Genesis tells us that God recognized “it is not good for man to be alone” and created the first human couple, Adam and Eve. Their “marriage” ensured the propagation and survival of humanity, and the joy of this archetypal couple is reflected in one of the Jewish wedding blessings: “Make these beloved companions as happy as were the first human couple in the Garden of Eden.”
Jewish marriage is not merely a secular legal partnership, but a union sanctified by God. Marital obligations, therefore, are not merely personal, but have implications for universal harmony. The existence of God as a “silent partner” in Jewish marriage endows a relationship with sanctity and solemn commitment.
It is traditional for the groom to receive an aliyah to the Torah on the Shabbat prior to his wedding. In Reform, Reconstructionist, and some Conservative synagogues, both bride and groom are usually called to the Torah. This ceremony is called auf ruf, which, in Yiddish, means “calling up.” After reciting the blessings, the Rabbi usually offers a special blessing for the couple. Another popular practice of auf ruf involves the bride and groom hosting an Oneg Shabbat on Friday night for the whole congregation.
In general, the practice of auf ruf is a means of involving the entire community in pre-wedding festivities, and helping ritualize the union in the context of Shabbat services.
As summarized by Anita Diamant, “The ketubah is one of the oldest and one of the least romantic elements of Jewish weddings. It is a legal contract, pure and simple. In its traditional form the ketubah does not mention love or trust or the establishment of a Jewish home or even God.” The ketubah, or marriage contract, was created in the 1st century CE to protect the woman in marriage. The document spelled out the husband’s obligations in marriage (the wife’s were assumed) and provided for a financial settlement for her in the event of divorce. It is not a contract between equals, but a statement, signed by witnesses, that the groom “acquired” the bride “with two hundred silver zuzim , which is due you according to the Torah law…” on such and such a date and agrees to support her. For its time, it was an incredibly progressive document – a man could no longer discard his wife on a whim, leaving her financially bereft.
Although it was a great advance for its time, the traditional ketubah does not address the realities of marriage in our day. The elaborate economic arrangements for the dissolution of a marriage as spelled out in a traditional ketubah have become meaningless, and the changed aspirations, roles and responsibilities of women and men find no expression in a contract that demands specific duties and responsibilities of the groom but asks the bride for nothing in return. New ketubot impose many choices on couples, starting with the content of the document. Some brides and grooms use the traditional Aramaic text but select or write an entirely different text in English. Others opt for alternate text in both Hebrew and English.
It has become customary for the ketubah to be more than a traditional legal document, and now many couples select ketubot that are aesthetically beautiful and can be displayed as art in the home. Calligraphy, paper cutting, and painting are common artistic additions to the modern ketubah, and offer a wide range of options for any couple to customize the ketubah to suit their tastes.
The wedding ceremony takes place beneath the chuppah. This wedding canopy symbolizes the couple’s new home – fragile, yet purposefully open on all sides to all possible futures and directions. The embrace of the chuppah reflects the divine presence in the couple’s lives as they embark on the journey of partnership together.
The sages find a reference to the chuppah in the talmudic passage in Avot, referring to the house which is open on four sides. The Jerusalemite R. Yosi ben Yohanan urges, “Let your house be wide open,” and compares the chuppah to the tent of the patriarch Abraham that, according to Jewish tradition, had entrances on all four sides to welcome wayfarers, so that no traveler, no matter from which direction he came, need be burdened searching for an entrance door. The chuppah, with four open sides, is thus a symbol of the Jewish home filled with hesed (acts of love), an important component of which is hakhnasat orhim (hospitality to strangers), a mode of conduct that the newly married couple is expected to establish in their home in emulation of their patriarchal forebear, whose hospitality to strangers was legendary.
In some circles, it is customary for two people to lead the groom to the chuppah to the accompaniment of appropriate music. In other circles, however, the groom is accompanied by a larger retinue, since the groom is likened to a king. There are varying customs regarding who accompanies the principals to the chuppah. Sometimes the groom is accompanied by his parents and the bride by hers. Indeed, this custom is cited by the Zohar, which says, “The father and mother of the bride bring her to the domain of the groom.” However, there is no Jewish tradition of a father “giving away the bride.”
Among many Jews, it is customary for the bride to be escorted around the groom under the chuppah three times or seven times. Many consider the customs to relate to an eschatological passage in Jeremiah in which the prophet speaks of a time in the future when relationships between men and women will be reversed and “the woman will court the man.” The Hebrew term employed in the passage for “will court” is t’sovev, literally, “will encircle.”
Others see in the custom of the bride circling her groom a symbol of the wife creating a metaphoric wall around her husband to guard against him from outside desires and influences. This is in keeping with a passage in the Song of Songs referring to a woman as a wall, and a talmudic teaching that “whoever lives without a wife lives without a [protective] wall.” The sages comment that a man’s wife is like a wall, protecting him from external temptations. After her circling, the bride, by stepping into the symbolic circle she has created, marks the couple’s new status in society as a married couple; she has created a community of two, around which there is an intimate wall of privacy, independent and shielded from the rest of society.
Some couples opt to have the bride and groom circle each other, as a symbol of each showing dedication and commitment to the other. Other couples will choose to have the bride circle the groom, and then the groom circle the bride, as a means of embracing both traditional custom and modern egalitarianism.
The Jewish wedding ceremony comprises two major sections: erusin (betrothal) and nissuin (marriage). When the bride and groom have reached the chuppah (marriage canopy), the erusin ceremony begins. It is a simple ceremony, marked by two blessings recited by the presiding Rabbi, who holds a cup of wine. The first blessing, over wine, is one said at almost all joyous occasions. The second blessing is unique to this occasion and reads as follows:
“Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and commanded us regarding forbidden unions, and Who forbad betrothed women to us, and permitted to us those married to us by chuppah and kiddushin. Praised are You, Adonai, Who sanctifies the people Israel with chuppah and kiddushin.”
After the completion of the second blessing, the Rabbi gives the cup of wine to the groom, who drinks of it; the cup is then presented to the bride, who drinks from the same cup, symbolizing their commitment to sharing their lives from that moment on.
Several crucial themes of the Jewish wedding are expressed in the seemingly simple language of these few lines of this second blessing. First, the liturgical language points to older customs, for in earlier times the Jewish wedding took place in stages over the course of an entire year. At the first ceremony, erusin, the couple was reserved for each other and was forbidden to have relationships with anyone else. But it was not until approximately a year later, at the nissuin ceremony, that they were permitted to consummate their relationship sexually and that the bride moved into the groom’s home.
The language of the second blessing, “who forbad betrothed women to us, and permitted to us those married to us by chuppah and kiddushin,” reflects this earlier practice, and apparently served in ancient times as a warning to the couple not to cohabit until the completion of the second ceremony. Many Rabbis now offer a different interpretation of this blessing during the wedding ceremony to focus more on the idea of consecration and commitment.
Formalizing the Marriage With a Ring
At this point in the traditional ceremony, the couple performs the specific act that formalizes the marriage. Today it is customary for the couple to place a ring on each other’s right index finger and recite in Hebrew a phrase that means, “Behold, by this ring you are consecrated to me as my husband/wife/partner according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” Once again, the words “according to the laws of Moses and Israel” suggest the themes of covenant and community, central throughout the ceremony.
In earlier times, too, various items, including fruits and a prayerbook, could be used to symbolize the betrothal, though today a ring is the most common token. Even so, the nature of that ring is still regulated by Jewish law. Tradition requires that the ring not have gems on it, which would make its value difficult for the bride to assess. Similarly, while the ring may be decorated, the decorations should not be cut out of the ring, for the circularity and solidity of the metal suggest the permanence of the relationship now being created.
Reading the Ketubah
After the ring ceremony, the ketubah is read aloud, marking the division between the formerly separated elements of the marriage ritual.
Immediately following the reading of the ketubah (the marriage contract), the second ceremony begins. This ceremony involves the recitation of seven blessings and hence is commonly referred to as the Sheva Berakhot (“Seven Blessings”). During the recitation of these blessings, as was the case in the first ceremony, the Rabbi holds a cup of wine aloft. And once again, upon completion of the blessings, groom and bride drink from the cup.
The most striking characteristic of the blessings is that, with the exception of the last one, they focus not on love, but on the theme of creation. In addition to referring to God as “Creator of the fruit of the vine” in the omnipresent blessing over wine, the liturgy refers to God as creator of all things, creator of man, creator of man and woman, and creator of the peace of the Garden of Eden. The theme of creation plays several significant roles in the ceremony. First, it relates to the Jewish conception of marriage as a natural state and suggests that, by marrying, the couple now enters this appropriate condition. Second, it suggests that the marriage furthers God’s process of creation, furthering a project the tradition sees as yet unfulfilled.
Addressing the Couple
If the Rabbi speaks at the ceremony, he or she usually does so just before or after the seven blessings. But it is not unusual for more than one person to address the couple under the chuppah, at any of several points during the ceremony. Some Rabbis also elect to offer a separate blessing for the couple, often the tripartite “Priestly Blessing” (Numbers 6:24-26).
Breaking the Glass
The next, and final, ritual element of the ceremony is the shattering of a glass. Traditionally, it is the groom who shatters the glass with his foot, though in some more modern communities groom and bride both do so. Most traditional commentators explain this custom as having originated with incidents recorded in the Talmud in which Mar, the son of Ravina, and Rav Ashi deliberately smashed costly glass at their sons’ weddings to put a stop to the raucous dancing and celebrating.
Modern explanations have focused on a more solemn theme, claiming that the broken glass reminds Jews assembled at a joyous occasion of the Temples and recalling those individuals, Jew and non-Jew alike, who do not have the freedom to celebrate either religiously or publicly. A more mystical explanation of the ceremony is that the glass represents the couple and that just as the glass, when it is broken, enters a state from which it will never emerge, it is the hope of the community that this couple will never emerge from their married state. Still others interpret this ritual as a shattered reminder of a world not yet whole. Through this partnership and future life together, the couple will strive to continue the process of repairing and rebuilding the world.
Judaism views marriage as a sacred partnership. As such, partners who can no longer live in a sacred way with one another may divorce. Judaism has always recognized this reality, although, according to the Talmud, “When a man divorces the wife of his youth, even the altar of God sheds tears” (Gittin 90b).
Jewish divorce first appears in the Torah. Deuteronomy 24:1 says that if a wife “fails to please because he finds something obnoxious about her… he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house.” Even today the basic ritual act of a traditional Jewish divorce is for the husband to hand the wife a get, or bill of divorce.
For a divorce to take place, the couple must arrange to appear before a beit din, or rabbinic court, which has expertise in the laws of Jewish divorce. A traditional divorce also requires two observant male witnesses as well as a sofer, or scribe, to actually write the get on a piece of parchment.
One of the Rabbis then questions the participants. The Rabbi ascertains that the scribe has written the get at the instruction of the husband; that the witnesses heard the husband ask the sofer to write the get; and that of their own free will the husband gave the get and the wife accepted it. The Rabbi also gives anyone else present an opportunity to protest the divorce. The wife holds her hands together, palms up, and the husband drops the get into her hands, making an oral declaration that she is divorced and “free to become the wife of any man.” She walks a few paces holding the get and hands it back to the Rabbi.
To ensure that the get is correct, the Rabbi reads it again with the witnesses, who must identify both the get and the signatures. Then the Rabbi tears the get’s four corners so it cannot be re-used, files it, and gives the husband and wife a shetar piturin, a document of release, freeing them to remarry.
In 1869, the Reform movement voted to accept civil divorce alone as dissolving a marriage. The decision grew out of a concern over the power imbalance in a Jewish divorce (which must be granted by the husband) and the devastating consequences for traditional women who could not obtain a get, or Jewish bill of divorce. In recent years, contemporary Reform Jews have begun to recognize that a religious divorce can provide spiritual and psychological closure, and some Rabbis are offering modified Jewish divorce ceremonies.
These new ceremonies reframe the traditional, legalistic tone of the male-centered get into a religious ritual of annulment and mourning. These new understandings of Jewish divorce can be applied to many types of relational separation, and the religious context can help give voice to painful emotions and help initiate the process of healing. Some families have found that such a ritual can also help their children find a structure in which the marriage or partnership can be mourned.