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Wedding Customs: Old, New, and “Renovated”

NEWTON, Mass., April 10 (JTA)–According to Jewish law, getting married is an exceedingly simple affair: The bride accepts something worth more than a dime (in today’s currency) from the groom; the groom utters words of acquisition and consecration, these two actions are witnessed; and voila, the happy couple is married. All the rest–the white gown, the veil, the portable chuppah (wedding canopy), etc.–are but customs that have grown up around Jewish weddings through the ages. This is not to diminish their importance, for customs add measureless beauty and meaning to life-cycle milestones. Today, in fact, some of the most ancient practices are being rediscovered and “renovated” by couples seeking to blend tradition with a modern outlook on marriage.

One of the most enduring wedding customs, the wearing of the veil, has its origins in the Bible. Upon seeing her husband-to-be, Isaac, for the first time, Rebecca “took her veil and covered herself.” (Genesis 25:65) Another veiling custom, badekin (the veiling of the bride by the groom just before the wedding), also has biblical roots. Those familiar with the story of Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel, will remember how Jacob’s father-in-law, Laban, tricked Jacob into marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel by veiling Leah heavily before the wedding. By placing the veil over the bride’s face, a Jewish groom makes sure he doesn’t repeat Jacob’s mistake. (A more poetic interpretation of badekin is that by covering the bride’s face, the groom shows that he values her for more than mere external beauty.)

But despite its fascinating history and continued popularity, the veil is not a requirement. Some modern women reject it because of its similarity to the purdah (the requisite face covering worn by married Middle Eastern women), an emblem of modesty to some and of oppression to others.

A lawful Jewish marriage requires an act of kinyan (that the bride be given–and that she accept–something of nominal value from the groom). In ancient times, coins were typically given. (They are still used by many Sephardic and Oriental Jews). Since the seventh century, rings replaced coins in most of Europe as the “gift of choice.” Some commentators suggest that the preference for rings is attributable to their circular form, which symbolizes endless love between a husband and wife. Others see the circle as representing a link to the past and a commitment to the future. But for whatever reason, in North America today it is almost universally the custom to give a ring as the object of exchange. According to Jewish law, the ring must belong to the groom, be of solid metal, and be free of gems. (The inclusion of precious stones produces significant variations in ring values, which, presumed the rabbis, could cause a bride to reconsider.)

An interesting custom in post-Renaissance Europe was the use of communal rings–large, ornate objets d’art decorated either with representations of the Jerusalem Temple or a local synagogue. Such rings were objects of pride to the entire community and were lent to couples for their bridal celebrations.

The double-ring ceremony popular today is a relatively recent custom, and one that raises some objections among traditional Jews. Some think that an exchange of rings invalidates kinyan; however, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis find no legal objection to the double-ring ceremony. A modern trend is to inscribe biblical or other significant Hebrew phrases on the ring. Up until fairly recently, a common inscription was, Eshet Chayil Ateret Ba’alah (A Woman of Valor Is Her Husband’s Crown). These days, it is more usual to inscribe the gender neutral, Ani L’Dodi V’l’Dodi Li (I Belong to My Beloved and My Beloved Belongs to Me).

The white bridal dress is so intrinsic to modern weddings–including Jewish weddings–that it is common to assume this attire to be universal, which it is not. In fact, Oriental and Sephardic brides have traditionally worn brightly colored dresses set off with veils made of streaming gold coins. Many Jewish brides of Moroccan and Yemenite descent still marry in this type of garb, especially in Israel. In ancient Greece, both bride and groom wore white garments adorned with garlands. The classic bridal costume for Iraqi Jewish brides included silver bells and golden nose rings.

The white bridal gown became customary among Ashkenazic Jews who followed the example of their Christian neighbors, although white was not the preferred color among all Christians. In France of the Middle Ages and beyond, brides rarely wore white, electing blue or rose because white was the color of mourning. Ironically, while the white gown has come to symbolize bridal virginity in Christian culture, in the Jewish tradition the gown denotes something quite different–that no matter how sexually active a bride may have been before marriage, the wedding purifies her. White is worn as a symbol of the purity conferred upon her by the wedding.

In many Orthodox communities, a bride gives a tallit (prayer shawl) to the groom, which he wears only from the day he is married, despite being a Bar Mitzvah (assumes the rights and responsibilities of an adult Jew) for years. According to some Jewish mystics, the tallit is associated with sexual temptation, which, for a man, is more of an issue after marriage than at the traditional age of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. The biblical command to wear the fringes of the tallit states: “you shall look at them and not be tempted to follow your heart and eyes.” Thus, for a married man, the tallit now functions as a reminder to keep his mind off forbidden sexual situations.

We know that the mikvah (ritual bath) is a very ancient institution because vestiges of one were found in the remains of the destroyed Jewish fortress at Masada. In fact, the Christian ritual of baptism is based on mikvah immersion. In Jewish tradition, the institution of the mikvah is not custom but law.

According to the Torah, sexual relations between a husband and wife are prohibited during the wife’s menstrual period and for seven days after. During that time, the woman is called tamay (impure). This means she is forbidden to take part in certain religious practices. Before sexual relations can resume, the wife must go to the mikvah. (Although most women visit an indoor mikvah, any body of natural water–a lake, a river, an ocean–may be used.) A woman then immerses herself two or three times and says an appropriate blessing.

The only unmarried woman expected to go to the mikvah is the bride, just prior her wedding. Because of the association of the mikvah with the so-called “impurity” of menstruating women, however, many women have shunned it, considering it to be a relic of an archaic, patriarchal age. Recently the mikvah has been making a comeback as a symbol of spiritual purification. In fact, there has been a revival of the Sephardic custom of turning the pre-wedding visit to the mikvah into a celebration. It is not unusual these days for a prospective bride to visit the mikvah with women friends who strew flower petals in her path as she emerges from the water and regale her with wine, sweets, and song. Other future brides gather with their female friends and relatives on the shores of a river or lake and recite poems and blessings prior to her immersion. A picnic, made even more memorable with singing and dancing, often follows.

Another ancient custom that has lately been transformed is the ketubah (marriage contract). The earliest formulation was written by Shimon ben Shetach, head of the ancient rabbinical court at the end of the first century. Spelling out a husband’s obligations to his wife, the ketubah was a radical document in its day because it provided women with legal status and rights in marriage. Up until recently, the text for ketubot (plural of ketubah) has remained virtually unchanged. But many couples who consider the traditional ketubah to be out of touch with contemporary views on relationships are creating new ones. Whereas the original ketubah was about a man’s obligations to his wife, modern versions of the document are typically egalitarian. Many ketubot now include parallel declarations of commitment made by both bride and groom with a joint declaration of faith in God and a connection to the Jewish people. Whereas the original ketubot were written in Aramaic, modern documents are usually drafted in both Hebrew and English. Having a ketubah professionally calligraphed and made even more special with customized decorations has also become popular.

The chuppah (canopy) under which the bride and groom stand during the ceremony symbolizes a marriage chamber. The bride leaves her father’s house and enters her husband’s home as a married woman. The Book of Joel (2:16) states: “Let the bridegroom go forth from his chamber and the bride out of her pavilion” (chuppah). In Eastern Europe during the 16th century, the portable canopy held up by four poles came into use. In some communities, it was traditional for the bride and groom to marry beneath a tallit, often a family heirloom. An especially poignant custom involving the chuppah was popular at one time in Israel: A cedar tree was planted on the occasion of a child’s birth. When the child married, the branches and leaves from the tree were then used in the construction of the chuppah. Today, although most synagogues own a stationary chuppah they will lend upon request, some creative couples are choosing to make their own.

Since there are no legal requirements as to a chuppah’s shape or dimensions, couples have created chuppahs and new chuppah traditions that expressed their unique personalities. Some women hold chuppah parties–a gathering that resembles old-fashioned “quiltings” in that friends of the bride create individual squares that are later sewn together. Or, other women who have friends less adept with a needle and thread have their friends decorate a piece of cloth with special sayings and personal well wishes, using fabric pens and paints. And some couples are returning to the custom of marrying beneath a tallit that has special family significance.

Although wedding customs may be cherished simply because of the history and tradition they represent, ultimately what keeps them alive is their relevance in a changing world. Ancient wedding customs imbued with a modern spirit provide couples with both a link to the past and a hand in shaping the future they will be sharing.

Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at