Congratulations! It’s officially wedding season, and you’ve been cordially invited to your first Jewish wedding. Whether it’s reform, conservative or orthodox, there are many Jewish wedding traditions—some you may be familiar with, others not so much. However, recognizing them all and understanding their significance will prepare you for the celebration of the century. Here are eight Jewish wedding traditions you need to know.
1. The Bedeken
Prior to the actual wedding, the soon-to-be husband and wife participate in the bedeken, a small ceremony held in which the groom approaches his bride and veils her. It’s characterized as a special and quite emotional moment for the couple as this is sometimes considered their first look. This is a time-honored tradition stemming from the Bible when Jacob was deceived into marrying Leah—the older sister of the woman he loved—because she was veiled. By unveiling his bride, the groom can confirm he is, in fact, marrying the right woman before veiling her himself. Typically, close family and friends are only involved in this ceremony; however, the bride and groom can choose to open the bedeken to all guests.
2. The Signing of the Ketubah
The ketubah, the Hebrew term for “something written”, is the Jewish marriage contract signed before the ceremony. The civil law document, often transcribed in Aramaic, details the groom’s responsibilities to his bride. This includes how the groom will provide and protect his bride in marriage as well as an outline should the two decide to separate. The couple and two witnesses then sign the ketubah. During the ceremony, the rabbi reads the contract, permitting all guests to hear these commitments and understand them. Ketubahs can be personalized and decorated in a myriad of ways with detailed illustrations and colors chosen by the couple.
3. The Huppah
With its four corner posts and covered roof, the huppah, or wedding canopy, is the altar underneath which the bride and groom exchanges their vows. A focal point of the ceremony, this freestanding structure signifies sanctuary and the solitude of a home the couple is creating together. Throughout some ceremonies, family members and/or friends may hold up the huppah posts, establishing their unconditional support for the couple and their future. Huppahs are ornamented with beautiful flowers or branches, and the canopy is often created by a prayer shawl borrowed from either the bride or groom or a loved one.
Whether before or after entering the huppah, the bride circles her groom three or seven times. Some label this customary practice as the bride forming a hedge of protection around her groom, sealing him off from any unwanted evil and temptation. Others associate circling with the bride crafting a new family circle. Like many other Jewish wedding rituals, circling has taken on more modern twists with the couple circling together or around one another.
5. Sheva Brachot
Derived from ancient philosophies, the seven blessings—Sheva Brachot—are recited by the rabbi in both Hebrew and English. These rather poetic, yet grand blessings emphasize companionship, happiness, love, merriment and peace. Guests are also encouraged to participate in this portion of the ceremony.
6. Breaking the Glass
Before the couple seals their marriage with a kiss, the groom—and sometimes, the bride too—breaks the glass, which is located in a cloth bag. This final ceremony ritual has many interpretations. While some believe it symbolizes the Temple in Jerusalem’s ruin, others link it with the delights and troubles of marriage. By breaking the glass, the groom or couple finalizes their vow to stand by one another throughout life’s highs and lows. The cloth bag containing the shattered glass is then preserved as a wedding day keepsake.
7. Mazel Tov!
“Mazel tov!” is one of the most recognized Jewish wedding traditions. Meaning “congratulations” or “good luck”, wedding guests shout this celebratory phrase once the glass has been broken and the couple is officially married.
Yichud, or seclusion, is a post-ceremony custom in which the bride and groom spend a brief moment together alone following their nuptials. During this precious, private time, the couple reflects and rejoices over their new bond as husband and wife. It's also not unusual for the couple to share their first meal together during the yichud. This is a conventional, yet romantic way for the bride and groom to enjoy their first moments together alone before enjoying the festivities with guests.