It’s June and you know what that means! The season of oppressive heat begins! And weddings. Coincidence? I think not. In Canada, they have natural air conditioning, but also weddings. I know, because Deas sent me this question:
I am so thrilled that my current husband and I have been invited to the wedding of a young man who served as a camp counsellor to our daughter. He is now attending medical school in the Caribbean, where the couple will reside until he graduates.
“Chuppah” is at 4:30 with cocktails, dinner and dance to follow. Are there any particular traditions I may not be aware of? And, in terms of gifts, I am assuming that money is always appropriate, and would it be in a multiple of 8?
Any other words of wisdom you might have? I am tres excited to see the canopy ceremony.
Wow, the Caribbean! How can I marry this man? I mean, great question. Let’s talk about Jewish weddings. When I was young, there were two kinds of weddings: the kind you describe above and the kind on TV where everything was totally different. This never confused me, though, since I had already realized that school, weddings, holidays, and everything else on TV barely resembled my experience. Everyone enjoys that – it’s why they invented science fiction.
I’m going to describe a traditional Jewish wedding and not every one or even the one you’re attending will be exactly like this. They may do some of the things but leave others behind. It may depend on their level of observance or how many episodes involving David Tutera the bride has seen on TV.
Jewish weddings usually begin with a pre-ceremony reception, called Kabbalat Panim (literally: greeting of faces). At many religious weddings, the bride and groom have avoided seeing each other for seven days. So to keep this going, at the Kabbalat Panim, the groom and his pals stay in a separate room as the guests arrive and
eat a ton of hors d’oeuvres and get plastered shmooze. This men’s gathering is called a Tisch, which is Yiddish for table, and that’s because all the men sit around a table and talk Torah and drink and sing. It’s also where the groom and two witnesses (they must be pious men) sign the Ketubah, which is the marriage contract that the groom will later give to the bride. It lists all the obligations the man has towards his new wife (food, shelter, sex…. that was not a joke; he has that obligation). Also, how he will take care of her in the event of divorce. My mother kept hers in the bottom drawer under some sweaters, but these days lots of couples have theirs designed with gorgeous illustrations and then frame it and put it up.
(I liked this Ketubah because the quote at the top is “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” which is from the Song of Songs.)
In the meantime, the bride gets the rest of the hall. She sits on a throne (well, a fancy wicker chair usually stands in) and is surrounded by her female friends and relatives. Her mother sits on one side and her future MIL on the other and her grandmothers, sisters, sisters-in-law, and bridesmaids stand behind and flank both sides. Here she and they receive guests (of all genders). After a while, the action starts. By that I mean, a trumpet sounds, music starts, and in comes the groom. But you don’t see him at first because he is completely surrounded by other men and they literally dance him into the room to see his bride. Everyone cheers and claps and sings along. The song that is played is called “Od Yishama,” and the lyrics are from Jeremiah:
Od yishama be’arei Yehuda,
Kol sasson v’kol simcha
Kol chatan v’kol kallah
It will still be heard in the cities of Judea
And the parts of Jerusalem:
The sound of joy and the sound of gladness,
The voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.
It’s hard to imagine this scene so I’m including a random video from YouTube. In a Pavlovian reaction, every video I watched made me emotional, even though I don’t know these people. When you are there witnessing it, it’s the moment you kind of think, “OMG! So-and-so is really getting married!” It makes you sniffly. This part is called the Bedeken (or many alternate transliterations of Yiddish) or covering the face of the bride. Because when Rebecca saw Isaac for the first time, she covered herself with a veil. The groom checks to make sure it’s really the one he’s supposed to marry (you scoff, but look what happened to Jacob!) and then he lowers the veil over her face. The bride’s father, as in this video, often kisses her and gives her a blessing.
I really love how excited the bride and groom (who looks about 15… and smashed) are to see each other in this one, so I picked it even though the chair wasn’t wicker. Feh.
Everyone then proceeds to their seats for the ceremony, where, you guessed it, the chuppah is. Most Jewish weddings do not have separate seating by side of the family. This is, again, something I have only seen on TV, but I assume is real. You can tell me if it’s not. The chuppah is a canopy on four poles and it makes a little house. You may think this symbolizes the bride’s transition from her previous dancing gig, but actually, it more stands for the new household that the bride and groom are creating. By “chuppah,” your invitation means “the main ceremony.” Chuppah really symbolizes marriage itself, as in the blessing one gives a new baby that he or she will advance to Torah, chuppah, and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).
In traditional Jewish ceremonies, both the bride and groom are walked down the aisle by their parents. There is no giving anyone away. Another difference is that the bride and groom usually choose some piece of music they like and it’s usually not Here Comes the Bride. When the bride reaches the chuppah, she walks around the groom seven times. Seven is an important number in Judaism and lots of things in the wedding are done in sevens. I won’t go over the whole ceremony, but it involves drinking wine and the giving of rings, and later, seven blessings are said. Also, the Ketubah is read (but it’s in Aramaic so you may also get a translation) and given to the bride. At the very end, the groom smashes a glass under his foot because even in our happiest times, we remember the destruction of the holy Temple in Jerusalem.
The bride and groom then go off to the Yichud (seclusion) Room where they, uh, have some alone time while the witnesses stand outside and make sure no one messes with them. Often, they sit and eat something as the custom is to fast the day of one’s wedding (it’s like Yom Kippur for the bride and groom – a day of prayer and renewal). But, really, what happens in the Yichud Room stays in the Yichud Room. The guests go off to begin the Se’udat Mitzvah, or festive meal. Once the bride and groom come in to the main hall where everyone’s already started tucking in to their appetizers, the room goes crazy with wild dancing. Sometimes, the bride and groom are raised up on chairs by their friends. This is a good time to not stand right next to a bunch of drunken people holding other people on chairs.
It’s an important mitzvah (commandment) “l’sameach chatan v’kallah,” that is, to make the bride and groom happy. So you will often see people wear fun costumes or juggle or dance in front of the bride and groom, who can rest for a bit and enjoy the show. Then there’s more dancing and eating and a benediction at the end.
Now, all of the above should be taken with this grain of salt: these are all the main traditions. Your friends may not do some or most of them. But just in case, there they all are!
So now to your practical inquiries. Whatever you might give to anyone getting married would be appropriate for a Jewish couple. The custom of, when money is given, giving it in multiples of 18 is because in Hebrew, letters are also numbers and the two letters which make 18 are also the word for life. Jews like life a lot, despite all the complaining which may make you suspect otherwise. So if you do give money, multiples of 18 are a lovely gesture, although you don’t have to.
Mazal tov to the bride and groom and thanks for writing!
I never realized till I was trying to find a song for this how many wedding song reference traditions not encountered in Judaism: wedding bells, chapels, etc. So we’ll just go with this old chestnut.
Billy Idol – White Wedding