Jewish weddings are full of traditional elements that are both meaningful and emotional, but also celebrate the joy of a couple’s union. If you’ve never attended a Jewish wedding before, you may not be aware of the traditions that are part of both ceremony and reception. We asked officiants and experts to help explain some of the important elements of a Jewish wedding. We want all of the guests to feel comfortable during our ceremony, so we have put together a list of Jewish wedding traditions and some information about what they each mean.
Here’s everything you need to know about being a guest at a traditional Jewish wedding. We hope this information helps answer some questions and provides our guests with the background knowledge they need to follow and understand our wedding ceremony.
Table of Contents
- 1 Ketubah (Jewish Marriage Document)
- 2 Kabbalat panim
- 3 Jewish Wedding Ceremonies
- 4 The Processional
- 5 The Ceremony
- 6 Jewish Wedding Receptions
- 7 Giving Gifts
- 8 Yijud
Ketubah (Jewish Marriage Document)
The traditions you’ll experience at a Jewish wedding will depend on the branch of Judaism the couple belongs to Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. In all Jewish weddings, couples typically sign a marriage contract, called a ketubah, before the ceremony begins. The ketubah is usually formally presented to the couple during the ceremony.
“The Jewish wedding contract. Traditionally, the ketubah protected the wife in marriage by spelling out the husband’s obligations to her and guaranteeing her a financial settlement in case of divorce. Throughout the ages, ketubot (plural) have been illuminated and calligraphed, becoming significant as Jewish art. Today, all manner of egalitarian ketubot are written. Some dispense with the financial and legal aspects, focusing more on the emotional and spiritual sides of the relationship. Others maintain the rabbis’ concern with the practical, but define mutual obligations for each spouse (ritualwell.org).”
Prior to the wedding ceremony, there will be a small ceremony with our wedding party and immediate family where the ketubah will be read and signed by witnesses. Rather than being a legal contract, it is a spiritual covenant that we have made to each other and will hang in our home together so we will always be reminded of our love and commitment.
During the week before the wedding, the groom and bride are not allowed to see and meet each other—the expectation and excitement of the ceremony increases, thanks to this tradition. Just before the wedding ceremony starts, the jatán (groom) and the kalá (bride) will greet the guests separately. This is called “Kabbalat Panim”.
The Jewish tradition resembles the couple as a queen and a king. The bride sits on a “throne” to receive and greet the guests, while the groom is surrounded by guests who sing and cheer with him.
After this, the groom’s mother and the bride break a plate. The reason is to show the seriousness of the wedding commitment. A plate can never be completely repaired. Just like a relationship that breaks that can never be completely repaired.
Jewish Wedding Ceremonies
When attending a Jewish wedding ceremony, there are a few things you should know before you go. These tips will help you not only understand the ceremony itself but also how to respect the traditions of the couple’s religion.
What Side to Sit On
In some types of Jewish weddings, there may be rules on where guests can sit. “With Orthodox weddings, women and men may be required to sit separately during the ceremony,” says Nancy Goldstein of Amazing Celebrations & Events in Glastonbury, Connecticut. “The reception may also require men and women to sit separately with a divider down the centre of the reception hall.”
While it’s more common today for couples to invite guests to sit on whatever side they choose during the wedding ceremony traditionally the bride’s guests will sit on the right, and the groom’s side will sit on the left. This is also true for Jewish weddings, however, if you know both the bride and groom or notice one side has more people than the other, it’s fine to sit on the opposite side.
The wedding takes place under the Chuppah. The Chuppa is a canopy under which a Jewish couple stands during their wedding ceremony. A symbol of the house that will be built and shared by the couple. It is open on all sides, just as Abraham and Sarah had their shop open on all sides to welcome friends and family with unconditional hospitality.
The Chuppah is usually celebrated outside, under the stars, as a sign of the blessing given by God to the patriarch Abraham.
Groom and the bride don’t wear jewellery under the Chuppah. Their mutual commitment is based on what they are as human and not on any material possession.
To start, both are accompanied to the chuppah by their respective parents. Under the chuppah, the bride goes around the groom seven times. Just as the world was built in seven days, the kalá is figuratively building the walls of the new world of the couple. The number seven also symbolizes the wholeness and integrity that can not be achieved separately. After that, the bride stands to the right of the groom.
The ceremony processional will also be a bit different than at a Christian ceremony. “Guests will notice that both parents are escorting the bride and groom down the aisle,” says Rabbi Andrea Frank of The Jewish Wedding Traveling Rabbi in Westchester County, New York. “The procession usually goes as follows: The parents escort the groom to the chuppah (wedding canopy), rather than the groom enter from a side entrance. The parents escort the bride only to the middle of the aisle. The groom walks from the chuppah, acknowledges his soon to be in-laws. The bride’s parents then walk first to the bride’s side of the chuppah. The groom escorts the bride to the chuppah.”
During a Jewish wedding ceremony, the bridal party enters in a specific order for the procession. During the procession, the rabbi and cantor will enter first followed by the grandparents of the bride and then the groom.
Next up the groomsmen will usually enter with the best man and groom entering last. This will be followed by the bridesmaids, maid of honour, ring bearer, flower girl and finally the bride who is escorted by her parents.
For the recessional, the procession is simply reversed, but this time the groomsmen escort the bridesmaids away down the aisle.
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Another unique Jewish wedding tradition is the “circling of the groom,” which can be performed in a variety of ways. “The act of circling the groom is symbolic of the bride keeping the groom far from the reach of evil influences and including the attention of other women,” says Rabbi Cantor Annie Bornstein of Jewish Heart and Soul in Glen Allen, Virginia. “By circling the groom, the bride is also symbolically creating her new family, binding him to her and her to him over all other relationships (parents). In contemporary times, our grooms often circle the bride for the same reasons. Together, they create the holy space that represents the home that they will now build together.”
During the ceremony, you’ll notice some cultural practices that are common to Jewish weddings. This includes the bride circling the groom seven times which is done to symbolize the creation of a new home and the intertwining of the lives of both partners.
Blessings of commitment (Kiddushin)
For the next step in the wedding ceremony, two glasses of wine are used. The first cup accompanies the blessing of commitment. After it is recited, the couple drinks from the cup.
Wine is a symbol of joy in Jewish tradition and is associated with the Kiddush, the prayer of sanctity recited on Sabbath and the holidays. The marriage or also called Kiddushin is the sanctification of a man and a woman.
Following this, there will be a blessing of the first of two cups of wine which 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. Commonly couples will also exchange rings, though not all Jewish couples will choose to do so. Finally, the wedding ceremony will end with the smashing of a glass, which is usually the groom, though some couples will do it together.
There may be some audience participation in a Jewish wedding ceremony. “After a blessing is recited, everyone should respond with an Amen, which means ‘so be it’,” says Rabbi Michael Raab of Jewish & Interfaith Weddings in Naples, Florida. “This is also used during prayers in Christianity and Catholicism.”
Sheva Berakhot (Seven Blessings)
“Seven blessings with which the bride and groom are blessed at their wedding. Also refers to the seven days of celebration following the wedding, during which the seven blessings are recited at every meal at which there is a minyan of ten Jews, and there is at least one guest who was not present at the wedding.”
The seven blessings, also called Sheva Brachot, are now recited on the second cup of wine. These blessings link the groom and the bride to the faith in God as the creator of the world, the one who gives joy and love, and the redeemer of the Jewish people.
The rabbi or any other person recites these blessings that families wish to honour. At the end of the seven blessings, the couple again drinks a little wine from the cup.
Breaking the glass
It reminds us that love, like glass, is fragile and must be protected. The glass is broken to protect the marriage with an implied prayer: “May your marriage last as long as it would take to repair this glass.” The shattering of the glass concludes the ceremony on a high note.
After the glass is stepped on, it is traditional for all present to yell, “Mazel tov!” which means congratulations in Hebrew.
One of the most unique (and fun!) parts of a Jewish ceremony is the breaking of the glass, when usually the groom, but sometimes the bride or even both members of the couple, stomp on a glass (covered in a cloth for safety!). “The breaking of the glass originally was a statement reminding us to remember the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE,” says Rabbi Bornstein. “Consequently, even in our great joy, we are called upon to remember this heartbreaking tragedy. We’ve found another meaning for the breaking of the glass. The breaking of the glass reminds us that relationships are fragile and easily broken. The shards of broken glass remind us to nurture our beloved partners all the days of our lives.”
After the glass is broken, the couple will kiss, and guests can celebrate. “When the groom breaks the glass at the end of the ceremony, yell Mazel Tov, which means good luck,” says Rabbi Seidman.
Jewish Wedding Receptions
As with Jewish wedding ceremonies, there are a few things you should understand about Jewish wedding receptions. By having an understanding of the traditions that will be put into practice during the reception will allow you to enjoy and even participate in these fun cultural traditions.
Blessing The Challah
The meal begins with the blessing of the challah, which is a braided bread. Typically the couple’s parents or a guest close to the couple will make the blessing.
The Hora may be one of the most familiar moments of a Jewish wedding reception. This is commonly known as the chair dance during which guests will lift the bride and groom above the guests on the dance floor while the song Hava Nagila plays. It’s a fun and exciting moment for the couple and guests alike.
Traditional Jewish dance of celebration at significant events. Guests join hands and dance in a circle while the bride and groom are lifted in chairs in the middle of the circle. The bride and groom hold a napkin between them to connect us while all of our friends and family are dancing and celebrating around us.
Mezinke Tanz or Krenzel Dance
This tradition is typically one of the concluding dances of the night and honours parents who have married off their last child. The parents are seated on chairs in the middle of the dance floor while friends and family dance around, kissing them as they pass in front.
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When it comes to gift-giving etiquette for Jewish couples, guests usually send registry gifts to the couple in advance or bring monetary gifts to the reception. “Regarding a monetary gift, the number 18 figures are important in Jewish culture,” says Nancy Goldstein. “The Hebrew word for 18 is ‘Chai’ which means ‘alive’ or ‘life’. It is traditional to ‘Give Chai’ or to determine gifts in multiples of 18 (i.e. 54, 72, 108, etc.).”
The couple is escorted to a private room and left alone for a few minutes. These moments are a manifest of their new condition, living together as husband and wife.
The couple has been fasting since the morning, so it’s the moment to break their fast.
If you would like more information on Jewish weddings or any of the wedding rituals, check out this website for great resources!