20 Jewish Wedding Traditions, Rituals & Customs to Know
Whether you're attending a Jewish wedding or planning your own, it's important to familiarize yourself with Jewish wedding traditions. These rituals and customs connect modern couples with the Jewish religion and culture's vast history. Some of these traditions are joyful, others more solemn, but put together they create a meaningful and special event.
We talked to Rabbi Linda Portnoy Goldberg of White Plains, New York, who shared some insight into the Jewish wedding traditions you're most likely to experience. Note that wedding traditions vary among the different subcultures (Ashkenazi and Sephardic, for example) and religious movements (Orthodox, Conservative and Reform) within the religion.
A Brief History of Jewish Wedding Traditions
Judaism dates back many centuries, and some Jewish wedding traditions have been around nearly that long. Other rituals have more recent origins.
"As with many aspects of Judaism, wedding traditions vary depending on the time and place," says Rabbi Portnoy Goldberg. "Some are inspired by the Torah, such as the bedeken, where the groom places the veil over the bride's face himself so he is not fooled into marrying the wrong bride, as our forefather Jacob was. Some are more recent, such as an interfaith or LGBTQ+ ketubah, the written agreement that the couple and witnesses sign detailing the couple's own thoughts about what the marriage will mean to them."
Traditional Jewish Wedding Attire
At most Jewish weddings, all men will wear yarmulkes (also known as kippot or skullcaps). Married women may be offered lace head coverings. These head coverings are usually provided by the couple to complement their color scheme and wedding style.
The groom himself will usually wear a yarmulke, and very traditional grooms may wear a white over-garment called a kittel. A tallit (prayer shawl) may also be worn during the ceremony.
A bride at a Jewish wedding will typically wear a white dress and a veil with face covering for the bedeken ceremony. If the wedding will take place in a synagogue, the bride (and all guests for that matter) should wear attire that covers the shoulders, whether it's a dress with sleeves or a removable shawl or jacket.
Jewish Prewedding Traditions
When it comes to Jewish weddings, the celebration begins well before the big day. There are also several events that traditionally occur on the wedding day, but before the ceremony.
The aufruf is a pre-wedding religious service, often occurring the Saturday before the wedding. At this event, which is usually held at a synagogue, the groom or soon-to-be married couple is called to the Torah to recite an aliyah, or blessing. Traditionally, only the groom would recite the blessings but nowadays, in many Jewish communities, the couple would be called to the Torah together. The couple will also be blessed by the rabbi and assembled congregants. Sometimes candy is thrown at the couple to represent a life of sweetness, and there may be a small reception afterwards.
In some Jewish communities, the couple fasts starting at sundown the night before their wedding, only breaking the fast with the first glass of wine at the ceremony. The couple fasts to purify themselves before marriage.
A traditional Jewish wedding begins with a groom's tish, Yiddish for table. The groom attempts to present a lecture on the week's Torah portion, while his male friends and family heckle and interrupt him. Meanwhile, the bride is entertained in another room by her female friends and family. The soon-to-be married couple may lead the tish together in Conservative and Reform congregations.
In Orthodox communities, after the tish the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) is signed by the groom, the rabbi and two male witnesses. In Reform and Conservative congregations, the bride may also sign the ketubah, and additional lines can be added for female witnesses, too. Despite its testimony that the groom has "acquired" the bride, the ketubah is all about the bride's rights and her willingness to take part in the marriage. In fact, the ketubah belongs solely to the bride and is hers to keep as proof of her rights and the groom's responsibilities to her under Jewish law.
Adds Rabbi Portnoy Goldberg: "The word ketubah comes from the root to write, and as mentioned above, it means something written as opposed to spoken. Originally it was the Jewish legal marriage contract written mostly in Aramaic. Now it is more likely a beautiful work of art with Hebrew and English text selected by the couple to indicate what the marriage means to them."
The first time a bride and groom see each other in an Orthodox wedding is during the bedeken, or veiling of the bride. Both fathers and all the men lead the groom to the bride's room, where both mothers and all the women surround her. The groom lowers the veil over her face, setting her apart from everyone else and indicating that he is solely interested in her inner beauty. The ceremony is based on the biblical story in which Jacob did not see his bride's face beforehand and was tricked into marrying the wrong sister, Leah. Some couples have created a more egalitarian veiling ceremony in which the bride places a yarmulke on the groom as he covers her with the veil.
Jewish Wedding Ceremony Traditions
Jewish wedding ceremonies vary in length, but most last between 20 and 30 minutes. Be sure to discuss your ceremony length with your officiant to ensure you're on the same page.
Traditional Jewish Wedding Processional
Traditionally, both of the groom's parents walk him down the aisle to the chuppah, followed by the bride and both of her parents. Often, the couple's parents stand under the chuppah with them throughout the ceremony.
The chuppah, or wedding canopy, dates back to the tent-dwelling Jewish nomadic days in the desert. Historically, Jewish wedding ceremonies were held outdoors, and the chuppah created an intimate, sanctified space. "The chuppah is intended to be symbolic of the couple's new home, open on all sides to welcome family and friends and to offer hospitality to those in need," adds Rabbi Portnoy Goldberg.
The canopy offers one of the best opportunities to personalize your ceremony. The four posts of the chuppah are often held up by friends or family members through the ceremony as a symbol of support for the couple's new life together. However, a freestanding chuppah is also just fine. "Sometimes a family tallit provides the roof," says Rabbi Portnoy Goldberg. "Or I might suggest a sacred cloth representing the family of the partner who is not Jewish in the case of an interfaith wedding."
Since there are no formal requirements for its size, shape or appearance, you can make your own chuppah for your Jewish wedding ceremony.
When the couple first enters the chuppah, the bride circles the groom seven times, representing the seven wedding blessings and seven days of creation, and demonstrating that the groom is the center of her world. To make the ancient ritual reciprocal, many couples opt to circle each other.
"I usually recommend that one partner circle the other three times, then the other circle the first for three times, then both joining hands to walk about each other for the seventh rotation," says Rabbi Portnoy Goldberg. "And the meaning I typically ascribe to it is to remind us of the seven days of the creation story leading to a seven day week, as we witness the creation of a new family in the world, where one is the center of the other's life for seven days out of every week from now on."
The kiddushin (betrothal ceremony), or the first part of the Jewish wedding ceremony, takes place under the chuppah. It begins with greetings, a blessing over the wine, and a sip taken by the couple. Next come the rings: the groom recites an ancient Aramaic phrase as he places the wedding band on his bride's right index finger—the finger believed to be directly connected to the heart. In a double-ring ceremony (not permitted in some Orthodox weddings) the bride also places a ring on the groom's index finger while repeating a feminine form of the Aramaic phrase, or a biblical verse from Hosea or Song of Songs. The ketubah is then read aloud in English and Aramaic.
The second part of the Jewish wedding ceremony signifies the nuptials and uniting of the couple. It begins with the sheva b'rachot, given over a second cup of wine. The cup of wine from the kiddushin and the cup of wine from the nissuin represent the betrothal and the nuptials.
The sheva b'rachot, or seven blessings, consist of praise for God, a prayer for peace in Jerusalem and good wishes for the couple. In Sephardic weddings, before the sheva b'rachot are recited, the parents wrap the couple in a tallit (prayer shawl), literally binding them together. The rabbi doesn't have to say all seven blessings. You can honor special guests by asking them to read—or even sing—some of the blessings. Adds Rabbi Portnoy Goldberg, "The blessings can be the traditional Hebrew sheva b'rachot or, if preferred, a more modern English set of blessings."
Breaking of the Glass
Nothing says "Jewish wedding" more than the sound of breaking glass. But what's the point? Depending on whom you ask, the breaking of the wineglass is, among other things: a symbol of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a representation of the fragility of human relationships and a reminder that marriage changes the lives of individuals forever. It's also the official signal to shout, "Mazel Tov!" and start partying. There's no law putting the man's foot to the task. If you're game, the couple can break the glass together with one swift kick in unison.
Now it's time to shout, "Mazel Tov!" and start partying. Mazel Tov is used like "congratulations," but literally means "good fortune," which is a lovely wish for a new couple at the end of a Jewish wedding ceremony.
In a day filled with chaos, the yihud — or "seclusion" — is a standout ritual that lets you focus on the days true purpose: your new partnership. Immediately after the ceremony, the newlyweds retreat to a private room for 15 minutes of personal time. No in-laws, no seating arrangement charts, no videographer. Just you and your new spouse staring into each other's eyes. In days of old, bride and groom would retreat to a nearby tent to consummate the marriage. This isn't done much these days, but its customary for newlyweds to seize the yihud moment and feed each other a bite or two of their first meal together.
"I recommend the yichud because there aren't many opportunities to spend quality time together on a busy wedding day," says Rabbi Portnoy Goldberg. "It's also a chance to get something to eat, which is also hard to make happen otherwise."
Jewish Wedding Reception Dances
Music and dancing are a big part of any Jewish wedding. Note that in some Orthodox communities, the men and women dance separately.
The traditional hora, or chair dance, is the highlight of a Jewish wedding reception. The wedding couple is lifted above the crowd on chairs, while guests sing "Hava Nagila" and circle the couple in a celebratory dance.
The mitzvah dances are meant to celebrate and entertain the newly married couple. The couple is traditionally seated (often on the chairs from the hora!) while loved ones dance for them and make them laugh with costumes, props and more. Get ready for some serious photo fodder.
In weddings where parents of the couple have "married off" their last child, this dance is one of the concluding Jewish wedding traditions. Also called the krenzel—Yiddish for "crown"—for the crown of flowers placed in the mother's hair, the mezinke places these parents in the middle of the dance floor while guests dance around them, kissing them as they pass.
Jewish Wedding Reception Food
Serving delicious food isn't just a nice tradition. Providing a wedding feast is actually part of Jewish law, or a mitzvah.
There's nothing better than the celebratory meal at any wedding. And per Jewish wedding traditions, you'll almost always find chicken and fish, both symbols of fertility, at the seudat mitzvah. You may receive sutlach—a sweet rice pudding with coconut milk, honey and almonds—as your first course to symbolize a sweet and prosperous life ahead. If you're keeping kosher, you'll need to choose between a meal that contains meat or dairy, but not both. Pork and shellfish are typically not served.
Jewish Wedding Reception Blessings
During a Jewish wedding reception, honored guests will help recite blessings to give thanks for the festive meal and the couple's new union.
Blessing the Challah
The wedding meal and reception starts with a blessing, or hamotzi, over a beautiful loaf of challah, the traditional braided Shabbat and holiday bread which symbolizes love.
The last of the Jewish wedding rituals is the Birkat Hamazon, or Grace after Meals. This blessing is recited by the guests, often with booklets of prayers (benchers) handed out. The seven wedding blessings are then repeated. In the final blessing, the person leading the blessing blesses the wine, then pours wine from two cups into one, drinking from the original cup and handing the other two cups to the newlyweds to drink.
Traditional Jewish Wedding Gifts
If you're attending a Jewish wedding, there are numerous options when it comes to gift giving. Many guests choose to give cash or a check to the newlyweds, and it's Jewish tradition to give monetary gifts in multiples of $18 ($72, $90, $108, etc.), a numeric symbol for "life". Jewish couples may also have a wedding registry, and often register for Judaica, or religious items, such as menorahs, Passover seder plates, Kiddush cups, Sabbath candlesticks, mezuzot and more.