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Elements of a Jewish Wedding Ceremony

Return to the Guide to Wedding Ceremonies for Interfaith Couples

Prior to the chuppah ceremony, Jewish tradition offers rituals that help mark the days leading up to a couple’s wedding. If you would like to learn more, here’s a short video about traditions before the wedding. 

Ketubah Signing

 

Ketubah

A ketubah is a “wedding contract.” In ancient times, a ketubah was a legally binding document, signed by witnesses, describing a groom’s “acquiring” of a bride, and stating the amount that the groom would have to pay the bride in case of divorce. In liberal Judaism today, there aren’t many couples who would want to sign a wedding contract in which one partner “acquires” another. But 2,000 years ago norms were quite different.

Modern liberal ketubot (plural) are typically spiritual, not legal, covenants between both partners, and ketubot honoring same-sex and interfaith couples abound. Several websites, like ketubah.comModernketubah.com and ketubah-gallery.com, offer interfaith couples a variety of texts and artistic styles. Many couples frame their ketubah for display.

Some rabbis ask couples to have a ceremonial ketubah signing 20 to 30 minutes before the beginning of the wedding ceremony, though the timing can vary. A ketubah signing is a great event at which to have state marriage license documents signed as well.

 

Bedecken (Veiling the Bride)

Veiling the Bride

Bedecken, which means “checking to be certain,” is a Jewish custom that, in weddings between a bride and a groom, involves the groom putting a wedding veil on the bride shortly before the ceremony. The groom gets to “verify” that the bride is in fact the person he means to marry. It’s a fun ritual laced with humor that you can read about here. There’s also a lovely version of this ritual for lesbian weddings here.

 

The Wedding Ceremony

 
Processional
 

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).

In heterosexual weddings, the processional typically continues with the groomsmen walking single file, followed by the best man, and then the groom with parent(s) on either side of him. Then the bridesmaids walk single file, followed by the maid of honor, and then any other members of the wedding party (flower girls, ring bearer, etc.). Finally, the bride processes with parent(s) on either side. The bride traditionally stands on the groom's right, which is the reverse of traditional Christian weddings.

In same-sex weddings, couples use various processional configurations. 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. Most couples have music during the processional. It’s a good idea to let rabbis or clergy of other faiths know beforehand what music you plan to use.

 
Circling
 

Circling
Credit: Lauren Methia Photography

In traditional Jewish heterosexual weddings, at the end of the processional, when the couple has arrived at the chuppah, the bride walks slowly around the groom, circling him seven times. A popular variation on traditional circling is for each partner to circle the other three times, followed by a final, seventh circle that the couple does together. Circling symbolizes the creation of a new home and the intertwining of the lives of both partners.

 

First Blessings: the First Cup of Wine and a Blessing of Thanks for this Unique Moment

First Cup of Wine and Blessing

The ceremony typically begins with a blessing of the first of two cups of wine (or grape juice). Wine represents joy in Judaism, and after reciting the blessing the rabbi invites the couple to sip from the cup. Then comes a second short blessing, called the shehecheyanu in Hebrew. This blessing gives thanks for the delight of reaching this wonderful moment.

 
The Ring Ceremony
 

In liberal Jewish communities, both partners give each other a wedding ring to symbolize their love and commitment. The rabbi guides each of them through a short Hebrew formula that translates to: “Behold, with this ring, you are made holy to me, according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” In interfaith weddings, some rabbis use an alternative version of this formula that replaces the words “according to the laws of Moses and Israel” with different wording (for example, “in the eyes of God and humankind”).

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.

 

The Seven Blessings (Sheva B’rachot) and the Second Cup of Wine: an Explanation

The ring ceremony concludes the first of two distinct parts of the Jewish wedding ceremony. The second part of the ceremony showers blessings upon the couple. Rabbis or cantors traditionally sing seven blessings that 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.

At the end of the seven blessings, the rabbi blesses a second cup of wine and invites the couple to take a sip.

After the seven blessings, some rabbis will recite another set of traditional blessings over the couple. These words, known as the “priestly blessings,” ask God to bless and protect, enlighten and give peace to the couple.

 
Breaking the Glass: An Explanation
 

Breaking the glass 

Jewish weddings don’t traditionally end with a kiss. They end with the smashing 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 will do it together. Many couples also want to have a kiss at the conclusion of their ceremony, which can fit nicely right before or after the smashing of the glass. And don't forget about the Siman Tov u'Mazel Tov, which is usually sung right after the glass smash. Get ready to sing and celebrate with this video.

There are several interpretations of the meaning of smashing a glass, as well as contemporary alternative interpretations. You can also see a fun short video taken from a same-sex wedding in which we see both grooms smashing a glass. 

 
Recessional and Alone Time (Yichud)

Right after the glass smash, guests usually shout “Mazel Tov!” (“May you have good fortune!”) and other congratulations. Some couples like to have music resume at this point, followed immediately by a recessional. 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.

There’s a Jewish tradition called yichud, which means “alone time for the couple.” Couples who include yichud in their wedding take a little time to be alone together in a private space immediately following the ceremony. The rabbi usually mentions, just before the glass smash, 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.

Invited to a Jewish wedding ceremony? Watch this video on what to expect. 

Read the next section: Ritual Wedding Objects and Clothing

Hebrew and Yiddish for "good luck," a phrase used to express congratulations for happy and significant occasions. Hebrew for "document," a legal document that is both a prenuptial agreement and a certification that a Jewish marriage has taken place. Plural form of the Hebrew word "ketubah," meaning "document," a legal document that is both a prenuptial agreement and a certification that a Jewish marriage has taken place. Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
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