While wedding ceremonies vary, common features of a Jewish wedding include a ketubah (marriage contract) which is signed by two witnesses, a wedding canopy (chuppah or huppah), a ring owned by the groom that is given to the bride under the canopy, and the breaking of a glass.
Technically, the Jewish wedding process has two distinct stages: kiddushin (sanctification or dedication, also called erusin, betrothal in Hebrew) and nissuin (marriage), when the couple start their life together. The first stage prohibits the woman to all other men, requiring a religious divorce (get) to dissolve, and the final stage permits the couple to each other. The ceremony that accomplishes nisuin is known as chuppah.
Today, erusin/kiddushin occurs when the groom gives the bride a ring or other object of value with the intent of creating a marriage. There are differing opinions as to which part of the ceremony constitutes nissuin/chuppah; they include standing under the canopy - itself called a chuppah - and being alone together in a room (yichud). While historically these two events could take place as much as a year apart, they are now commonly combined into one ceremony.
Signing of the marriage contract
Before the wedding ceremony, the groom (chatan) agrees to be bound by the terms of the ketubah, or marriage contract, in the presence of two witnesses, whereupon the witnesses sign the ketubah. The ketubah details the obligations of the groom to the bride, among which are food, clothing, and marital relations. This document has the standing of a legally binding agreement. It is often written as an illuminated manuscript that is framed and displayed in their home. Under the chuppah, it is traditional to read the signed ketubah aloud, usually in the Aramaic original, but sometimes in translation. Traditionally, this is done to separate the two basic parts of the wedding. Secular couples may opt for a shortened version to be read out.
A traditional Jewish wedding ceremony takes place under a Chuppah or wedding canopy, symbolizing the new home being built by the couple when they become husband and wife.
Covering of the bride
Prior to the ceremony, Ashkenazi Jews have a custom to cover the face of the bride (usually with a veil), and a prayer is often said for her based on the words spoken to Rebecca in Genesis 24:60. The veiling ritual is known in Yiddish as badeken. Various reasons are given for the veil and the ceremony, a commonly accepted reason is that it reminds the Jewish people of how Jacob was tricked by Laban into marrying Leah before Rachel, as her face was covered by her veil (see Vayetze). Sephardic Jews do not perform this ceremony.
In many communities, the groom is led under the chuppah by the two fathers and the bride by the two mothers, known by Ashkenazi Jews as unterfirers (Yiddish, lit. ones who lead under).
Encircling the groom
The bride traditionally walks around the groom three or seven times when she arrives at the Chuppah. This may derive from Jeremiah 31:22, “A woman shall surround a man”. The three circuits may represent the three virtues of marriage: righteousness, justice and loving kindness (see Hosea 2:21). Seven circuits derives from the Biblical concept that seven denotes perfection or completeness. Sephardic Jews do not perform this ceremony.
Presentation of the ring (Betrothal)
The groom gives the bride a ring, traditionally a plain wedding band, and recites the declaration: Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the law of Moses and Israel. The groom places the ring on the bride’s right index finger. According to traditional Jewish law, two valid witnesses must see him place the ring.
During some egalitarian weddings, the bride will also present a ring to the groom, often with a quote from the Song of Songs: "Ani l'dodi, ve dodi li" (I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine), which may also be inscribed on the ring itself. This ring is sometimes presented outside the chuppa to avoid conflicts with Jewish law.
The Sheva Brachot or seven blessings are recited by the hazzan or rabbi, or by select guests who are called up individually. Being called upon to recite one of the seven blessings is considered an honour. The groom is given the cup of wine to drink from after the seven blessings. The bride also drinks the wine. In some traditions, the cup will be held to the lips of the groom by his new father-in-law and to the lips of the bride by her new mother-in-law. Traditions vary as to whether additional songs are sung before the seven blessings.
Breaking the glass
After the bride has been given the ring, or at the end of the ceremony (depending on local custom), the groom breaks a glass, crushing it with his right foot, and the guests shout "Mazel tov!" ("Congratulations"). At some contemporary weddings, a lightbulb may be substituted because it is thinner and more easily broken, and it makes a louder popping sound.
The origin of this custom is unknown, although many reasons have been given. The primary reason is that joy must always be tempered. This is based on two accounts in the Talmud of rabbis who, upon seeing that their son's wedding celebration was getting out of hand, broke a vessel – in the second case a glass – to calm things down. Another explanation is that it is a reminder that despite the joy, Jews still mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Because of this, some recite the verses "If I forget thee / O Jerusalem..." at this point. Many other reasons have been given by traditional authorities.
Former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef has strongly criticized the way this custom is sometimes carried out, arguing that "Many unknowledgeable people fill their mouths with laughter during the breaking of the glass, shouting 'mazel tov' and turning a beautiful custom meant to express our sorrow" over Jerusalem's destruction "into an opportunity for lightheadedness."
Yichud (Hebrew for "togetherness" or "seclusion") refers to the Ashkenazi practice of leaving the bride and groom alone for 10–20 minutes after the wedding ceremony. The couple retreats to a private room. Yichud can take place anywhere, from a rabbi's study to a synagogue classroom. The reason for yichud is that according to several authorities, standing under the canopy alone does not constitute chuppah, and seclusion is necessary to complete the wedding ceremony. However, Sephardic Jews do not have this custom, as they consider it a davar mechoar, a "repugnant thing", compromising the couple's modesty.
In Yemen, the Jewish practice was not for the groom and his bride to be secluded in a canopy (chuppah), as is widely practiced today in Jewish weddings, but rather in a bridal chamber that was, in effect, a highly decorated room in the house of the groom. This room was traditionally decorated with large hanging sheets of colored, patterned cloth, replete with wall cushions and short-length mattresses for reclining. Their marriage is consummated when they have been left together alone in this room. This ancient practice finds expression in the writings of Isaac ben Abba Mari (c. 1122 – c. 1193), author of Sefer ha-'Ittur, concerning the Benediction of the Bridegroom: "Now the chuppah is when her father delivers her unto her husband, bringing her into that house wherein is some new innovation, such as the sheets… surrounding the walls, etc. For we recite in the Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 46a (Sotah 9:15), 'Those bridal chambers, (chuppoth hathanim), they hang within them patterned sheets and gold-embroidered ribbons,' etc."
- The Krenzl, in which the bride's mother is crowned with a wreath of flowers as her daughters dance around her (traditionally at the wedding of the mother's last unwed daughter).
- The Mizinke, a dance for the parents of the bride or groom when their last child is wed.
- The "Horah" is a Middle Eastern/Israeli style dance usually played as a second dance set.
- The gladdening of the bride, in which guests dance around the bride, and can include the use of "shtick"—silly items such as signs, banners, costumes, confetti, and jump ropes made of table napkins.
- The Mitzvah tantz, in which family members and honored rabbis are invited to dance in front of the bride (or sometimes with the bride in the case of a father or grandfather), often holding a gartel, and then dancing with the groom. At the end the bride and groom dance together themselves.
Birkat hamazon and sheva brachot
After the meal, Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals) is recited, followed by sheva brachot. At a wedding banquet, the wording of the blessings preceding Birkat Hamazon is slightly different from the everyday version. Prayer booklets called benchers, may be handed out to guests. After the prayers, the blessing over the wine is recited, with two glasses of wine poured together into a third, symbolizing the creation of a new life together.
Jewish prenuptial agreements
In recent years, the governing bodies of several branches of Judaism have developed standard Jewish prenuptial agreements designed to prevent a man from withholding a get (Jewish bill of divorce) from his wife, should she want one. Such documents have been developed and widely used in the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom and other places.
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