature of the bride and groom, the officiant and witnesses. We each have one sister and while traditionally, witnesses should not be related to the bride and groom, we decided that we truly wanted to honor them in this way. We had purchased the ketubah off of Ketubah.com and made some adjustments to the Hebrew spelling thanks in part to a rabbi friend’s review of the text. The ketubah.com team was more than willing to correct the text. It was a great experience and I highly recommend them. Our ketubah is beautiful and we look forward to putting it up in our new home.

ChuppahA chuppah is the wedding canopy which represents the home that the couple will create together that will be open to family and friends. To create ours, we purchased four 7-foot birch poles off of Amazon for around 60 dollars and large eye hooks for 10 dollars. Andy drilled a hole at the top of the birch poles and screwed in the eye hooks. Our rabbi brought in his large tallit, tied the corner fringes to the hooks at the top and voila! A chuppah was constructed cheaply and easily. We had also wanted to include and honor our friends and family and had decided to have chuppah bearers. Our chuppah was held up by my best friend, my sister, Andy’s brother-in-law and one of his best friends.

One of the most special moments for me was when my parents walked me to the chuppah. It was great being able to have that time with them before the ceremony.

Circling: Circling is the tradition where the bride circles the groom seven times (or the partners both circle each other). Seven is an auspicious number in Judaism and circling seven times can represent the seven days of creation, the seven blessings and other instances where something happens seven times in the Torah/Talmud. However, for us, the circling meant that we would make each other central to each other’s lives. We decided to keep it equal and circled each other three times.

Birkat ErusinThe Birkat Erusin is the betrothal blessing recited by the rabbi over a kiddush cup of wine. We then drank from the same kiddush cup that we had used in our tenaim ceremony to symbolize our commitment to sharing our lives with each other.

Ring Exchange: Traditionally, the ring ceremony in a Jewish wedding is where the groom gives the bride a ring, constituting the act of gifting an artifact of value to the bride and therefore making the marriage official. However, we decided to do a double ring ceremony where we used my maternal grandmother’s ring for my wedding band and Andy had his paternal grandfather’s ring for his. Neither of us have any living grandparents left so it felt like they were able to participate in our celebration in a way, making it even more special for us.

Sheva BrachotThe Sheva Brachot are the seven blessings which are recited for the bride and groom. Our rabbi read them in both Hebrew and English. We had no strong feelings about the Sheva Brachot and allowed the rabbi to select the wording.

Breaking the Glass: Breaking the glass marks the conclusion of the ceremony and has many interpretations but the ones we chose to add into our wedding programs were that it’s a reminder that there is still suffering in the world and that it represents the breaking of barriers between people of different cultures and faiths. After being regaled with stories of over-confident grooms going to the ER after stomping on the glass, I made sure to put the glass into a plastic bag and cover it with multiple cloth napkins prior to the wedding. I was relieved that Andy was able to break the glass without any issues but I’m also pretty sure our wedding pictures captured my anxiety-filled expression. We kept the broken glass and are now trying to decide what to do with it.

YichudAfter Andy broke the glass, and everyone yelled “Mazel tov” and we shared our first kiss as husband and wife, we then left for yichud, a time of seclusion for the bride and groom at the end of the marriage ceremony. We escaped to the bridal suite where we had water, Coca Cola and appetizers waiting for us. We also had a chance to practice our wedding dance one last time. It was an ultimate must-have for us and we are both glad we had those moments to be alone and decompress before heading out to our guests again.

Our wedding ceremony was perfect for us and set the tone for not only the rest of the wedding but for the rest of our lives. It opened our hearts in a way we could never have imagined. It was a celebration of love, of unity and of starting our marriage with our nearest and dearest close by.

Most of all, it was a celebration of us.

Now a week after the wedding, we’re excited to have started our marriage adventure and have mostly stopped accidentally referring to each other as ‘fiancé.’

Going Custom: Writing Our Own Interfaith Ceremony

  
Laura and Zach sitting on a wall with mosaic turtles on either side in the Caribbean and relieving some stress.

Living that Caribbean lifestyle: the perfect stress remedy!

After my latest blog post on finding officiants for our Jewish-Catholic interfaith wedding, I got questions from both friends and fans about what the actual ceremony would look like. We had started a draft but needed to tie up some details, so we weren’t ready to share. I didn’t really think about it much in the past week, because we went to Cancun, Mexico, with my sisters and my parents to celebrate my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. As much as I love how our wedding is coming together, and as much as I’m excited for us to get married and start our married life together, I cannot emphasize enough how beneficial this time off was. No cell service meant no emails to vendors, no looking online for wedding bands and no Facebook monitoring of friends’ wedding photos and measuring up our plans against theirs. I was barely on my phone all week and it felt amazing.

Brides and grooms, do this for yourselves. Give your partners the opportunity to do this for themselves. You don’t have to go anywhere, but take some time (an afternoon, a day, a weekend) and do something you love with people you love. It really helped me to regain a sense of mindfulness and a desire to be present in the moment and it will continue to help me make sure I don’t miss a moment of this exciting year—or what our wedding is really about: two people starting a new life together; two becoming one.

After this time off, we’re now ready to share the details of our ceremony. This custom wedding ceremony is a beautiful blend of our respective traditions. It was crafted using the years of interfaith experience of our rabbi, Rabbi Bleefeld, and several resources I found. I talked in my last post about using a book by Rabbi Devon A. Lerner: Celebrating Interfaith Marriages: Creating Your Jewish/Christian Ceremony—we borrowed heavily from the suggested ceremony components and order. If you’re not sure where to start, this book will not only give you sample ceremonies, but will also explain the importance of the different components of a wedding ceremony.

I also read blog posts such as this one from InterfaithFamily to get a sense of what others had done. As I’ve alluded to in earlier posts, it was really important for us to have both traditions not only represented but celebrated during our wedding ceremony. We both made compromises and sacrifices on the venue—me on my dream of being married in a Catholic church, and Zach on the familiarity and beauty of being married in his native California (some of our East Coast relatives would not have been able to make the flight). It was important that the wedding ceremony, like the outdoor space, feel like a reflection of us, because we were both in otherwise unfamiliar territory.

Beautiful pottery goblet

Roberta’s beautiful pottery goblet

Our rabbi has done several interfaith weddings and our first meeting with him was a great orientation to all we had to think about in the next year. He offered a suggested ceremony outline and explained the different parts and how he would handle explaining the significance of each to guests—he suggested printing explanations in the program, so we wouldn’t interrupt the flow and beauty of the ceremony with too many teaching moments. We built on that initial outline, got some input from the priest officiating, added some special touches and voila! An interfaith wedding. Here’s what it will look like:

After the procession (where there will be oodles of happy tears), Rabbi Bleefeld will open with a statement remembering Zach’s mother Roberta, who passed away four years ago from breast cancer and my grandfather Tom, who lost his battle with bone marrow cancer a year ago. These people were so important to us and we will miss them so much on our special day. We want everyone to know that we feel their absence on this momentous occasion.

In explaining the subsequent different components of the ceremony, the insight we got from Rabbi Bleefeld and Fr. Mike was consistent: The consenting and the vows is paramount in a Catholic wedding ceremony, while the exchange of rings is the high point of a Jewish ceremony. To that end, we’re asking my mother and Zach’s aunt to read from the New and Old Testament, respectively, to introduce each of those components. We’re getting the dads involved too—they’ll say the Seven Blessings, alternating in Hebrew (Zach’s dad) and English (my dad). We’ll mark the last blessing by drinking a cup of wine from a goblet that Roberta made for Zach, one of the many uniquely beautiful pieces of hers that we have in our home. My godparents will then read the General Intercessions, which are not required in a Catholic ceremony, but Zach says they’re his favorite part of the Catholic mass. (You can find an explanation for this part of the mass here, at paragraph 69. It is also called the Prayer of the Faithful or the Universal Prayer.) We’re writing our own prayer that reflects our hopes and values, as well as our desire for health and happiness as we start our marriage surrounded by the family and friends we love. 

Zach with Laura's parents and sisters in Xcaret, Mexico.

Zach with my parents and sisters in Xcaret, Mexico

Throughout the service, we sought opportunities to involve our parents and close family in the wedding ceremony because these individuals helped us form our sense of faith, tradition and family. It was important to us that they be intimately involved in the ceremony that would mark the start of our own new family with its own faith tradition.

I’m adding an outline of the ceremony below, for those who would like more details.

Our Wedding Ceremony

Procession

Remembrance Statement – Rabbi Bleefeld

Opening words of welcome and blessing – Fr. Mike and Rabbi Bleefeld

New Testament Reading – Mother of the Bride

Introduction to and recitation of vows – Fr. Mike

Old Testament Reading – Aunt of the Groom

Introduction to and exchange of rings – Rabbi Bleefeld

7 Blessings – Dads, alternating in Hebrew and English

General Intercessions – Godparents of the Bride

Pronouncement and Marriage blessing (Hebrew and English) – Rabbi Bleefeld and Fr. Mike

Stepping on glass – Rabbi Bleefeld

Kiss and Processional

How We Planned Our Inclusive, Co-Officiated Wedding Ceremony

  

By Emily Baseman

Emily and Brandon's ceremony

Our interfaith ceremony was the best and most meaningful part of our wedding day. It was really important to my husband, Brandon, and me that the ceremony be both very personal to us as a couple and truly interfaith. This meant we looked at wedding traditions from both Christianity and Judaism, and discussed which would fit into our ceremony. It also meant working closely with both a rabbi and a pastor to select readings and determine what would be said by each of them. I took a very hands-on role in planning our ceremony—maybe more than most brides do—because we had very specific ideas of what we wanted to be included. Here’s a look at what we chose to do, and where we made it work for ourselves and our families. (We also had a Ketubah ceremony, which I’ll write about in an upcoming post.)

Processional & Affirmation of Families

Brandon with his parents

Brandon walking down the aisle with his parents

It is traditional in Judaism for both parents of the bride and both parents of the groom to walk their respective child down the aisle. In Christianity, it is much more typical for only a bride’s father to walk her down the aisle. For this tradition, Brandon and I went with what we were comfortable with and had imagined growing up—both his parents with Brandon, and just my dad with me. My feminist heart hated the notion of my father “giving me away,” and so I chose to look at the experience as an incredibly special moment between my father and me, and I’m glad I did not miss out on that. Early in the ceremony, our pastor led an Affirmation of Families that included blessings from both sets of parents.

Chuppah

We loved the symbolism of our new home under the chuppah and were excited to include this in our ceremony. We decided that only Brandon and I, and our officiants, would stand under the chuppah, with our parents in the front row and our attendants off to the side. We made this choice because we wanted our parents to experience the ceremony without feeling like they were on display, and we also wanted it to be a more intimate moment between ourselves and our officiants.

My mother and I designed our chuppah with our amazing florist. Our wedding was outside in Washington Square Park in Chicago and we wanted to ensure that our chuppah felt natural. The flowers and birch poles the florist used were beautiful and the best part of the chuppah was a white lace tablecloth that belonged to my late maternal grandmother. During the ceremony, I glanced up at the chuppah and loved feeling my grandmother’s presence in that moment. We now have the tablecloth at home and I hope to have it made into baby blankets for future children.

Acknowledgement of Different Faiths

Our pastor began the ceremony with an acknowledgement of our two faiths and talked about how the ceremony was uniquely created for Brandon and me, with traditions and beliefs adopted from both Christianity and Judaism. He closed with a Bible passage, God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (1 John 4:16)

Blessings

Our rabbi led three blessings: Shehecheyanu, blessing over the wine and blessing over the chuppah. We saw these blessings as essential to our ceremony and wanted to include both Hebrew and English. Our rabbi also provided background for each so that everyone understood their meaning. For the blessing over the wine, we asked our rabbi to recite it in Hebrew and our pastor to recite it in English. We also used the Kiddush cup from Brandon’s bar mitzvah, which added special meaning.

Brandon & Emily under the chuppah

Scripture Readings

In our initial conversation with our pastor, we agreed that we wanted to include Jesus throughout the ceremony. It is possible to have a Christian-Jewish ceremony that only references God, but it was more comfortable for us to also include Jesus in name. During our ceremony, our pastor explained with grace how we would be including aspects from both faiths, which could be perceived differently from person to person. We selected both Tanakh and New Testament readings for the ceremony, both of which offered blessings and a charge for our marriage. For the Tanakh, we heard Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, and for the New Testament, Colossians 3:12-17.

We were also blessed with homilies from both officiants, a statement on the gift of marriage, “I Carry Your Heart” by E.E. Cummings and the singing of “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong, arranged by my brother-in-law, our pianist for the day, and performed by him and my sister.

Vows & Exchange of Rings

Inspired by my sister and brother-in-law, Brandon and I wrote our vows together and each said the same words to one another, which was our personal way of making promises to each other about our commitment.

Brandon and I were also eager to find a way to incorporate each of us speaking in Hebrew in the ceremony. We found this opportunity in our ring exchange. Our pastor led Brandon and the rabbi led me in reciting our own words and words borrowed from Songs of Solomon, “With this ring, I thee wed. Wear me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is infinitely strong. Many waters cannot quench love, no flood can sweep it away.” We closed with these words in English, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” and in Hebrew, “Ani le’dodi ve’dodi li.

Sheva Brachot and Benediction

Before we were pronounced married, our rabbi recited the Sheva Brachot, or “Seven Blessings,” which are traditional in a Jewish wedding. Our pastor also read a benediction, Numbers 6:24-26, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord be kind and gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor And give you peace.” Later at our reception, our first dance was Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” which we loved dancing to because the lyrics also echoed these words.

Breaking of the Glass

There was no question—how could we not include this fun tradition?

To learn more about interfaith weddings and for a full list of resources, click HERE.

To read more about Emily and Brandon’s interfaith wedding planning, read her first post HERE.