17 Jewish Wedding Traditions for Your Big Day
It is said that matching two souls is harder than splitting the Red Sea; luckily, including Jewish wedding traditions into your celebration isn’t difficult at all. Here, with help from Rabbi Daniel Kraus of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York, we share today’s most common practices and the meaning you need to know behind each one.
Seeking a date for the special event? According to Jewish customs, certain days are more lucky than others.
Some couples, for example, choose to get married on Tuesdays—and not because it might be less expensive. It says twice in Genesis about the third day of creating the world, “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10 and 12), which has led many to believe it is twice as nice to get married on the third day of the week, which is Tuesday.
The Jewish calendar is lunar, so the renewal of each new moon is an especially auspicious day to tie the knot. Rosh Chodesh (head of the month) is treated as a mini-holiday with added blessings.
Tu B’Av (the 15th of the month Av) typically occurs in late July or early August. It is a day not only to find love, but also to celebrate it. Why? The Talmud (the two books of Jewish civil and ceremonial laws and legends) tells how during this time single women would wear white to symbolize purity and holiness and go out to the fields to dance and pray to God. Men were encouraged to join them and find a possible wife.
Still seeking an opportune date to make it official? In the Hebrew calendar, the month of Kislev (falling around November and December), when Hanukkah is celebrated, and the month of Adar (usually February), when the holiday of Purim is celebrated, are also both seen as times of the year to transition from a period of mourning to joy and happiness—and we can’t think of anything more joyful and happy than a wedding.
For more lucky days in the Jewish calendar—as well as ones to avoid—go to chabad.org.
The Aufruf Celebration
Not just a funny-sounding word, aufruf literally means “calling up” in German and Yiddish. Traditionally, on the Sabbath before the wedding, the groom is called up during the reading of the Torah to recite the blessings. Many rabbis today permit both men and women to recite these blessings so that brides may partake as well.
When the blessings are complete and the portion is read, it is customary for children (or the women’s section) to shower the groom with nuts, raisins, or, most commonly, soft candies. This symbolizes a wish that their married life be sweet.
The Shomer and Shomeret
A bride and groom are considered, and treated as, a queen and king—not just for the big day, but for the entire week leading up to the wedding. Just as royalty have handmaidens or guards so they are never left alone, a bride and groom should always be with a friend or family member, designated as their shomeret for a woman and shomer for a man.
A shomeret or shomer ensures you are taken care of and keeps you calm and distracted from any prewedding stresses. Who wouldn’t want one?
Sephardi Jewish wedding customs vary by region, but most of them have commonalities, such as this tradition revolving around henna. Known as the Noche de Novia, which means “night of the bride” in Spanish, a henna event usually takes place during the week before the wedding. In Hebrew, henna is pronounced as chinah (using the same hard, guttural sound that you use for saying Chanukah). Some say it is an acronym for challah, braided bread for Sabbath; niddah, the laws for a woman to purify herself; and hadlakat nerot, the lighting of the Sabbath candles.
The bridal party (the bride’s parents, sisters, cousins, etc.) walks in first with gifts for the bride and groom. These are usually fruit baskets or baskets full of the henna paste. The couple is either already sitting or they make their own entrance after the parade of baskets.
To further treat the bride and groom as royalty, male friends and family may carry them in. The henna dye is used differently from how it is used in an Indian henna party; instead, a half-teaspoon worth of henna dye is placed in the palm of the bride’s and groom’s hands and tied with a ribbon. The henna symbolizes luck, fertility, and protection against the evil eye.
The outfit that the bride wears is often a red and gold velvet caftan, paired with a headpiece, which has been worn by all the brides in her family before her and passed down from generation to generation. The groom wears a jilaba, which is a red hat, and a white caftan. Pictured here, this bride’s caftan from Morocco has been in her family for over 300 years.
Hide and Seek
The Jewish faith doesn’t believe that the groom seeing the bride before the ceremony is associated with bad luck, but there is a tradition in which the groom and bride should avoid being around one another for as long as a week before the wedding. Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Indeed. This is also a time for each to be with their own families before they go off to form their new ones. Some couples even wait to see each other until the bedeken.
A Day of Atonement
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the day to pray for forgiveness of sins and start the year with a clean slate. The sages teach that the wedding day is the same, with couples having a special opening to the gates of heaven, not only for themselves, but also for others in need of prayers. Couples can adopt similar customs, such as fasting (as long as you are in good health) and reciting the afternoon prayers of Yom Kippur.
One the most exciting moments in a traditional Jewish wedding is the bedeken, or veiling ceremony. Often, it is when the groom may be seeing the bride for the first time. The groom looks at his bride, they share a brief moment, and then he covers her with her veil. This tradition goes back to the story of Jacob, who intended to marry Rachel, but was tricked into marrying her sister, Leah (Genesis 28:10-32:3). So now Jewish grooms double-check that they are marrying the girl of their dreams.
The Prayer Shawl
Jewish customs descend from different areas around the world, most commonly from Eastern Europe (Ashkenaz), or from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East (Sephardi). Ashkenaz grooms traditionally wear a kitl, a white robe, and Sephardi grooms wear a tallit, the prayer shawl. If a groom is wearing a tallit, it is toward the end of the ceremony that he wraps the shawl over his bride’s shoulders to unify them as one before they receive the Seven Blessings. Many couples love the symbolism behind this tradition and have come to include it in their ceremonies, whether or not they are Sephardi.
The ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract that, traditionally, details the groom’s obligations to his bride. Over time it has come to symbolize a couple’s commitment to one another across multiple denominations—and has evolved to be as unique as each pair themselves. Typically it’s not even signed by the couple, since it’s not a contract between them, but rather it is signed by two witnesses who can verify that the groom can, and will, fulfill his duties.
Breaking the Plate
Just as a broken plate is difficult to mend, brides- and grooms-to-be are never meant to go back to their original status. This is why to this day the mother of the bride and mother of the groom often break a plate as part of the engagement. Following the act, everyone knows both sides of the family are ready to proceed with the marriage and there is nothing barring the way to their I do’s.
In ancient times, it was customary to plant a tree at the birth of a child (cedar for a son and cypress for a daughter). When the child grew up and it came time for his or her wedding, branches of the tree were used as the four poles of the chuppah. Today, a chuppah can be simple or elaborate, but the meaning behind it remains the same. The structure the couple stands beneath during their wedding ceremony is a symbolic representation of the home they are now creating.
It is also believed that while the bride and groom are under the chuppah, they have a divine connection to God. Guests may even ask the bride to pray for health, success, or matches to be made, on behalf of those in need.
Circling the Groom
It was the Rema, the 16th-century Jewish scholar Moses Isserles, who is credited with establishing this tradition. Interpreting ancient texts, he asserted that by circling the groom seven times, the bride breaks down any barriers between she and her spouse to be and creates an invisible wall around him symbolic of their new home.
Why seven times? The number has many levels of significance. The phrase, “when a man takes a wife,” occurs in the Bible seven times. Joshua circled the city of Jericho seven times to bring down its city walls (Joshua 6:1-27), just as a bride is bringing down any walls between her and her groom. Finally, seven equals the numbers of days of creation. Today, rather than the bride circling around her groom, the couple often encircle around one another.
The Sheva Brachot
Under the chuppah, seven blessings are recited, customarily to honor different friends, relatives, and rabbis. The honorees also give their blessing standing underneath the chuppah and recite them over wine. In the final blessing, one of the most famous quotes for a Jewish wedding in Hebrew is, “Kol sasson v’kol simcha, kol chatan v’kol kallah,” which means, “The sound of joy and gladness, the sound of a groom and the sound of a bride.”
These same seven blessings are repeated after every meal the couple will have for one week following their nuptials. The week is customarily set aside to celebrate, and friends or family honor the couple by hosting (at least) one meal a day. At this meal, there is often one person, called a panim chadashot, in attendance who could not attend the wedding and brings with him or her a new reason to celebrate.
Whoever is leading the grace after the meal is given a cup of wine. Another cup is designated for the seven wedding blessings. Once all the blessings and grace are finished, both wines are mixed so that the blessings become intertwined. One cup is then given to the groom and the other to the bride. It is a Jewish custom to pass around their cups as a segula, which translates as “treasure,” meaning it should bring good fortune to whomever drinks that wine.
Breaking the Glass
There are many symbolic meanings behind smashing a glass at a Jewish wedding ceremony. One is to acknowledge that even during the most joyous of occasions, Jews must never forget the destruction of the temple that led to the 70 AD exile from Jerusalem. The sound of the breaking glass is also said to scare off evil spirits who might spoil the wedding with their mischief. Another reason is to warn the couple that love, like glass, is fragile and must be protected. Although all serious messages, the ritual ends the ceremony on a high note. After the glass is broken, friends and loved one yell, “Mazel Tov,” which means good luck.
If there is one piece of advice many couples of all denominations share, it is to take time to be alone as newlyweds at some point during the celebration. This practice is built into a Jewish wedding with the yichud. After the ceremony beneath the chuppah, the couple is escorted into a private room to share a few moments (and break their fasts, if they have been fasting). Two appointed men often stand guard to make sure the couple is completely undisturbed.
When the bride or groom is the last child in their family to marry, there is a tradition to have a mezinka dance. Parents (and grandparents, if you’d like) are seated in the center of the dance floor. Their children dance around them. The parents are often given brooms to finish “sweeping their children out of their home” and to celebrate that all of their offspring are now settled into families of their own.
At very religious weddings in the past, men and women would sit separately. In order for the bride and groom to see one another, guests would celebratorily raise them in chairs over the partition. Now, the hora has become a staple of every Jewish wedding from ultra-Orthodox to interfaith ones.