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, followed by a piece chosen for all the attendants including ring bearer and flower girl. 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 musician’s 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

In traditional Jewish heterosexual weddings, at the end of the processional, when the couple has arrived at the chuppah (wedding canopy), the bride walks slowly around the groom, circling him seven times. Circling symbolizes the creation of a new home and the intertwining of the lives of both partners. Traditionally, circling has also been seen as the symbolic transfer of the bride from her father’s house to her husband’s house.

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

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

Recessional

Read more about Kristin’s Jewish and Japanese wedding here, and visit her site, Nourish. Photo credit: Perfect Circle Photography

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 an example of a multicultural Jewish wedding, click here to read about the Japanese, American and Jewish wedding that Kristin from Nourish planned.

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

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

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