Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: About Jewish marriage
According to Jewish tradition, forty days before the conception of a baby girl, a heavenly proclamation declares exactly who the child will someday marry. Call it in vitro matchmaking, but that is how we find our barshert or preordained partner.
In this chapter we'll take you on a tour of Jewish wedding celebrations and traditions throughout the ages from biblical times, when both the bride and groom wore crowns of olive branches, myrtle, and roses, to early twentieth century weddings. You'll even get to peek in on modern-day barshert stories personal stories of finding one's true soul mate.
We'll discuss the Jewish concepts of love and intimacy here and their spiritual basis. And since Judaism never gives spiritual concepts and spiritual goals without practical advice as how to achieve them, we'll also look at the concept of family purity.
In planning your wedding, you'll find it is fascinating to look back through the ages and to see where the customs and rituals came from and how the couples that preceded you celebrated, even during times of adversity and persecution.
As you celebrate your special day, you'll realize it's not yours alone: The customs and rituals are part of the unbroken chain of tradition that is the Jewish people. They are a legacy from all who came before, to be enjoyed and treasured, and are now entrusted to you, as you take your place in the 3,300-year-old chain of Jewish history.
The Timeless Link: a History
The concept of marriage is as old as creation itself. Thousands of years ago, at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the young women of Jerusalem would flock to the vineyards outside the city, dressed in white robes to attract suitors.
Times have changed. Styles have changed. So have many of the old traditions. Yet they are still recognizable, and the reasons remain the same. Today, as in ancient times, the wedding ceremony consists of two parts: The first, the kiddushin, includes blessings, the marriage formula, and the giving of the ring. The second, the nesuin, includes the Seven Blessings, the breaking of the glass, and yichud. In ancient times these two parts took place a year apart, somewhat like today's engagement period. But as persecution increased, couples would sometimes get separated, so the rabbis decreed that both parts of the ceremony take place at the same time, which is still the custom today.
Marriage is of such central importance in Judaism that in ancient times parents would provide for their child's wedding canopy when the child was born. If the baby was a boy, they would plant a cedar tree; if the baby was a girl a cypress tree was planted. Years later the trees would be cut down and the wood combined to create the wedding litter and its canopy that covered the bride. The bride was carried on the decorated litter through the streets from her parent's home to her husband's; this was actually part of the wedding ceremony symbolizing her new status. The litter was held aloft by community men of high social status. From this procession came the modern-day custom of standing under a chuppah. The bride wore golden embroidered garments that emphasized her status on that day. Since it was considered a religious duty to participate in such events, young students and their rabbis would leave their studies to join in the procession.
Today, wedding gowns and tuxedos celebrate the special status of the bride and groom. In earlier times, the groom actually wore a diadem, or crown, as a sign of sovereignty (although somewhat temporary!). Rabbinical students made beautiful woven crowns for the pair, of twisted olive branches, roses, and myrtle, threaded with stones and delicate strands of gold and silver. The concept is much like the photo of the young modern-day bride on the opposite page.
For a week or two before the wedding, the couple had an escort wherever they went, and were guests of honor at many parties and feasts. After the wedding, the groom was exempt from all army and community duties for one full year so that he could concentrate fully on giving his wife happiness. And for thirty days after the ceremony, the groom was not allowed to enter the bridal chamber without her specific permission.
A wonderful tradition born long ago still exists today: that of providing funds for poor or orphaned brides to cover the cost of a proper wedding. In European Jewish communities there were self-imposed taxes to establish and maintain such funds called hakhnasal kallah, kindness to the bride. Unfortunately, today there are many young women in Israel and other parts of the world in need of this assistance. Consider donating your wedding gown to an organization that handles hakhnasal kallah we have some contacts in our Resource Guide. It is considered one of the greatest of all mitzvahs to provide such joy and peace of mind to a bride who needs financial help.
During the Middle Ages much of the Jewish population lived in small, isolated villages scattered throughout Europe as a result of the Crusades and persecution. There was little communication between villages and travel was made even more dangerous by bands of highwaymen. Filling the void was the shadkhan, the matchmaker. With a combination of courage and psychological acumen, he traveled between villages arranging countless marriages. The matchmaker not only had to balance hopes and dreams with needs and realities, but was expected to have enough insight to know if the marriage would be successful and happy. The matchmaker not only ensured the perpetuation of the Jewish people, he was literally the glue that kept them together in troubled times as he traveled the dangerous roads bringing news and letting the isolated communities know they were not alone.
Life in the Middle Ages was so drab that a wedding was reason for the whole community to join in for a seven-day celebration that included feasting, dramatic and musical performances, jesters, and dancing. Today, at Hasidic weddings, the mitzvah tansel the custom of the rabbi dancing with the bride while holding a handkerchief between them as a sign of modesty grew out of these festive celebrations of centuries gone by. The lifting of chairs holding the bride and groom at practically every Jewish wedding today stems from this period as well.
Though large and joyous, weddings were not extravagant. Money was the usual gift, to get the new couple started properly. The wedding ring, so popular today, was, according to some authorities, introduced in the seventh century. There were also large and intricate rings owned by the community and loaned to the bride to be worn on a ribbon or a chain around her neck. Many had handcrafted gold houses on top representing the Temple in Jerusalem, and were inscribed with the words mazel tov for good luck. Today, of course, rings are made to be worn comfortably and every day, and the heavy rings of the past are in museums.
Another more ancient custom from biblical times is the bridal veil, which recalls our matriarch Rebecca, who covered her head with a veil as she saw her bridegroom Isaac approach.
Remember the ancient ways and how they have come to add richness and meaning to your own wedding: The processional, the dancing, the lovely meal, the chuppah, the veil and ring, and the one day in your life when you are truly royalty. Celebrate and practice your priceless heritage with your entire being.
Remember, also, that in addition to all the friends and family members who attend your wedding, you have an exalted guest. The Midrash says that God so greatly desires weddings that He even serves as a witness at all weddings.
Whether you choose to marry in a meadow or in a garden, in a synagogue or in a huge catering ballroom, the whispers of our ancestors are with you.
Made in Heaven
As the old saying goes, "There's someone for everyone." When you find your soul mate, your perfect partner, it's no accident, according to Judaism, it's Barshert.
The miracle of finding each other on a crowded subway train, at a friend's wedding, or through a formal introduction by relatives was not an accident, good luck, or even a smart "fix-up." The belief is that if God intends two souls to meet, He will, if necessary, bring them together from opposite ends of the world. The circumstances are orchestrated by God and the intermediaries involved are His messengers.
The last days before the wedding rush by in a blur of final details and arrangements. Everything else gradually fades into the background as family, friends, and relatives all seem to have only one focus in life. On the actual day itself the entire world is somehow transformed into a backdrop for what is about to happen. Then, in the final moments before the chuppah, even the heavens and earth seem to be waiting, holding their breath. And the truth is, they are. For this is a moment that has been ordained since the beginning of creation. As you stand beneath the chuppah you know why your heart is pounding. You see your fiancé, family, and friends, and you know your life is about to change forever. But as much as you see, there's so much more you don't. For although the chuppah was made on earth, the marriage was made in heaven.
Jacob and Talia may think they met because they happened to go to the same university and Jacob had a cousin who knew a friend of Talia's. But while all this may be true, it was no coincidence. For long before the hall was rented and the deposits given, even long before they first met, the greatest wedding planner of them all was hard at work. Two souls had been carefully prepared for each other, carefully fashioned and made by the Creator of the universe and then stamped barshert, meant for each other.
And this is why Talia and Jacob just happened to go to the same university, and Jacob just happened to have a friend who knew a cousin of Talia's. And this is why everything seems just the way it was meant to be.
Love and Intimacy
Marriage, love, and intimacy are gifts from God. For just as God created our physical world, He also created the institution of marriage, the emotion of love, and the pleasures of intimacy. It may be hard to imagine in our contemporary society, but throughout most of history marriage was often merely a way for a man to acquire another piece of property. And sex was considered either a necessary sin or for the benefit of the man only, without any thought or consideration given to the woman.
But three thousand years before the sexual revolution, self-help books, and marriage therapists of today, love and intimacy already existed in a form so exalted that even our modern era still hasn't caught up. For within Jewish marriage, sex and intimacy are both natural and holy. The Torah actually requires a Jewish man to be sensitive to the sexual fulfillment of his wife, and this is symbolic of his obligation to be attentive to all his wife's needs. It is interesting to note that over one-sixth of the Talmud is devoted to women's issues and rights.
Much has changed in three thousand years. It is safe to say that today, few brides would be thrilled to see a donkey among the wedding gifts. However, there is one gift that has been available to every Jewish couple. It is a guide to ensuring the success of the marriage and to achieving the greatest happiness. It is called "family purity."
The practice of family purity revolves around the woman. It places her at the center and is based on the ebb and flow of her inner rhythms and cycles. Essentially, it means that for approximately twelve days following the onset of her menses, the couple refrains from all physical contact. This includes not only sexual relations but even incidental contact like touching hands.
To those unfamiliar with family purity, the imposition of such blanket rules on the most intimate and personal part of a relationship may seem repressive and harmful. But those who practice family purity invariably report just the opposite: Just as dating, the wedding, and the honeymoon were all special times, so family purity is a way of making this important part of life more special and exciting always. The sages state that part of the reason for the physical separation each month is to make the couple more beloved and desirous of each other.
Before the couple may resume relations, the woman must immerse herself in the waters of a Jewish ritual bath called a mikvah. There is a misconception that this is because the woman is considered to be made physically "impure" by her menstruation. Although this is true for many other cultures, it is absolutely not the case in Judaism as evidenced by the fact that an unmarried woman does not have to do the same after her menses. Jewish men and women each for their own separate reasons, have always sought the spiritual blessings bestowed by the waters of the mikvah.
Today, many traditional men go to the the mikvah before Shabbat each week. Male and female converts also undergo mikvah as part of the conversion process.
The alternating periods of intimacy and separation each month provide a balance and harmony to the relationship. Although important every day, friendship, respect, and understanding are deepened and refined during separation.
As the end of separation draws near, there is a growing sense of anticipation. It may fall on a routine workday like any other, but for the couple, it is the most special day of the month. That night the husband will await his wife's return from the mikvah. Although many years may have passed, she will say the bride's prayer and immerse in the waters of the mikvah just as she did for the first time the day before her wedding. And, if the couple feels some of the happiness and excitement of that day, or even a bit like newlyweds on a honeymoon, it makes perfect sense. Because this is God's plan and gift, delivered monthly by the waters of the mikvah.
Copyright © 2003 by Rita Milos Brownstein