Engaged to be married? Mazal tov! As you begin to plan your Jewish (or Jewish-ish) wedding ceremony, whether you are Jewishly knowledgeable or relatively new to Judaism, you may want to review the list below before you make your plans to create a meaningful Jewish wedding.
Are you planning a Jewish wedding? Here are the things to consider:
Choosing a Date
Jewish weddings are traditionally prohibited on Shabbat and most holidays — including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot — and the fast days Tisha B’Av, the 10th of Tevet, the 17th of Tammuz, the Fast of Gedaliah, and the Fast of Esther. Traditionally, Jewish weddings are not held during the counting of the omer between Passover and Shavuot, although customs differ as to whether that entire seven-week stretch or just part of it is a problem. Marrying during the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av is also prohibited in traditional Jewish practice. Because many of these dates fall during the prime wedding season (spring-summer), it’s important to check a Jewish calendar before you select a date.
And although Shabbat weddings are out, many couples choose to wed on Saturday at sundown, so that they can begin their ceremony with Havdalah, marking both the end of Shabbat and the end of the time that came before their public commitment to one another. Some couples choose to wed on Tuesdays, believing it to be an especially blessed day since in the Biblical story of creation, the phrase “God saw that it was good” appears twice on the third day.
In the past, certain dates were considered auspicious for marriage. For example, some proposed that marriages be held only during the first half of the lunar Hebrew month because love and good fortune should increase as the moon increases. The last word on the numerous “good days” and signs, however, was an endorsement of all days except those the law banned because they would violate the spirit of either mourning or joy.
Judaism protects the integrity of our two most extreme emotions, love and death. It does not permit a wedding, which the Halakhah considers the epitome of joy, to interfere with mourning, the paradigm of sadness. Conversely, it does not permit two joyous experiences to take place simultaneously—we must be able to separate them and handle these experiences with uncompromised concentration. Thus there are specific times when no marriage may take place.
Never on the Sabbath
The Sabbath, a day of joy and rest, is not a day for weddings. The Talmud states that no formal agreement, written or verbal, is permitted on the Sabbath. In the early Middle Ages, although the betrothal and nuptials were regularly fused into one ceremony, the Jews sometimes separated them by one day, celebrating the betrothal on Friday afternoon and the nuptials on Saturday night, after the close of the Sabbath.
Maimonides, however, prohibited weddings on Friday afternoons and Sundays because he found that preparations were so time-consuming and demanding of effort that they caused the unwitting violation of the Sabbath. The restriction was ultimately set aside by later authorities who assumed that, by the time the day of the wedding arrived, the extensive preparations had been completed and the Sabbath would be fully observed.
Saturday night weddings are western innovation. On late summer days, the food is often prepared, and the wedding families and musicians often arrive, before the Sabbath is over. To enter the Jewish covenant of marriage by violating the Jewish covenant of Sabbath, even by those who are generally not observant of the Sabbath, is both ludicrous and sacrilegious. In such instances, Saturday night weddings are to be discouraged. However, if meticulous care is taken not to violate the holiness of the Sabbath, there is no reason to avoid scheduling weddings on this night.
Not on Days of Joy
No weddings may be scheduled for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, or on the Intermediate days. According to the Talmud, there are two similar reasons: the first is (Deuteronomy 16:14) “And thou shalt rejoice in thy holy days,” implying “but not with thy wife”; the second is ein me’ arvin simchah be’ simchah; “one should not intermix rejoicing with rejoicing.” In this way, the integrity of the occasion remains intact. Because of the specific halakhic criteria for the concept of “joy,” weddings may be held on Purim and Hanukkah.
Private joyous occasions must also be unsullied. Thus two brothers or two sisters should not celebrate their weddings on the same day; in fact, some authorities require waiting a whole week.
Not on Days of Sadness
A wedding may not hinder a day of public mourning or sadness. Therefore, it should not be held on fast days such as the Tishah be-Av, the fast of Gedaliah, the tenth of Tevet, the fast of Esther, and the seventeenth of Tammuz. In urgent circumstances, the wedding itself may be held on fast days (other than Tishah be-Av), but the meal and celebration should begin after nightfall.
Likewise, the period of semi-mourning for the Temple’s destruction—the three weeks from the seventeenth of Tammuz through the Tishah be-Av—are days of public sadness on which a Jew should not celebrate personal happiness. The law held it forbidden from Rosh Chodesh until after Tishah be-Av, but custom has extended the ban from the seventeenth day of Tammuz until Tishah be-Av. Therefore, engagement announcements and gatherings are permitted, but without music, dancing, and elaborate foods. Weddings are legally permissible, under similar restrictions, especially for those who have no children but only for urgent reasons. In all cases, a rabbinic authority should be consulted.
The same principles apply to the thirty-three day period from Passover to before Shavuot, a time for mourning the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students and followers. There is a division of custom regarding the counting of these thirty-three days. Sephardim hold these days of semi-mourning from the second day of Passover through Lag ba-Omer. Many Ashkenazim, according to the decision of Rabbi Moses Feinstein, may hold weddings until after Rosh Chodesh Iyyar, and on Lag ba-Omer, evening and day, and from Rosh Chodesh Sivan and forward. The most common usage among American Jews seems to have been the prohibition of marriage until Lag ba-Omer, following the decision of the Bach, a seventeenth-century authority. This custom has the additional advantage of having specific, easy-to-determine parameters for the Jewish public. As there are many local customs and some leniency in cases of difficulty, the local competent rabbinic authority should be consulted before the planning proceeds too far.
The Mourner And Marriage
When Marriages May Take Place.
(a.) Mourners should not be married during shloshim [the thirty days following burial], and certainly not during shivah [the seven days of mourning following the burial of certain relatives], even without pomp and music and sumptuous reception. Engagements may be contracted or announced during this period.
(b.) After the sheloshim, the wedding may proceed with all the adornments, the music and the food, and the bride and groom and their parents may dress for the occasion, without showing any evident signs of mourning.
(c.) During shloshim (after shivah), there are exceptional circumstances when marriage may be contracted:
—If the groom is the mourner:
If he is childless, and preparations had been made, such as the date set, the arrangements contracted for, and the food bought, so that postponing the wedding would incur a severe financial loss, or cause a large group of people to be absent.
If the date had not been set, but for some compelling reason such as military draft, it must be held during sheloshim, the couple may marry, but not live as man and wife until after sheloshim.
—If the bride is the mourner:
The marriage may take place during shloshim only if she had already been engaged, the preparations made, and the groom is childless.
When Remarriages May Take Place
(a.) If the wife died:
The husband must wait for the passing of the three major festivals (Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot) before he remarries. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not count as festivals for this purpose. Shemini Atzeret may be counted as a festival in certain cases involving the family’s urgent personal circumstances. The ostensible reason for this delay is the hope that the duration of three separate holidays and the cycle of seasons would temper his despair, and he would not enter a second marriage with the first love still fresh in mind. This time span might be as long as a year if death occurred soon after Sukkot, or only a few months if death occurred immediately prior to Passover.
There are notable exceptions to this general rule:
—If the husband did not sire children, marriage might be held after shiva, and they may live as husband and wife.
—If he has small children who need to be cared for, marriage may be held after shiva, but marital relations must be postponed until after sheloshim.
—If he cannot bear to live alone, for whatever reason (this is not an infrequent occurrence), he may be married but may have no marital relations until after sheloshim.
(b.) If the husband died:
The wife may remarry after three months, a considerably shorter time than the three-festival duration for a man. The wife was considered better able to control her emotions, having to be more concerned with the rearing of her children than with her feelings. The reason for the three-month delay is that it must be evident that she is not bearing a child from a deceased mate. Under exceptional circumstances to be judged by competent rabbinic authority, if it is known medically that she could not possibly be pregnant, and if her fiancé is childless, she may be granted permission to remarry after shiva.
Becoming a Mourner after the Ceremony
(a.) If one of the seven close relatives of the bride or groom died after the ceremony, but before the marriage was consummated, the couple must live apart until after shiva, [when they formally begin their seven days of rejoicing].
(b.) If the relative died after the consummation of the marriage, the mourning is postponed until after the full week of a wedding celebration. During this time, the mourner may care for personal hygiene and grooming and may experience all the joys of living. When the week is over, however, the garment of the mourner is rented and shiva begins in full, as noted above.
Designing the Jewish Wedding: The Rabbi
The wedding, as we have seen, is not simply a beautiful ceremony—it is an intricate web of laws and customs that the Torah has ordained. Society has developed for the protection of the family and social morality. These traditions are far too complicated to be implemented by a novice. Countless legal difficulties can beset this otherwise magnificent event if it is not overseen by a rabbi who is a scholar of the law.
The Talmud insisted that Kol she-eino yodeia be’ tiv gittin ve’ kiddushin, to ye’ hei to esek imahem—whoever does not know the niceties of the divorce and betrothal procedures should not engage in supervising them. Maimonides instructed the Egyptian Jewish community that no marriage may be arranged without the supervision of an ordained rabbi. The presence of the rabbi gives the wedding the character of an official act. This was part of the historic Jewish effort to transform marriage from an unstructured, casual arrangement to a formal, officially approved, legal transaction, which carefully spelled out the responsibilities attendant upon the new status.
The rabbi has no part in effecting the marriage itself. He ascertains only that the partners are legitimately permitted to marry one another and that the marriage process is executed according to the laws of Moses and Israel. His primary value is not as a public speaker or a master of ceremonies, but as a scholar, able to assure that all the actions meet the centuries-old halakhic standards of the Jewish people.
Cantors who are not ordained as Rabbis should not perform marriages (though they perform at marriages.) The fact that the state may authorize them is irrelevant; the Jewish religion does not. A wedding should be postponed if there is no ordained rabbi available on the date selected.
Marriage is too important, the law too complex, and the Jewish family too essential to be left in the hands of those who, however well-intentioned or talented, have no knowledge of the intricacies of the marriage laws.
For some couples, this step is an easy one. They may be active members of a congregation or have a childhood or Hillel (college) rabbi that they are still close to. But for many engaged couples who are not formally affiliated with a Jewish community, finding a rabbi or cantor to lead their wedding ceremony is a daunting task. Parents may suggest using the rabbi from their congregation, whether or not the couple knows them.
First off, it’s important to know that a rabbi is not the only person who can lead a Jewish wedding. A cantor can officiate, as can another educated professional serving the Jewish community. Increasingly, couples are asking friends to officiate by becoming ordained as a Universal Life Minister. To meet most states’ requirements, the officiant does need to be a recognized member of the clergy; be sure to ask this question of any clergy you speak with.
You may want to begin the search for your rabbi by visiting local congregations and observing how different rabbis lead services. You can also contact rabbinical schools to connect with a student rabbi, whose work will be supervised by an experienced faculty member. Students are eager to gain experience and may even give you more time than a busy congregational rabbi could.
Rabbis’ schedules fill up quickly, so if you have a particular rabbi in mind, be sure to clear the date with him or her as soon as possible. Interfaith couples who encounter difficulties finding a rabbi can contact Interfaithfamily.com (Officiation Request Form), or the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling, which work with interfaith couples and can help them to find a rabbi.
When you meet with rabbis you are considering, be sure to ask them their philosophy about leading weddings, if they are open to adapting rituals, and what kind of ketubah [marriage contract] text they prefer that couples use. You want to make sure that you are on the same page about major issues from the start.
Planning the Ceremony
Even couples who grew up in a Jewish home with years of Jewish education may find themselves surprised when it comes to examining traditional Jewish wedding rituals. For example, in a traditional ceremony, only the groom gives the bride a ring, an act which is thought to symbolize kinyan (acquisition).
Many contemporary egalitarian couples find this ritual to be not in keeping with their values and choose to do a double-ring ceremony; some Orthodox rabbis will allow a modified form of this. While working with a rabbi can help you learn about the wedding rituals, you will probably get more out of the experience by doing a bit of research so that you can bring ideas to your meetings with the rabbi.
Choosing a Ketubah
Just as our government issues a marriage license, Jewish law has historically used a ketubah to sanction marriage. Ketubah means “writing” or “written” and refers to the document that is signed by witnesses before and often read during a Jewish wedding. Traditionally, a ketubah served as a kind of premarital contract, outlining a bride’s ongoing rights: food, clothing, and even sex should be provided during the marriage. The ketubah also specified her rights in the case of her husband’s death or their divorce.
Many contemporary couples choose to veer away from the traditional ketubah text and its implications and instead choose a text that expresses their hopes and commitments for their marriage. Some couples write their own text, while others search for a text that speaks to their vision.
Historically, the ketubah is not only a legal document but also an artistic one. Ketubot [plural of ketubah] have long been–and continue to be–an expression of Jewish creativity. So couples not only have decisions to make about the text, but also the kind of art they want for their ketubah. Some couples shop together for a lithograph; others hire an artist to create an original design.
Couples should also think about who they want to invite to sign their ketubah. Traditionally, a witness must be a religiously observant Jewish male, unrelated to the bride or groom. Reform and Reconstructionist and some Conservative rabbis accept women as witnesses, though most still prefer that the witness be Jewish.
Selecting a Chuppah
The chuppah is the canopy that covers the bride and groom during the wedding ceremony, creating a sacred space that is both open for all to see and private and intimate for the couple beneath it. It symbolizes their new home together and is said to be open as was the tent of Abraham and Sarah, who were always ready to receive visitors.
In planning your wedding, think about what kind of chuppah would be special for you. Some are covered in flowers, and others are made of fabric squares that friends and family decorate for the couple. The chuppah is attached to four poles, which can be free-standing or held by four people. It is considered a great honour to hold a chuppah pole, so this job should be given to people very close to the bride or groom.
Including Ritual Objects
Jewish weddings call for some objects that, with a little thought, can be enhanced to create special meaning for your wedding. For example, at most Jewish weddings, kippot (yarmulkes) are provided for guests. Many couples have them imprinted with their name and wedding date; others knit original kippot or paint or decorate satin or felt ones to match wedding decor. Couples also need a kiddush cup for under the huppah, and some couples are creating a new tradition by using one heirloom cup from each family. And no Jewish wedding is complete without the glass for breaking at the end of the ceremony. Today’s couples are sometimes saving the pieces of their broken glass to be transformed into a new piece of Judaica, such as a mezuzah or candlesticks.
Making Pre-wedding Choices
One of the greatest things about Jewish weddings is that the celebration is spread out over time, giving you maximum time to honour the bride and groom. The celebration may begin with an aufruf when the bride and groom (in traditional circles, only the groom) are called to the Torah for an aliyah. They receive a mi shebeirakh blessing, which invokes God’s blessing for the bride and groom, and then they are showered with candy, a symbol of sweetness to come in their life together. Many couples host a kiddush lunch following services. This can be an ideal time to include the entire community in your wedding joy.
You and your partner should also discuss whether you want to include various traditional pre-wedding rituals such as going to the mikvah (ritual bath), separating from one another during the week before your wedding, and fasting on your wedding day. These rituals can help the couple prepare spiritually for the seriousness of the day to come. While a Jewish wedding is full of joy, it is also like a personal Yom Kippur for the bride and groom, who want to enter their marriage with a pure heart. Many couples choose to follow an altered version of some of these traditions, such as eating something light before the ceremony to protect against fainting.
You and your partner should give yourselves ample time to talk through each of these seven steps and to use the process of planning your wedding as an opportunity to learn more about Jewish tradition and the way each of you envisions your life together once you step out from under the chuppah, hand in hand.
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