A Jewish wedding is beautiful event that celebrates the bringing of two complete halves together to make a whole. During the wedding, we rejoice in the miracle of two soul mates finding each other. And as honoured guests, our good wishes help create a new beginning, and form the foundation of the marriage. If you are going to your first Orthodox Jewish wedding, here is a guide about what to expect, what is expected from you, and everything in between. Mazel tov and have an unforgettable time!
(This guide will illuminate the key aspects of an Orthodox Jewish wedding celebration. Keep in mind, however, that different streams of Judaism may omit/add certain parts, and as with every wedding, each will have its own unique flair. I have tried to make this guide comprehensive without being redundant. If you have any questions, please let us know!)
There are two types of invitations given. The first kind is similar to any other wedding invitation you may have seen and is considered the “official” invitation. It will likely be written in both Hebrew and English. This invitation will have a number of times listed on it. The “Kabbalat(s) Panim” is like a reception at the beginning, where you will get to greet the bride and groom while mingling with other guests. The “Chuppah” is the wedding ceremony itself. “Dinner” is when the first course will be served, and “Dancing” should start shortly afterward and last until the end of the celebration (interspersed with food breaks).
Keep in mind that the vast majority of Jewish weddings operate on “Jewish time” and therefore start a bit later than the invitation states. This is because the bride and groom often want a chance to speak to all the guests before the ceremony and sometimes schmoozing can take time! There are also documents that need to be signed during the reception, important people that need to arrive before getting started, as well as various prayers being said (depending on the time of day). This “Jewish time” phenomenon is especially prevalent in Israel, but in America, you will often experience the same thing. So grab a bite to eat, make new friends, and don’t fret if things are running a bit late.
The second kind of invitation is the “unofficial” one. It may seem like a crazy idea, but stay with me: in a nutshell, it is considered a “mitzvah” (good deed) for guests to make the bride and groom happy. Therefore, people will come from all over to join in the fun and make this happen…even if they aren’t officially invited! A Jewish wedding is not considered a private affair. Guests are often encouraged to bring along friends to be there for the ceremony and dancing. The first Orthodox Jewish wedding I attended was celebrating a couple that I had never met! Of course, the “extra” guests are not included in the sit-down dinner part of the wedding, so often they will come for the chuppah, go out to eat at a nearby restaurant and then come back for the dancing. So, if you know someone who is curious about Orthodox Jewish weddings, give the bride or groom a call and ask if you can bring him or her along!
What to wear?
Orthodox Jews follow strict laws of “tzniut” which is loosely defined as modesty. These laws affect how they eat, speak, interact with the world, and also what they wear. Here are some general guidelines, but keep in mind that there are many variations within different streams of Judaism. For the men, most
weddings will require you to wear the same suit that you would wear to any other wedding. However, in different parts of the world (like in Israel), weddings can be more casual, requiring only a nice shirt and slacks. When in doubt, ask, or wear something that can be modified by removing the jacket or tie. Jewish men always wear little round hats called a “yarmulka” or “kippah”. Most of the male guests will arrive wearing their own, but usually the wedding will also provide kippahs near the front for those that don’t have. If you can’t find one, ask someone if he has one you can borrow. Most guests will be happy to help locate an extra (and might even have one in their pocket!) so don’t be shy.
For the ladies, a modest outfit is key. The bride’s dress will be the expected white, but will cover a lot more skin than we see in most weddings today. The general principal is to wear something that covers your knees, elbows, and comes up to your collarbone. This does not mean that you have to look frumpy…au contraire! Take a look in your closet and you’ll be surprised to discover that you probably have something that works and will make you feel beautiful and elegant. Most dresses are perfect (so long as they are not too short) if you add a cardigan and a pretty scarf. Feel free to play with colour, but keep in mind that a simple dark sheath dress with beautiful accessories and heels can go a long way. Some sects of Orthodox Jews tend to shy away from very bright colours (think bright red or hot pink), but this is generally not something you will have to worry about as a wedding guest. Don’t fret too much if your outfit doesn’t follow the modesty guidelines completely. Orthodox Jews will notice that you made an effort and appreciate it (hey, we struggle to find everyday clothing that follows these guidelines while still looking beautiful – we know how hard it is!)
The Kabbalat Panim:
In Ashkenaz Jewry (which includes most eastern European Jews), the bride and groom do not see each other the week before the wedding. The reason given for this is to increase anticipation. However, for my husband and me, increasing anticipation was certainly not needed at this point! I was beyond excited and couldn’t wait for the day when my soul mate and I were to be united. However, I found not seeing each other to be beneficial for many reasons: first of all, it allowed me to actually get some work done, finish planning, focus on out of town guests, and complete my own personal preparations. And mostly, I think of it as a safety precaution! By that time, my soon-to-be husband and I were so lovey-dovey and excited that it would have been quite a risk for us to be alone in a car. I certainly would have walked into a door or tripped over my feet had we been running errands together…and bruises are not something you want on your wedding day!
So, if the bride and groom are not seeing each other until the actual wedding ceremony, this makes for an interesting reception! The bride and groom will be in different areas, greeting the guests separately. Generally the groom’s side will consist of mostly men and the bride’s mostly women, but you are allowed to go say hello to both of them no matter which gender you are. Often, on the women’s side, the bride will be sitting in a beautiful chair with the guests lined up to greet her while exchanging blessings and good wishes. On a person’s wedding day, she/he has great spiritual connective power. Because of this, the bride and groom will pray for others in need and give blessings to their guests. When you get to greet the bride, it is a wonderful idea to give her a blessing as well. This day is the beginning of her new life with her husband, so give her some positive advice on love and wish her all the happiness in the world. Make sure to do the same for the groom!
On the men’s side, there is also a lot going on. This is the time that the groom will be signing the “ketuba”, which is a contract in which he vows to give to his wife and fulfill her needs emotionally, spiritually, and physically for the rest of his days. Often the men will also “daven” (pray) together, depending on what time of day it is. Use this reception time to take a look around and meet people. I would highly suggest finding a friendly Orthodox Jew and telling her (or him, if you’re a man) that this is your first time at a wedding like this and would love to hear some explanations. Most Orthodox Jews will be glad to share with you the history and meaning of our customs.
During this time you may also see either the mothers of the bride and groom or the fathers breaking a plate and handing out the pieces. It is a “segulah” (merit) for single guests to take a bit of the broken plate to help them in finding their own soul mates. This breaking of the plate by the two in-laws teaches us the depth and seriousness of the commitment that is about to be made; a broken plate can never be mended. The irony and beauty of this custom is that in the breaking of a physical object, two separate units (the two families) come to understand that they are now spiritually bonded and no longer separate.
If the bride and groom haven’t been seeing each other the week prior, this is now the first time that they will lay eyes upon each other. The groom, surrounded by the rest of the men, will walk into the bride’s area, often accompanied by beautiful singing or music playing. The bride will be waiting for him in her chair, surrounded by her female friends and family. The groom will then cover the bride’s face with her veil and make his way to the chuppah, which is where the marriage ceremony will take place. This is an incredibly important moment for the man, as he is committing to his wife both physically and spiritually; the covering of her face shows that it is her internal self that he is marrying, and not her external beauty, which will change over time. He walks to the chuppah with an incredible sense of giving and purpose.
Often, the father of the bride or a close mentor and family will give the bride a blessing before following the groom to the chuppah. The bride will take all of her jewelry off and give it to her “shomeret(s)” for safekeeping. A “shomeret” (“shomer”, for a man) is the Hebrew word for a guard. This person is the Jewish equivalent of a maid of honour/best man. The reason why the bride takes off her jewelry is because she wants to enter her marriage without physical possessions, and bond with her husband as only herself. When the bride leaves her chair to go join the groom under the chuppah, this is an incredibly deep moment: she is able to leave behind everything that has previously been holding her back, and begin her marriage with a clean slate. During this emotional moment of moving forward, the bride is grateful that her face is covered with the veil. Walking up to the chuppah is an intensely private and deep experience, and the veil allows her to experience this fully without worrying about onlookers.
A chuppah is the canopy under which the bride and groom will become husband and wife. The ceremony may be held indoors or outside under the stars. Traditionally, the canopy is a men’s prayer shawl, held up by four poles. The men holding the poles are very significant, and are often close family/friends of the bride and groom. However, since weddings have become more elaborate in recent years, the chuppah can also be a beautiful stage which fit many people underneath. These chuppahs are also a large piece of square cloth held up by four poles, but are often decorated with flowers, ribbons, and other beautiful additions.
Guests will slowly filter into the area where the wedding ceremony is to be held. In some weddings, the guests will be ushered to their seats before the bride and groom make their way to the chuppah, so they can see everyone enter. In other weddings, the guests will accompany the groom and bride as they make their retrospective ways to the chuppah.
The groom will go under the chuppah first, and some circles will put on a white garment called a “kittel”. This garment connects him to the purity of his marriage and the newness of the relationship with his wife. This is the same reason why the bride wears white. While he is waiting for his future wife to join him, the groom will be concentrating intensely, for this is the moment before two halves are going to be sewn together as a whole. The bride will make her way to the chuppah and start walking in circles around the groom. Each time she completes a circle, she is creating a new wall of protection around her husband and their marriage. She completes seven circles in total, which connect her to many things such as the seven days of creation.
Why Are We Here?
There is a question that has bugged me for most of my life: why do we have guests present at wedding ceremonies? If it’s simply to celebrate love, then why don’t people just get married with a minimum amount of people and then have a big party afterward? What is the role of a guest during a wedding ceremony? It must be more than being just a witness.
Judaism gives us a beautiful reason for why we hold our wedding ceremonies surrounded by those who love us most. Our sages tell us that every single part of the ceremony is needed to help bring two separate parts together to form one entity. Moreover, our presence as a guest is a huge part of what makes this possible. During the ceremony, you will often see other guests saying special prayers, holding hands, reading psalms, and concentrating on beautiful, connected thoughts in order to bring the husband and wife together. Our role as guests is not a passive one; we are not just part of an audience. Our love for the couple, our positive wishes and intentions make up the thread that will help sew these two souls together. Keep this in mind during the ceremony and realize that your presence is absolutely vital in creating the foundation of this new marriage.
The Main Ceremony:
After the bride completes her seven circles around her husband, she comes to stand by his side, and the ceremony continues. The rest consists of drinking wine, giving of a vow and a ring, reading of the ketubah (contract), reciting seven blessings, and breaking a glass. There are many layers of depth to every single aspect of the ceremony. Here are a few key points to keep in mind while all of this is taking place: Jewish people say blessings over and drink wine at special occasions in order to sanctify that which is taking place. In this case, the bride and groom are sanctifying themselves to each other. When the groom places the ring on his bride’s finger, and says the special vow, he is binding himself to her. For most Orthodox couples, this is the first time that their skin touches. Imagine dating someone, discovering that you indeed are soul mates, deciding to spend the rest of your lives together, and touching for the first time under the wedding canopy. The intensity is electric! Once the groom has said the vow and placed the ring on his bride’s finger, they are now officially husband and wife, according to the minimum requirements of Jewish law.
The rest of the wedding ceremony happens in order to give them extra blessing and stability in their marriage. In some sects of Judaism, the bride will present the groom with a new “tallit” (prayer shawl). Sometimes the tallit will be held above their heads and other times it will be wrapped around one or the both of them. The ketubah is now read. This is a contract in which the man promises to honour and provide for his wife’s physical, romantic, emotional and spiritual needs. After it is read out loud, it is then given to the bride for safekeeping. Next are the seven blessings; often the bride and groom will honour family members as well as mentors in saying one of the seven blessings. In many Orthodox circles, it is a sign of respect to stand for the person giving the blessing as he makes his way to the chuppah. Each of these blessings draws upon various parts of marriage, giving the couple a sense of clarity regarding the journey they are about to embark on together. The blessings are said in Hebrew, and cover various aspects such as fulfilling their purpose in this world, connection to the Divine, and giving of love, redemption and joy.
Finally is the breaking of the glass (some sects do this earlier in the ceremony). This is done by placing a glass on the floor and having the groom stomp his foot down, shattering the glass. We do this in order to remember the wholeness of the world that used to be, and the fragmentation that we now experience as the Jewish people. We remember Jerusalem for what it could be, and take a moment to remind ourselves of how much we have to rebuild. In these times when the Jewish people do not have a temple in Jerusalem, it is up to us to create our own temples in our homes. It is the couple’s job, in their marriage, to pick up the “pieces” of the world and build together, creating something even stronger and more beautiful than the original.
The main ceremony is now over, and you will hear shouts of “mazel tov!” with music and dancing. In some sects of Judaism, the couple will proceed together to the “yichud” room, which literally means “unification”. In this room, the couple will have some food and spend their first quiet moments together as a husband and wife. In other sects of Judaism, the couple will proceed directly to the dancing area accompanied by the guests.
Eating and Dancing!
For couples that haven’t seen each other all week, this is the time that they will take photos together. In the meantime, guests will usually proceed to the reception area and enjoy the first course of their meal. Sometimes there will be separate seating for the women and men and in most cases the dance floor will be divided. Usually the dance floors are separated by what is called a “mechitza”, which can be in the form of plants, curtains, beads, or a separate room altogether. There are many reasons for this custom, but the most important answer I can give is this: it is much easier to focus on bringing joy to the bride and groom while dancing your heart out when you don’t feel like the opposite sex might be looking at you. There is so much less distraction! When I first experienced separate dancing, I loved the feeling of not being self-conscious. The experience of really being able to let go let go and dance with all my might was incredible. In Judaism, we believe that this sort of separation actually allows us to connect to each other and the joy we want to experience in a purer way, therefore the division actually brings us closer together. Try it…you may end up liking it!
In weddings where the bride and groom do see each other before the ceremony, the dancing will begin right after the chuppah. If they didn’t see each other beforehand, and are now taking photos, take your time with your food and mingle with those around you. Now is a great time to ask all those questions that might have come up during the ceremony! After the couple is done taking photos, they will make an entrance and proceed to the separate dancing areas. Jewish dancing is generally done in circles, with the bride or groom usually in the middle. Guests will hold hands and spin round and round. Often, guests will join the bride or groom in the middle of the circle and share the emotional moment by dancing together.
Judaism tells us that it is our obligation as guests to do everything we can think of to make the bride and groom happy. Over time, Jews have developed quite a few unique ways to do this during the dancing! Many guests will prepare little skits and acrobatics for the bride and groom, dancing in costumes and making jokes. This sort of performance is called the “schtick”. The bride or groom will often be brought a chair to sit down while guests dance in front and around. Many times the bride and groom will be lifted up on chairs or tables and brought to the mechitza in order to say hello to each other. Sometimes the dancing can get very crazy! Take a deep breath, hold on tight, and share in the newlywed’s joy!
After The Meal:
The rest of the event will generally involve dancing, eating, more dancing, and more eating (this is what Jews do best!) After the meal is over, the guests who are still there will gather together to celebrate the end of the event by saying blessings over the meal and the couple. This is usually a quieter time in which we smile together and reflect on the beautiful beginning that just took place.
For more refreshing thoughts on Orthodox Judaism, visit Andrea’s blog at andreagrinberg.com
If you’re celebrating an Orthodox Jewish wedding and want to download this guide for your wedding guests, the PDF is available here: WeddingStyleFileBlog.com Orthodox Jewish Wedding Guide by Andrea Grinberg