Guide To A Traditional Jewish Wedding
Why is it that a Jewish wedding always does a number on our heart strings? Funeral statistics definitely prove that there are twice as many weepers at a Jewish wedding as contrasted with a Presbyterian wedding. Maybe it's our pessimism. Pharaoh, Haman, Hitler, and Stalin did it to us. Somewhere deep down in the midnight of our soul we're expecting the Cossacks to break down the door instead of the gentle knock of the caterer with 300 Chicken Breasts Florentine. We look around with amazement: and something inside of us says, "I can't believe we're still here as a people". How silly! We're as eternal as the granite of Sinai. And this kallah (bride) and chatan (groom) guarantee we'll survive for yet another generation.
The Kabbalat Panim
The ceremonial journey begins with the Kabbalat Panim ("Veiling, hiding of the face"). The groom and his joyful pals in one room and the bride, surrounded by her sisterhood, in another. They're veiling the bride just as Rebecca did when Isaac approached. Tradition says the veiling is required so that the lovesick groom isn't totally dazzled by the beauty, the radiance of his bride. He should not be so awed by her looks that he is blinded to the goodness of her soul, say our Rabbis. And the veil manufacturing lobby agrees.
Once the veiling is done, the stage is set for the two Jewish mothers to act out their role as Jewish mothers. They've instructed these children thus far in their lives - why stop now at this crucial point. Therefore, they take a plate - smash it to splinters and present it to the chatan (groom). See - this must NOT happen to your marriage. Look how impossible it will be to restore this fine china. That's the lesson. This raucous seminar in marriage counseling seems to be effective since the Jewish divorce rate is well below that of the general population.
Meanwhile, the men, in their room, sing boisterous songs of celebration; "may rejoicing be heard in the streets of Jerusalem" - and they drink a lot. The groom, full of passion and piety has a look like that of Neil Armstrong when they strapped him in the Apollo module for the first moon shot. He has been fasting all day, so technically he's sober. But an empty stomach and a heart full of longing fly him to the moon. Besides, he hasn't seen the bride for a week - what if she changed her mind and married Adam Green, whose family owns the Downtown Mall with three Haute Mond dress and accessory shops.
Sooner or later, when the bride is veiled and pronounced ready by her "court" of friends and relatives, the groom's retinue grab him and hoist him on their shoulders like a triumphant football coach. A tidal wave of dancing, hand waving, dark-suited men singing of first millennium BCE Jerusalem carry our groom to his bride in the adjoining room. Even in the middle of jubilation we remember the destruction of Jerusalem.
Finally, the procession reaches the bride. A long look under the veil by a suspicious groom reveals no flimflammery, we hope. The groom signed up for Rachel, let us say, and that's exactly what he gets.
It all goes back, you know, to Jacob and Rachel. Jacob was duped by his father-in-law. Remember, he got Leah, not Rachel, on the first go-round. You'll find the story - how Laban, the trickster, duped Jacob with the older sister - in Genesis, Chapter 29. Laban must have thrown a heckuva wedding because only the next morning did headachey Jacob realize he got Leah - the mature sister ("her eyes were weak," a gentle euphemism, says Genesis) - instead of Rachel. ("But Rachel was beautiful" says the book). Today there would be lawsuits and tabloid TV coverage and a special issue of the National Enquirer headlined, "SISTER SWAP IN PADAN ARAN!!"
But if Rachel is the maiden under the veil (and that's the plan) then all can breathe a sigh of relief because now the ceremony can begin. IF the parents (heaven forbid) had imitated Laban - and IF the groom peeked and found Leah instead of his Rachel under the veil - well, no wedding, no music, no bar, no prime rib dinner for us guests.
The Ceremony (Kiddushin & Ketuba)
Of course, the couple will stand under the Chupa, the platform for every Jewish wedding - the portal to the web of matrimony. The Master Magician's Chamber, you might say, that blows away time and place. For one sweet moment, the bridal pair will stand together in their own Universe with the heavens as the ceiling and the horizons as walls to their union. There, as though in another planet, another time, they pledge their love. Seven blessings are recited; and the bride circles the groom seven times explicitly demonstrating that he is the center of her universe.
The marriage contract, the ketuba, containing the chatan's commitment to the kallah, is read out loud. The ketuba, of course, is written in antique Aramaic so that the groom doesn't understand his commitment to his wife, her visa card debt, and his in-laws. (Smart grooms bone-up on their Aramaic before D-Day.) This document, written in an age when women were treated as cattle, is an explicit recital of the duties of the groom. The wife's obligations, however, are expressed only loosely. So guess who wins every argument for the next fifty years - especially since the ketuba is given to the bride to keep. We, the audience, witness his obligation. Even the fact that the bridegroom is woozy with hunger and longing and shock at this life-long commitment; a contract is a contract. He's toast, as the bachelors say.
At the end of the ceremony, the groom stomps on a glass to remind us of the destruction of Solomon's temple, an obsession still on the Jewish mind too millennia later. As the song says, we left our heart "High on a Hill" in a faraway city that still calls us. (Cynics claim the glass breaking is to remind the guests that the lovebirds' crystal and china is registered at Bloomingdales.) On this final note, we guests shout "Mazel Tov" (good luck) and get ready for some serious partying.
After dinner it's customary for the bride and groom to be chaired around the room by their friends. Sometimes they dance like a regular married couple. Sometimes they cling to each other with a white handkerchief. Not touching - just clutching the end of the hanky. This is a source of much debate among scholars of Judaica. Students of Tradition say that it symbolizes the physical separation that must prevail before marriage. Cynics claim that it signifies the last clean handkerchief, sock, or shirt the young groom will see until he visits his mama in Far Rockaway. Don't ask us; check your rabbi or marriage counselor.
You will note that there is no mixed dancing at a strictly orthodox wedding. Orthodox Rabbis enthusiastically sanction intimacy - but only within the bounds of privacy and naturally, only within marriage. They know the human heart is as volatile as nitroglycerin. Why chance it? And even a dance with your wife in a public place has its temptations. Go home, pull down the shades and dance, they say.
And so the wedding, an event celebrating "something old, something new", ends amid music, banqueting, and high hopes for the future of the kallah and chatan; and all Israel!