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Jewish Wedding: A Time of Joy

This essay is dedicated to my wife, Maryse (nee Netter), on our fast approaching 50th wedding anniversary

"The sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride ". These words (Jer. 33: 10-11) , encapsulating the happiness surrounding a Jewish wedding, feature prominently in its celebration. Marriage has always been highly valued among Jews. Only through it, can one experience the wholeness of human experience. Beyond the prospect of posterity, it promises physical, social and spiritual companionship. At humanity's emergence, God noted that "it is not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18)". The Talmud later elaborated further on that: "He who has no wife lives without joy, blessing or goodness (Yeb. 62b)". Though formally a contractual relationship, it is one expected to be enveloped in sanctity.
Owing, though, to its contractual aspects, weddings are not performed either on the Sabbath or on Biblical holidays on which such transactions are proscribed. Weddings are also not held on the day preceding those Biblically enjoined holidays, nor on their intervening days ('Chol Hamoed'), thus avoiding the intermixing of what should be exclusive joys. Neither are they held on communal fast days, or during periods of communal sadness, such between Passover and Pentecost, excepting on Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer count, or over the Three Weeks, between the Fasts of 17 Tammuz and Tisha B'Av, for Ashkenazim, or just the last Nine Days for Sephardim. This latter period is one of growing sadness, leading up to the marking on 9 Av of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.
Springtime historically has signaled the reemergence of aggressive army movements. During the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 C.E.), thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students died, allegedly from plague, but quite likely, in battle with the Romans. In 1099, First Crusaders, on their way to the Holy Land, massacred thousands of Rhineland Jews. Disasters have repeatedly occurred during those seven springtime weeks of counting. It is a common misconception that Jews do not marry during this period due to "superstition", but it really is in remembrance of those past great tragedies.
While Sunday remains the most favored day for weddings, it is far from the only possibility. Among the most religious, Tuesday is much favored, it being the only day of the Seven days of Creation wherein it is doubly stated "And God saw that it was good". Also propitious times are, in most months, from New to Full Moon, when its crescent is in ascendance, the fifteenth days of Shevat and Av, as well as the entire months of Adar (except Purim), Elul and Kislev.
Jewish wedding practices combine aspects of Jewish Law, differing communal traditions, Biblical allusions, and the broad sweep of Jewish history. Some now vestigial practices have taken on new symbolic interpretations. While there are other diverse authentic traditions, Ashkenazic (European) and Sephardic (Middle Eastern) practices are predominant. While essential wedding elements are common to both, they do diverge in certain respects.
For the week prior to the wedding, it is customary among Ashkenazic Jews for the bride ('kallah') and groom ('chasan') not to see each other. On the Sabbath just before the wedding, the groom is honored with an 'aliyah' to the reading of the Torah ('aufruf''); among Sephardim, a comparable ceremony, 'Avram Siz', occurs on the Sabbath following the ceremony. In both traditions, the bride-to-be visits a mikveh (ritual bath) for purification. While among Ashkenazim, she might be accompanied only by one close female relative or married friend, among Sephardim, it is an occasion for wider celebration, 'noche de novia', shared with close female relatives and other women, who gather for sweets and dancing.
On the day of the wedding, Ashkenazic couples fast until the actual ceremony. Leading up to that, they will separately greet their same sex guests ('Kabbalat Panim') at receptions at the wedding venue. At the groom's gathering, the officiating rabbi will fill in individualized details on a standard printed Hebrew/Aramaic Ketubah (marriage contract): names of the bride and groom as well as date and place of the wedding. The groom then confirms his obligations to the bride, as contained therein, by accepting a small item of clothing, such as a handkerchief from the rabbi ('kinyan sudar'). Onlooking will be two religiously observant witnesses, neither related to each other or to the bride or groom. They will sign the completed document, attesting to its authenticity, and will further witness, as well, later key ceremony elements. The Ketubah, though it need not be, often is a beautifully illustrated work of art in
itself, to be proudly displayed in the couple's home.
In earlier centuries, marriages were largely arranged between families and confirmed by a document called Tenaim (lit. conditions). It would set out the dowry and other financial arrangements, while specifying the date and time for the wedding. It was sealed with the breaking of a piece of crockery. Today, among Ashkenazim, this latter act is recreated by the two mothers-in-law jointly holding a plate and then breaking it. This is now taken, symbolically, to suggest their children's joint lessening of familial ties, as they form their new family unit.
Following that, the groom accompanied by his guests, proceeds, amid much singing and dancing, to the bride's room for the 'bedeken', the veiling of the kallah by the chasan. This custom has very specific Biblical antecedents. Just prior to meeting Isaac, Rebecca, out of modesty,veiled herself (Gen. 24:65). Decades later, their son, Jacob, was tricked by his father-in-law, Laban, into marrying his heavily veiled elder daughter, Leah, rather then his intended Rachel (Gen. 29:23). 'Bedeken' guarantees that there will be no trickery this time. In Sephardic practice, though, there is neither breaking of a plate, nor 'bedeken'.
It is time now to proceed to the 'chuppah' (Marriage canopy') It can be a simple cloth, tallis, or ornate covering, set up either indoors or outdoors, and suspended aloft over the couple. In all instances, it is symbolic of the new household now being established. It can also be viewed as proclaiming God's presence over the covenant of marriage. Both chasan and kallah typically are escorted to the chuppah by their parents. A frequent practice is for the chasan, as the kallah approaches, to go to meet and escort her the remainder of the way to the chuppah. On the separate arrival of each, there are sung words of greeting, blessing the groom and bride. Among Ashkenazim, there is a custom, at this point, for the kallah to circle the chasan seven times, corresponding to the seven times in the Torah where it is written "when a man marries a woman" (e.g. Deut. 24:5).
The ceremony itself is divided into two parts: Erusin/Kiddushin (formal engagement) and Nesuin (marriage). Formerly, engagement, nearly as binding as marriage itself, took place as much as a year prior to the wedding. Nowadays, the two are combined. Erusin begins with two blessings, the first over wine, the second, sanctifying this couple's intended union. Both then drink from the cup. The groom now states: "Ha're Aht Mekudeshes Li B'tabaas Zoo K'das Moshe V'Yisroel (Behold, you are consecrated to me, by means of this ring, according to the ritual of Moses and Israel)" and places the ring on the bride's finger.
Separating the two parts of the ceremony, the Ketubah is then read aloud. It outlines the groom's responsibilities to his bride: "to work for thee, honor, provide for, and support thee, in accordance with the practice of Jewish husbands ...", encumbers on him payment ('mohar') in event of the marriage's dissolution, and notes the bride's consent to the marriage.
A second cup of wine is then poured and Sheva B'rachos (Seven Blessings) recited. 1. Who has created everything for His glory 2. Who fashioned Man
3. Who fashioned man in His image 4. Who gladdens Zion through her children 5. Who gladdens groom and bride 6. Who created joy and gladness ... Who gladdens the groom with the bride. 7. over wine. Man and wife now drink from the cup.
Now comes a moment, widely recognized, but little understood: the breaking of a glass. Though invariably greeted by shouts of 'Mazel Tov' (Good Luck), it represents, in fact, a brief intrusion of grief - remembrance of the Temple's destruction - in the midst of joy. Indeed, Jerusalem is never far from the mind. The long sixth blessing looks forward to a time when "soon will be heard in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of joy and gladness ...".
Prior to proceeding to the Seudas Mitzvah (Wedding banquet), in Ashkenazic tradition, the couple goes to a private room for a few minutes together ('Yichud'). Having fasted, this also affords them an opportunity for some refreshment. Sephardim go directly to the meal. It is one of great festivity, with much music and dancing, all intended to celebrate and cheer the couple. Particularly popular is the forming of a dancing circle around the lifted-up seated chasan and kallah. There is also individual dancing ('Mitzvah tanz') before the bride. For particularly auspicious weddings, there are two special dances: the 'Krenzl', in which her daughters dance around the bride's mother, at the wedding of her last unwed daughter, and the 'Mizinke'. a circle around the parents of either bride or groom, when their last child is wed.
At the conclusion of the meal, there is a special call to Grace ('Zimun'), recited over wine. Following it, a second cup of wine is filled. Seven specially honored guests each recite one of the Sheva Br'achos, following which the two cups are intermixed into a "cup of blessing" and given to the bride and groom to drink.
Over the course of the following week, for first time newlyweds, Sheva Br'achos are repeated at each meal attended by the couple, whenever a quorum of ten is present, including one person not previously present. There is also Biblical precedence for that: Jacob's celebrating his marriage to Leah, to "complete the week of this one ...(Gen. 29:27). The spiritually-infused ceremonies surrounding the marriage are now complete but their aura is intended to continue into the first year of marriage ('Shana Rishona'). The Torah states: "When a man marries a new wife, he shall not go out to the army, nor shall it obligate him for any matter; he shall be free for his home for one year, and he shall gladden his wife whom he has married. (Deut. 24:5)".
Having been so initiated into marriage, the couple should be well on the way towards establishing a 'Bais Ne'eman B'Yisroel' (Faithful home in Israel).

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