Local rabbis spoke to the Jewish Exponent about how marriage is similar to the High Holidays, what different customs there are at weddings and what it’s like to get to know the bride and groom.
One of the most joyous occasions in a person’s life is their wedding. While the extravagant ceremony with food, drinks and dancing is fun, it is really about the journey to marriage and starting a Jewish life as a married couple.
Rabbi Yochonon Goldman of Historic Congregation B’nai Abraham in Center City, Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Temple Adath Israel in Merion Station and Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association spoke to the Jewish Exponent about how marriage is similar to the High Holidays, what different customs there are at weddings and what it’s like to get to know the bride and groom.
They all agreed: Getting ready for marriage is as important as the wedding. “The wedding gets a lot of attention,” Goldman said. “Part of the reason why preparing for the wedding is so important is because you want to start things on the right foot. Leading up to the wedding is the foundation for which we enable them to have solid beginning.”
He explained that a wedding is linked to the High Holidays season. God is considered the groom, the Jewish people the bride and people are courting God throughout the month of Elul. Then on Rosh Hashanah, God proposes and the sounding of the shofar is the acceptance.
The wedding itself is the equivalent to Yom Kippur because it says in the Talmud that all sins are forgiven on the day of the wedding and the bride and groom fast on the day of the wedding as well.
“The wedding day is like a couple’s personal Yom Kippur,” Goldman said.
There are several customs at a wedding. In addition to being required to have the chupah outside, it also represents a Jewish home.
“By standing under a Jewish home, we elicit God’s blessings for a new couple and life together,” Goldman said.
There are the legal obligations of writing and signing the ketubah, reading the sheva b’rachot — the seven blessings — and exchanging the rings, but there is also the tradition of friends and families hosting parties for the bride and groom seven days after the wedding. This is similar to the holiday of Sukkot.
Many people believe the rings are a formality, but the groom must give a gift to the bride to show her his love — and it is crucial the correct rings are used, Goldman said. There is the tradition of breaking the glass, which signifies a bittersweet start to a new life. Some people even use the shattered glass to create a mezuzah case.
“Even at the height of our joy, we break the glass to remember that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and there’s still pain and suffering in the world,” Goldman said. “Every time you walk into your home, you have a memory from your wedding.”
Yanoff, who is a Conservative rabbi, said he always tries to personalize each wedding and cater the customs to what the bride and groom want.
“There’s not one way of doing it [the wedding],” Yanoff said.
As an example, he cited how, in an Orthodox wedding, the bride will circle the groom seven times, but now in a more egalitarian society, bride and the groom will often circle each other three times, concluding with one circle together.
“I do think the liturgy and traditions of the wedding are so beautiful,” Yanoff said.
All of the rabbis said getting to know the bride and the groom is a special experience. They learn about their history, how they met and what they want out of life. If they are Orthodox, the bride will also meet with a rebbetzin to help her prepare for the mikvah, which she goes to the night before the wedding for purification purposes.
Yanoff said he explains traditions to the couple and no matter how religious they are, “they should have ownership” of the customs they want to perform at the wedding. One he often suggests is having the parents wrap the bride and groom in a tallit, which represents unity.
Some unique customs that brides and grooms have explored include pouring sand into a container, which symbolizes their lives coming together. Another bride and groom made a wax drawing of each other and a third wedding involved a couple using spray paint.
“Each couple is unique and each couple can draw on the rituals that exist,” Yanoff said.
Wechterman, who also performs same-sex and interfaith marriages, said a wedding is a wedding regardless of the people involved. Like her fellow rabbis, she meets with couples several times and assists them on their journey to marriage.
“Practicing and preparing for a wedding are both helpful in guiding the conversation with what they want their marriage to look like,” she said. “Throughout the process, we design a ceremony that makes sense for that couple.”
She said in an interfaith marriage, she will use more English and the non-Jewish person might say a vow to the other person. Unlike Orthodox weddings, Wechterman said many couples have chosen to have seven friends or family members write the sheva b’rachot.
In addition to the bride and groom circling each other three times and once together, Wechterman often asks children related to the couple to participate.
“I find the circling tradition is a great way to include children,” she said.
Wechterman said she is always open to rituals from other cultures. When she did a wedding between a woman and an African-American man, they jumped over a broom because that was part of his family’s heritage. Another wedding involved a person of Chinese descent, so they read Chinese blessings.
“In participating,” she explained, “I get invited into their intimate lives and their true feelings and help them articulate often what they feel and can’t always articulate.”