Guide to Jewish Wedding Spirituality

Spiritual and Egalitarian Customizing Options

Judaism don't have the rubric of "will you, Jane, take Randolph as your lawfully wedded husband, etc." A Jewish wedding is a decision to work on living with someone in a context of committed holiness. Those who desire more mutuality in your ritual than the patriarchal norm, might appreciate the following options:

1. Breaking the Glass: A mutual-breaking signifies the importance of remembering that with the Temple destroyed, the cruelty of animal sacrifice has ended, and an era of finding ever new ways of communicating effectively with God and each other has begun. Another nice interpretation is that the glass is like an eggshell, breaking it symbolizes both of you breaking through your lives as single people into the joy of marriage. Traditionally, breaking the glass signifies a measure of sadness over the destruction of the Temple by the Romans long ago. Some say the man breaking the class signified the anticipated breaking of the hymen. 

2. Circling Each Other: A lovely Jewish tradition is where the bride circles the groom three or seven times. So, why not each other? Before exchanging vows, you might encircle each other, holding the each other's ring before the vows in the palm of your hand to infuse it with even more spirit. One person stands still while the other person circles them, trying to keep your eyes connected - it's fun and deep. You will be braiding your souls together with each turn, eyes locked in an ever deepening manifestation of our commitment. The circles have added meaning: Each of seven turns represents one of the points that make up the Tree of Life in Jewish mysticism. 

3. The Egalitarian Ketubah. We held our ketubah signing under the huppah after the eirusin and before the nessuin sections of our wedding. We consciously called up one female and one male witness to affirm the principle of equality of the genders that we believe must be central to a Judaism which understands the evolving nature of justice.

It is considered an honor to read the ketubah aloud at a Jewish wedding, we conferred this honor a my friend and mentor. She read it through her remarkable spirit such that the very words danced into the air with meaning. A practical detail of successful ritual is to pre-screen those who will have public roles for the heart and persona dramatis that will most enrich the occasion.

4. Lead Rather than Follow.  Re-appropriate the old custom of the bride and groom leading the family and guests in toward the huppah. No giving away of the bride need occur, parents, followed by children from previous marriages, their partners and grandchildren, sisters and brothers-in-law, etc. can be led in to take front row, inner-circle of the couples' lives seats and soak in the experience in comfort.

5. Borrow from Jewish Meditation. For those who elect a processional, Rabbi Shefa Gold's chant (available on her cds) affords a perfect spirit of welcome.

Barukh ha bah, brukhah ha ba-ah, n'vareykh et hatan v' kallah.
Blessings on he who comes, blessings on she who comes;
Let us bless the groom and the bride

Barukh ha bah, brukhah ha ba-ah, n'vareikh et ha kehillah.
Blessings on he who comes, blessings on she who comes;
Let us bless the community.

6. It is customary to visit the grave of parent(s) if one or both have passed on before one's wedding and to speak your heart to them and ask for their blessing. My parents, thank God, are very much alive, as is my hubbatzin (husband of a rabbi) Barry's mom. His father died years back and South Africa is a ways to go to communicate with the dead. Barry wrote a letter to his father that he read aloud at a creative Shabbat service held at a friends home for our wedding weekend. He also dedicated the ark this friend made for us as a wedding present, to house our Torah. A sense of receiving his father's blessing pervaded our wedding and I went to his grave to thank him for creating such a fine son when we finally were able to get to South Africa a year later.

8. To give one's new life the best possible chance, it is customary to work on teshuvah, relationship healing, with anyone in your world with whom you feel there is residual or active negative energy. If someone has died and the negativity was not yet resolved, there are prayers to recite a such a person's grave that can lead to healing from this breach. The more teshuvah is done during the engagement year, the more healthy a self and sphere of influence one brings into a marriage. Plus the habit of teshuvah is a great gift in the life of a couple. Jewish South Africans have a Yiddish expression for such frictions, furribles, so do your best to clear up any you can discern.

7. Egalitarian Vows

Traditional ketubah vows have a woman being acquired by the male (no matter what the English says). Here's a way around that: For a couple to become hevruta, "study partners" with each other, is a very holy thing. Building upon our study of the traditional wedding vow for a man and the Hosea text sometimes given to women to say in response to the man at weddings, we created the following interpretive vow which has subsequently been selected by many couples' for their ceremonies. The Hosea text is also recited daily by Jews who use tefillin, which is a ritual of commitment to God. I have alter one word of the traditional vow formula - saying minhagei instead of dat, since most Jewish marriages performed today are probably not done within a full Jewish legal framework.

I encourage you to study each verse with your life partner talk and to about what it means to each of you. During a wedding, each of you takes a turn reciting what follows after placing the ring on your partner's index finger, and afterward it is transferred to the wedding ring finger:

Harai at [F] atah [M] Behold, you are made

m'kudeshset li [F] m'kudash li [M] holy to me

b'tah-ba-at zo through this symbol

k'minhagei am Yisrael. in accordance with the customs of the Jewish people:

V'eirastikh li l'olam I commit myself on every level.

V'eirastikh li b'tzedek I commit to share both challenges and resources

U'v'mishpat To will try my best to be just

U'v'khessed I will flow lovingkindness your way without judgement

U'v'rakhamim I want to hear your pain, your joy, to understand you

v'eirastikh li b'emunah I will be faithful to you

v'yahdaht et Adonai. So that you will know God.

The Historical Model

The three ancient formal components of a Jewish wedding still peek through the rituals of today. Shidduhim, the making of a shidduh, a "match", today refers to all the various ways of helping someone search for their beshert, "intended." In times gone by, establishing the beshert resulted as in a pre-marital contract of commitment, which, in some regions and periods of history, was established from birth. Such a contract would contain things such as withdrawal penalties and statements assigning obligations on the part of the families and partners. While such formal shidduhim exist in a small part of the spectrum today, help in finding a beshert is something everyone can offer to friends and family.

For reasons of companionship and progeny, marriage is fully encouraged in Judaism. However, it is not required. The Torah specifically uses the term "if" a person marries, not "when". It is interesting to note that the re-emergence of pre-nuptial agreements may well have authentic roots either in early shidduh contracts, or the betrothal practice called tanaiim, "dependent" clauses of understanding written a signed as part of the marriage year process. We'll reclaim a strong spiritual connection to this practice later in the chapter.

Following the shidduh, is eirusin, a "betrothal" ritual. Eirusin was once a ritual performed as much as twelve months before a couple would live together and did not involve huppah. Eirusin consists of a betrothal blessing which stipulates outside relationships that are now forbidden to them, and the blessings said over a cup of wine, the giving from the man to the woman of an object valued at the worth of an ancient currency called a perutah (today usually a solid gold band) and the man's saying: hah-rey at m'kudeshet li b'tah-bah-aht zo k'dat Mosheh v'Yisrael, "Behold you are made holy to me with this symbol according to the laws of Moses and Israel."

Perhaps a year or less after the betrothal ritual, then the Jewish wedding process would be completed under a huppah with a ritual called nessuin. Now there would be chanted seven blessings for the joy of having been created, and wishes for happiness, prosperity, progeny, connection to Zion, deeds of lovingkindness and community. (Visit Anita Diamant's excellent New Jewish Wedding Book for diverse translations and interpretations.) Then the couple would be sent off for their presumed first experience of being alone together ever for any amount of time at all, termed yihud, "unity".

Later, the Talmud records, the breaking of a glass was added, originally intended to startle some overly celebratory guests. Despite this explanation, many speculate this practice may have had origins as diverse as the common model for sealing of an oath by breaking a glass in the fireplace, the anticipated breaking of the hymen, or Jewish sources also suggest it is a way of adding a tincture of appropriate sadness to all rituals since the destruction of the Temple.

As the centuries have progressed, eirusin and nessuin became one unified wedding ritual. Psalm verses and songs that can be sung during the ceremony have been added, as it is customary to embroider a mitzvah with beautiful song, clothes, delicious food, etc. In some communities an intellectually interesting homily, or meaningful story from a guest or clergy person is also offered at the time of the huppah ritual.

The Wedding Contract

The wedding contract is now known as a ketubah and is signed on the wedding day either publicly, or privately and then held aloft and read aloud during the wedding ritual. This requires the signature of two independent Jewish witnesses (guests or clergy, not immediate family). A ketubah generally comprises halahic, Jewish "legal" phrases, formal Hebrew names and specifies the city and country where the ritual was help. Ketubot often contain language stipulating the couples' philosophical orientation and even duties in creating a home together.

Different templates for ketubot abound within the various denominations and couples need to review and select among them in advance to ensure that the ketubah chosen will reflect what the pair really intend to contract for with each other, or alternatively, to commission a professional ketubah artist. In my experience, the Hebrew, or the more traditional Aramaic on pre-printed ketubot do not always match the translations that appear on them as well. Have a qualified Hebrew reader review the ketubah to which you are drawn, to ensure its accuracy. Depending on your part of the spectrum, it will also be important to obtain rabbinic consultation regarding content issues so that your ketubah will be considered valid within your religious community.

It is not presently possible to use a ketubah to create an intermarriage or same sex marriage that will be regarded as valid throughout the entire spectrum of Judaism. Still, the creation of a contract of marriage can be a valuable process to undertake as a creative spiritual process. Civil marriage documents must also be filed, this are binding for conventional as well as intermarriages. States vary on this matter regarding same sex marriages, check with your state authorities to be certain of your legal standing. Proxies for health care and financial decisions are essential additions in some states and countries to ensure that a same sex partner will have the rights automatically assigned when a woman and man marry each other.

Do you want to have a Tisch?
No, I'm not referring to marrying a member of the generous Tishman family. Tisch is Yiddish for "table". This is a ritual where, before the formal ceremony, each member of the couple has a separate reception room. There the hors d'oeuvres can be found or light refreshments to stave off hunger pangs before the big reception. In each room one side of the familyand guests gather to tell humorous or remarkable stories about the member of the marrying couple they have known longest and to offer wishes and blessings.

Some follow a tradition of the person about to be married giving a scholarly teaching at this time. Roasting is common, and some communities interrupt the person's very serious, planned teaching with folk songs that pick up in a silly way on the theme of their "scholarly" lecture. This all becomes a time of loosening up after travel, of tightening the circle of intimacy, of sharing stories that bind together this kehillah, "community" of the moment in shared history.

1. Appoint an trusty friend or relative as organizer for each tisch. Their job is to make sure the room set-up is finalized, to pre-seed shills in the audience who are prepared to speak, and work with or be song-meisters to punctuate the experience with joyful and humorous song.

2. Plan an hour for this, fifteen minutes for folks to hang up their coats, find the right room, get settled, half an hour for the festivities, and fifteen minutes for them to move on to the next ritual space and those being feted to re-center.

3. Alternatively, you might do as we did, and interrupt the wedding reception with a pair of friends who climb on stage to MC a roasting/testimony to you as individuals and a couple. This is a good time to take a page from the lives of our Russian friends, invite everyone to formulate a toast and offer it, along with a bit of a story or a blessing. If too many people cue up, alternate dancing and sharing.

4. Provide name tags, color-coded for your friends and which side of the family. Many more people will talk to each other more freely when the initial barrier and embarrassment of establishing identification has been set aside.

Forgiving Family Dynamics

Nothing disrupts well-laid plans like the family frictions that inevitably surround life-cycle events. Whenever possible, I gather the inner circle of the wedding family together in one of their hotel rooms before the formal proceedings and say:

It is inevitable that some feelings have been hurt during this stressful time leading up to this ritual. You may be holding this somewhere in your body, perhaps it feels like an elephant on your shoulders, a needle in your back, a fist in your heart. This bowl of water represents Miriam's well, and you each are holding her cup of new spiritual energy, pure spring water representing the intention of restoring lovingkindness.

If you have such a painful place please find it. Take your turn sharing in this circle something to the effect that: "It hurt so much when "x", did or said, "y". Or if you have fears that you've hurt someone, say "when I did ‘‘x', I was feeling ‘y' and hope I didn't ‘‘z'" Then, without anyone responding, take a sip from your Miriam's cup and pour the rest of its contents back into the well.

It may also be that some of your family members decided not to attend the wedding. This ritual is a good place to speak as though that person is present. To say how you feel, what you wish, and to bless that person to evolve on their issue or problem.

One of the mystical names for God is Ma'yan Raz, "Well of Mystery." Let the mystical process of this ritual lift the weight of your hurt such that you can enter this special day with a fully open heart and soul, wishing only joy to come to this new couple about to be blessed under the huppah.

If it still hurts in a few weeks, initiate a teshuvah conversation about it. For now, as you speak, sip and pour, your intention might be "I take this hurt and bless it to transform into a chance to learn more about each other, to have a closer, safer family, ever more full of love."