While there are numerous customs and traditions associated with a Jewish wedding, the actual ritual requirements for two Jews to marry are fairly minimal.
Both bride and groom must freely consent to the marriage. The groom must give the bride something of value (usually a ring). The groom recites a traditional prayer of consecration. And these events must be witnessed by two Jews who are not directly related to the bride or groom or to each other.
Centuries of Jewish weddings have added ritual ornamentation to this basic ceremony, leaving modern couples with a diverse array of customs to observe.
Not every couple will choose to follow every tradition, of course. But as couples set about planning their wedding ceremonies, many rabbis urge them to consider the Jewish significance of the event.
The following is a rundown of the most commonly observed wedding customs and practices, based on "Your Jewish Wedding," by Helen Latner, and "The New Jewish Wedding" by Anita Diamant. It's best to check with your rabbi for any ceremonial questions.
Jewish weddings do not take place on the Sabbath because "each joy is to be savored on its own."
Weddings may not be held on major holidays and festivals. In Orthodox and Conservative practice, weddings are not held between Tammuz 17 and Av 9, the three-week period that represents a period of mourning commemorating the destruction of the Temple.
Traditionally, weddings also are not held during the 49-day spring period of the Counting of the Omer, a time of semi-mourning. This period starts on the second night of Passover and ends on the day before Shavuot. Some rabbinical authorities will allow weddings on certain days during this period, such as on or after the 33rd day, known as Lag B'Omer, or on Rosh Chodesh, which is the beginning of each Jewish month.
Those opting for the popular Saturday night wedding should keep in mind the hour of sundown, which signals the end of Shabbat. In June, for example, sundown can occur as late as 9 p.m.
It has long been a tradition that the bride-to-be, and the groom as well, should immerse in the mikveh, or ritual bath, prior to the wedding. Spiritually, this ritual immersion is said to cleanse sin and return one to the primal source of all waters: the river that flowed from Eden.
This tradition was originally meant to honor the groom-to-be. The public celebration of his pending nuptials may begin with his (or today, the couple's) being called to the Torah on a Sabbath before the wedding. In some synagogues, the congregants will shower the couple with raisins, nuts or (soft!) candies, in a symbolic wish for a sweet life together.
*Kabbalat Panim ("Welcoming the Faces")
This ritual, performed on the wedding day shortly before the ceremony, traditionally consists of two distinct gatherings. Female and male guests go to separate rooms, where they entertain the bride and groom with singing, speeches or other merriment.
The ketubah is a document that spells out the rights and obligations of the groom to the bride according to Jewish law. It is traditionally written in Aramaic and signed by two witnesses. Many Hebrew and English variations are now available with "modernized" text; often, the bride and groom choose to sign the ketubah in addition to the witnesses.
During the wedding ceremony, the ketubah is given to the bride, and is never supposed to leave her possession.
*Bedeken Di Kalle ("Veiling the Bride")
Traditionally, the groom will gaze upon his bride-to-be before lowering her veil, thus avoiding the deception perpetrated upon Jacob, who was tricked into marrying a veiled Leah, instead of his beloved Rachel. Before the veil is lowered, the rabbi recites a blessing over the bride. Once the groom has lowered the veil, the ceremony can begin.
In talmudic terminology, a wedding under a chuppah, or canopy, represents the coming of a woman into the legal domain of her husband.
In today's union, however, the chuppah has taken on other meanings. The canopy, which is supported by four posts, symbolizes the couple's future home. It is considered an honor to be asked to support one of the four posts.
Likewise, it reminds the couple of their connections to (and dependence upon) friends and acquaintances, such as those who support the four corners of the canopy during the ceremony.
In traditional weddings, the bride walks a number of times (usually seven, but sometimes three) around the groom. In modern ceremonies, the bride and groom may choose to take turns circling one another, making for an enchanting and powerful piece of symbolic imagery, of intertwining.
Traditionally the wedding vow is recited only by the groom: Harey at mekudeshet…("Behold, you are consecrated unto me…"). In egalitarianizing the ceremony, the bride will choose to recite an appropriate passage to the groom as well.
*Breaking the Glass
The broken glass, at a time of greatest joy, reminds us that all joys are fleeting, that happiness is fragile and must therefore be guarded.
*Yichud ("Alone Together")
After the ceremony is completed, the couple will traditionally retire for a few minutes of privacy, and to break their fast. Once used to consummate the marriage, today's yichud remains a potent symbol of the newly formed couple's togetherness — it is their first chance to be alone as husband and wife; to affirm, in privacy, their newly forged identity.
*Sheva Brachot ("Seven Wedding Blessings")
Comprising most of the wedding liturgy, these blessings praise God and creation; they place the couple within the unfolding history of Jewish existence, and they call for gladness and delight at the couple's coming together.