The centuries-old customs of Jewish weddings are weighted with symbolism honoring god, heritage, and family, yet Jewish nuptials are also joyful celebrations infused with song, dance and generosity.
“There is a wide range of observance in Judaism – and wedding ceremonies reflect that range,” says Joanie Levine, owner and officiant at Your Personal Ceremony. Orthodox or conservative Jewish couples will likely follow more traditional customs while non-practicing or inter-faith couples usually implement a few modernized Jewish rituals. Vibrant Table has even seen brides and grooms of other faiths incorporate traditionally Jewish elements. In short, it’s your day – so do whatever strikes your fancy!
Whether you are looking for some inspiration or curious about what you may expect at a Jewish friend’s wedding, Here are just a few of the customs and elements common in Jewish wedding celebrations. Mazel Tov!
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Instead of a wedding arch, Jewish wedding ceremonies will be held underneath a chupah, a cloth cover suspended on 4 poles. The chupah represents Abraham and Sarah’s tent, open on all four sides to welcome guests and symbolizes home and hospitality. The cloth used is often of sentimental value – a scarf given by a friend, a quilt made by a grandmother – and can be stationary or held by attendants. Chupahs offer florists a way to showcase their work and creativity.
Originating in a time where women were given far less advantages, ketubahs historically described the promises a groom made to the his bride. Given to the bride’s mother for safe-keeping, the ketubah was a contract before god and family to treat his wife with love and respect. Today, ketubahs include the vows of both bride and groom. They are often works of art displayed in the newlyweds’ home.
BREAKING OF THE GLASS
Indicating that the solemnity of the ceremony has ended and it is time to celebrate, the breaking of the glass is one of the most recognizable elements of Jewish wedding ceremonies. It may remind guests that there is healing to be done somewhere in the world or protect the newlyweds and guests by satisfying evil spirits. Afterward, guests shout “mazel tov!“, meaning “good luck”. Your Personal Ceremony suggests placing a glass inside a receptacle to ensure safety (cut feet have resulted) and hold the shards which can then be recycled into a keepsake.
Before the ceremony, the bride may circle the groom seven times or the bride (traditional) and groom may each circle each other three times with a final round performed jointly. The symbolic interpretations vary, with wide agreement that circling creates a sacred space and grounding. The significance of the number seven is generally deemed a nod to days of creation. The more traditional bride circling – which can signify the groom will become the center of the bride’s new life – may be viewed as patriarchal or demeaning to women in more modern sentiment. Nowadays, couples often choose to share the circling symbolizing equal partnership, balance, and reciprocal respect.
HORA & CHAIR DANCE
The hora is a circle dance, which originated in the Balkans but can be found in many countries such as Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria. Everyone gathers together in a circle, holding hands, and then preforms a synchronized step dance toward the right. The Jewish hora is often danced to Israeli folk songs rather than traditional Jewish music.
Likely derived from the ancient habit of carrying royalty, the chair dance is a popular element of Jewish weddings. Strong, energetic party-goers carry the bride and groom on chairs. The couple often holds the end of a handkerchief. Forever Wed recommends the tallest carrier be placed in front to avoid painful tumbles!
OTHER INTERESTING TIDBITS
- Bride and groom are escorted by both parents.
- Bride and groom places might be opposite what you expect, with brides standing on the right and grooms on the left. Guest seating will also be switched.
- After the ceremony, the couple may spend some time alone, allowing them to privately reflect on the significance of their union.
- Relatives are honored guests that are not usually given tasks associated with the ceremony or reception (i.e. hold the chupah, assist the bride, etc)
- Generosity is an important value expressed at Jewish weddings. Generosity is often demonstrated through an abundant amount of food. Arrange plans for the left overs with your caterer. Consider donating them to a local relief agency.
- Many Rabbis do not perform ceremonies on the Sabbath, Saturday, or perform inter-faith ceremonies.
- The rituals and symbols associated with Jewish wedding ceremonies often have varied meanings. The couple chooses which meanings they hold dear and these are often shared with guests during the ceremony.
What about you?
If you’re Jewish, what elements did you include in your wedding and why? If you’ve attended a Jewish wedding, what customs intrigued you the most? What about ideas for Jewish-non-Jewish fusion weddings? We’d love to hear your thoughts!
An especially grand thank you to Joanie Levine and Yehudah Alan Winter of Your Personal Ceremony for providing the majority of the insight for this post. Also, thank you to Nadine and Ben for sharing images from their wedding at the Portland Art Museum. Their wedding was photographed by Matt Gonzalez Photography.