There is no such thing as a "generic" Jewish wedding -- no matter what the rabbi tells you, no matter what your mother tells you, no matter what the caterer tells you.
The rabbis who codified Jewish law, halakhah, made it so easy for couples to marry that the minimal requirements for carrying out a kosher Jewish wedding can be summed up in a few words: the bride accepts an object worth more than a dime from the groom, the groom recites a ritual formula of acquisition and consecration, and these two actions must be witnessed. That constitutes a Jewish wedding; the rest of the traditions associated with Jewish weddings -- the canopy, the seven wedding blessings, the breaking of a glass, even the presence of a rabbi -- are customs. Custom -- in Hebrew, minhag -- changes over time and differs from one nation to the next. Some Jewish wedding customs have been discarded and forgotten, and some persist with even greater symbolic and emotional power than the religious prescriptions.
Customs change to meet the needs and express the concerns of people in different eras and situations. Over the centuries the Jewish wedding has been celebrated with countless variations in ritual and minhag. It is a dynamic and flexible tradition, and it is yours to explore and recreate.
"To be a Jew in the twentieth century is to be offered a gift," wrote the poet Muriel Rukeyser. Many non-Orthodox Jews tend to believe that this gift belongs really and authentically only to traditionalists. This is simply not true. Orthodox Jews have no lock on Judaism, and this book documents how liberal Jews have been inspired by old practices -- the ketubah, for example -- to create new forms of piety and celebration.
The New Jewish Wedding contains references to biblical, Talmudic, halakhic, and mystical texts, stories, as well as prayers, poems, and descriptions of ways creative Jews celebrate marriage in the 21st century. All this is offered as a resource for people who are interested in exploring Judaism's mythic, historic, religious, gastronomic, musical, and literary "gifts" to discover what the tradition offers them today, here and now, at this threshold in their lives.
This is not a wedding etiquette book. Etiquette books are rather like insurance policies against doing things "wrong." They presume to instruct you in the "right" way, with the implied warning that if you do not follow the conventions properly you'll be committing terribly embarrassing mistakes. The New Jewish Wedding is a minhag book that describes the customs and rituals that American Jews are reviving and reinventing to express themselves within a four-thousand-year-old tradition. Furthermore, this book assumes that both partners care about what happens at their wedding, so it is addressed to both members of the couple -- not just to the bride.
The New Jewish Wedding is organized to help you become the architect of your own Jewish wedding. The first section, "Making the Tradition Your Own," lays the foundation for the many choices -- some big and some little -- you are about to make. It puts your wedding in context, which includes not only Jewish history, theology, and generations-old custom but also the concerns of modern life. Every marriage is a merger of individuals and families, and every merger creates friction. Accommodating both modern sensibilities and a four-thousand-year-old system of beliefs creates even more friction. Transforming that heat into light is the challenge of making Jewish tradition your own.
The section called "New Faces under the Canopy" responds to changes in the demographics of American Jewry, including an unprecedented number of converts to Judaism, the fact that nearly half of Jews marry non-Jews, and the increasingly active and open participation of gay and lesbian Jews in communal and ritual life.
The second section, "Ways and Means," will help you transform your ideas and fantasies (and worries and disagreements) into a wedding. It includes descriptions of the all-important tools and props and players that go into making a Jewish wedding and the party that follows: from finding a rabbi and wording the invitation to organizing a processional and hiring a caterer.
The third section, "Celebrations and Rituals," describes the full round of parties and practices that constitute a Jewish wedding. There are customs to mark every stage of the making of a marriage -- before, during, and after the "main event" under the huppah.
The most important difference between what you hold in your hands and a wedding etiquette book is that The New Jewish Wedding pays more attention to the marriage ceremony than to the wedding reception. Although Judaism places great value on celebrating, weddings are considered much more than pretexts for partying. Marriage is foremost a holy obligation -- a mitzvah -- required of every Jew. For the Jewish religious imagination, the wedding has been an allegorical emblem for peak moments of sacred experience: both the covenant at Sinai and the joy of Shabbat are described in terms of the relationship between bride and groom.
The whole wedding liturgy fills no more than a page or two. The few hundred words of the ceremony are very old, their meaning and power compressed into a dense mass, like ancient rocks striated with signs of life from a thousand generations. But custom has created a context for and given tam -- flavor -- to this almost austere ritual. Before the wedding ceremony begins, guests are welcomed at a kabbalat panim -- literally "receiving faces." Traditionally, this consists of two separate ceremonies: male guests go to a chossen's tish -- groom's table -- and women "attend the bride" in another room at a hakhnassat kallah. At some point before the bedeken -- the "veiling" of the bride by the groom -- which is attended by all the guests, the ketubah -- marriage contract -- is signed.
The wedding ceremony takes place beneath a huppah -- a canopy supported by four poles. The liturgy is brief. First there is an invocation, followed by birkat erusin -- the blessings of betrothal -- which include blessing and drinking from the first cup of wine. Then comes the giving and accepting of a ring, accompanied by a brief declaration of consecration called the haray aht. Next the ketubah is read aloud, the rabbi speaks to the couple, and additional prayers are offered. Then there is the chanting of sheva b'rachot -- seven marriage blessings -- which include blessing and drinking from the second cup of wine. Finally, a glass is shattered, marking the end of the ceremony. The couple then goes to yichud -- seclusion -- for ten or fifteen minutes after the ceremony. Here they break the day-long fast that is customary for brides and grooms.
And somehow, in the heart of the ritual, custom is forgotten. Time collapses. Details like the hour, the date, the style of the bride's dress, the music -- all vanish. Somehow it is the wedding of the first bride and groom, when -- according to an old story -- God braided Eve's hair and stood with Adam as his witness, when God pronounced the blessings and the angels shouted mazel tov. During these moments every wedding is the first and also the ultimate wedding in a four-thousand-year-old golden chain.
The last part of the book, "Creating a Jewish Home," touches on some of the happily and not so happily ever after aspects of Jewish weddings, including the traditional week of postwedding celebration.
There have always been many Judaisms. Even before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., Judaism was not a monolithic religion. The New Jewish Wedding is an expression of Jewish pluralism. As such, I hope it will be of use to Jews of many different backgrounds, affiliations, and beliefs, which means everyone who reads this book will probably find at least one personally irritating interpretation of Jewish law or custom.
When this happens to you, think of this blessing, which the Talmud provides for the occasion of seeing an audience composed of Jews:
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who discerns secrets, for the mind of each is different from the other as is the face of each different from the other.
This is the blessing over our diversity.
There is a story told in the name of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a seventeenth-century Hasidic master:
A group of people who have been to a wedding are on their way home. One says, "It was a beautiful wedding. I liked the food." Another says, "It was a great wedding. The music was marvelous." Still another one says, "It was the best wedding I ever went to. I saw all my good friends there and we had a terrific time." Rabbi Nachman, who has overheard them, says, "Those people weren't really at a wedding."
Then another wedding guest joins this group and says, "Baruch HaShem! [Blessed be the Name!] Thank God those two got together!" At that Rabbi Nachman says, "Now, that person was at a wedding!"
At the heart of this book is the wish that everyone who attends your wedding -- family and friends, witnesses and guests, even bride and groom -- will go home talking about the good food and the good time, and the fact that you two found each other and decided to invoke the blessings of family, friends, community, and tradition on your love.
Copyright © 1985, 2001 by Anita Diamant