Jewish Wedding Traditions Explained
It can be tough to find a wedding planning team to fit your specific religious or cultural needs, however, if you are looking for a professional planner proficient in planning Jewish weddings you've come to the right place! We have over 20 years of experience planning beautiful Jewish weddings.
In honor of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, we celebrate new beginnings. What a better way to celebrate blessings and be beginnings than with a wedding!
Regardless of whether you grew up observant in the Jewish religion and culture or infrequently attended temple, you may wish to incorporate Jewish wedding traditions into your big day. Depending on your subculture (Sephardic or Ashkenazi), your level of orthodoxy, and whether or not you are marrying a fellow Jew, the following traditions may be optional or mandatory. Either way, we highly recommend that you check with the Rabbi as well as both families to ensure that all traditions are observed.
On the Shabbat prior to the wedding it is common practice for Conservative or Orthodox grooms to partake in an aufruf. Translated from Yiddish, this means “calling up.” At this ceremony, the groom is called up to the Torah recite a special blessing, known as an aliyah. The rabbi will then bless the couple and their impending nuptials. Guests occasionally toss candy to the bride and groom to celebrate and then the entire congregation will join them at an oneg, a casual reception following the blessing.
The joy of a wedding is not usually associated with the discomfort and serious reflection of a fast, however, depending on the Jewish community to which you belong, some couples fast on the day of their wedding. This helps them to spiritually prepare for the lifetime commitment that lies ahead. Similar to the most holy holiday Yom Kippur, this is done to atone for any sins so that you enter into your union with a clear conscious and pure soul. The couple is then permitted to resume eating following the wedding ceremony.
At Jewish wedding ceremonies, regardless of whether you are Jewish or not, men are asked to cover their heads with a skullcap. This is known as a yarmulke or kippah. Married women are also expected to cover their hair as well. This is often done with a circular lace head covering secured with a bobby pin. However, in the more liberal communities, women will wear kippot as well. This is provided by the couple and is often embossed to commemorate the occasion.
Orthodox Jewish weddings require that men and women sit separately. This is most commonly seen during the ceremony, however, it can sometimes be expected to occur at the reception as well depending on how observant the couple and their families are. You may see a mechitza, or partition, set up to divide the men and women. At some Jewish receptions there may be separate dancing as well, with either two dance floors, or a mechitza dividing a single dance floor into men and women’s sides.
In Orthodox communities, a bedeken ceremony is held prior to the wedding. The bride and groom are separated and then the groom, his male relatives and friends make a joyful procession to the bride, who is placed on a throne surrounded by her female family and loved ones. As guests sing and dance, the groom places the veil over the bride’s face. This tradition represents modesty, and references several biblical stories proving that it is her inner beauty and not only her outer beauty that he loves.
A Jewish wedding tradition you will see at every ceremony is the signing of the ketubah, or marriage contract. A ketubah signing ceremony is traditionally held just prior to the actual wedding ceremony. Two witnesses who are not blood relations are selected to sign the ketubah as witnesses along with them. The the rabbi and close family members are also present for this important moment. The signed ketubah, which is often quite ornate, is frequently displayed during a Jewish wedding ceremony then framed and hung up in their home.
The chuppah is the most important of Jewish wedding traditions. This is a wedding canopy which consists of a cloth roof supported by four poles. These poles may either be freestanding or be held aloft by wedding party members. The chuppah may be simple or elaborately decorated, heavy with florals, depending on the wishes of the couple and their families. The chuppah represents the creation of a Jewish home. It is a show of hospitality to the couple's assembled guests. During the course of a Jewish wedding ceremony, the Rabbi and parents of the couple will stand with the soon-to-be married couple under their chuppah. On occasion the best man and maid of honor will also be included under the chuppah.
A Jewish wedding processional is a bit different than one you are accustomed to seeing at a Christian ceremony. After the Rabbi's entrance, the bride’s grandparents and the groom’s grandparents are escorted down the aisle, followed by the groomsmen and best man. The groom is then escorted by both of his parents down the aisle, followed by the bridesmaids and maid of honor. The bride is then escorted by both of her parents down the aisle.
Also known as hakafot, this tradition of the bride circling the groom is common at many Jewish weddings. In some cases, however, the couple will chose to have an updated version of this custom to reflect more modern relationships. During this processional, which takes place before the bride reaches the chuppah, she will walk in seven circles surrounding the groom. There are several reasons for this, but it’s most often interpreted as the bride creating a “wall of protection” around the groom. We have seen some couples choose to circle each other instead to demonstrate the equality of love and protection in their relationship. When this is done, the bride circles the groom three times and then the groom circles the bride three times, followed by them each circling one another other once more.
The sheva brachot are seven blessings that are recited by the Rabbi during the wedding ceremony. They are recited over a cup of wine during the latter part of the proceedings, and are most commonly in Hebrew, though they may be translated into English. Either way, they are quite beautiful.
A tallit, or fringed prayer shawl, is used in several ways as part of Jewish wedding traditions. Often the bride will give the groom a tallis as a wedding present. Tallit may also serve as the cloth roof portion of the chuppah. This is often the case when using a family heirloom of a loved one who has passed on. The tallis is also incorporated during the final blessings when the couple’s parents wrap the tallit around the couple’s shoulders as a symbol of unity and being surrounded by love.
Breaking of the Glass
During the final moments of a Jewish wedding ceremony, the groom breaks a glass (one that has been well wrapped in a cloth napkin or bag to avoid injury!) with his right foot. The couple will then kiss as guests cheer and shout “Mazel Tov!” which means “Congratulations!” There are many conflicting reasons as to why this Jewish wedding tradition takes place, but it’s most commonly thought of as a reference to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Often the broken glass pieces are then collected and kept as a momento of their wedding ceremony.
Yichud refers to the hiding away of the wedded couple. This takes place immediately following the wedding ceremony. According to Jewish wedding tradition, the newlyweds are secluded from their guests for 18 minutes following the wedding ceremony. A credible witness is placed to guard the door to ensure that no one enters. At one time, at this point it was when the marriage was consummated, however nowadays, the couple will simply enjoy an interval of tranquility amongst the turmoil of the wedding day. This is also when they break their fast before greeting their loved ones at the reception.
Special Reception Dances
If you’ve ever attended a Jewish wedding, you’re probably familiar with the hora. This is one of the highlights of a Jewish wedding! This joyful dance usually takes place either immediately after the newlyweds enter the reception or following the first dance. As traditional Jewish music plays, guests dance in concentric circles while the couple is seated on chairs in the center. Eventually they are hoisted into the air by their male family members as they are simultaneously raised and lowered while they hold either side of a handkerchief or cloth napkin. The biggest challenge is keeping the couple seated as this celebration can get quite boisterous!!
Another Jewish wedding dance you'll see, if its the last child to be married, is the mezinke tanz. The parents of the youngest child are seated on chairs and the mother is crowned with a floral wreath. Guests dance then around the parents congratulating them on the special occasion. This is done for the parents of the bride, groom, or both, depending on if they are the last in the family to be married.