The Jewish wedding ceremony is richly layered in centuries of tradition, Jewish law, spiritual teachings, and customs from communities around the world. Here we’ve laid out the basic structure of the traditional Jewish wedding, with some of the most widely-accepted interpretations of the parts of the ceremony. We’ve also included some of the most popular customs and practices that couples have added during the past few decades. If we’ve missed any of your favorite customs or interpretations, feel free to add them in the Comment section.
Greeting the Couple
Traditionally, Jewish wedding celebrations begin with separate receptions for the bride and groom, together called kabalat panim. Many contemporary couples combine the activities of these receptions into one small pre-huppah ceremony attended by only a few family members and friends.
Attending the Bride. At the bride’s reception, referred to in Hebrew as hakhnassat kallah, the bride sits on a specially decorated chair and receives well wishes from her guests.
The Groom’s Table. At the groom’s reception, or chossen’s tish, two traditional documents and one newly-adopted document are signed.
- The Tenaim. The traditional formal agreement between the two families that the bride and groom will marry.
- The Ketubah. This is the wedding contract. In the most traditional of Jewish weddings, the purpose of the ketubah is for the groom to assume his legal and moral obligations to his wife. The groom and two witnesses sign it. Increasingly, couples choose ketubahs that lay out both partners’ obligations to each other, and both partners sign them.
- Prenuptial Agreement. The Prenup is a new agreement, introduced in the 1950s and embraced by a wide spectrum of Jewish communities. It helps ensure that a woman who marries under Jewish law and decides in the future to end the marriage will be able to obtain a divorce under Jewish law. The Conservative movement incorporates this agreement into its standard ketubah through what is called the Lieberman Clause. Modern Orthodox communities generally use a separate prenup form.
Veiling the Bride. Also called bedecken. The groom lowers the veil over the bride’s face. The groom is the person who lowers the veil so that he can make sure that the bride is the person he intends to marry. The practice recalls the Biblical story of Jacob, who was tricked by his father-in-law into marrying the sister of his intended bride.
The Huppah Ceremonies
In a traditional Jewish wedding, the groom puts on a kittel, a white robe, before the festivities move to the huppah. Wearing white, for both the groom and the bride, signifies that for them this day is a new spiritual beginning. The kittel has no pockets, symbolizing that the bride marries the groom for who he is rather than for what he owns. For the same reason, the bride removes her jewelry before the huppah ceremony.
The wedding takes place under a huppah, a canopy that represents the couple’s physical and spiritual home. The huppah is open on all four sides, like the tent of the first Jewish couple, Abraham and Sarah, to associate the couple’s home with the hospitality for which Abraham and Sarah were known. Historically, a bride was escorted from her home to the ceremony while walking under a huppah carried by four huppah-bearers.
The Procession. For a ceremony using a traditional hand-held huppah, the huppah bearers carry the huppah into the ceremony space. Then, as with other modern wedding processions, any special honored guests are escorted to their seats, and the members of the wedding party enter and take their places. The groom is escorted to the huppah by his parents, and the bride is escorted by her parents.
Kiddushin, The Betrothal. When the bride reaches the huppah, she circles the groom seven times, creating the spiritual space that will surround them in marriage. The number of circles can vary. Today, both partners may take turns circling each other to symbolize their mutual obligations to each other. After circling, a bride stands to her groom’s right.
- Opening Blessings.
- Blessing for the First Cup. The rabbi recites a blessing over a cup of wine, and the wedding couple each take a sip. Some couples may pass the cup to their parents or other guests for them to sip.
- The Ring Ceremony. This is the central act of the Jewish wedding ceremony. The groom places the ring on the bride’s right index finger while reciting the following, in Hebrew or his native language: “By this ring you are consecrated to me in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel.” Today, some brides also give the groom a ring at this time, while reciting a similar statement to that of the groom.
- Bride’s Acceptance. Two people must witness that the bride accepts the ring willingly.
Reading the Ketubah
Reading the ketubah is not a formal part of the ceremony, but today most couples incorporate it into the ceremony at this point.
The sheva b’rachot, seven blessings, are recited. These prayers place the couple within God’s continuing act of creation and celebrate the many voices of joy that God created in the world, including the voices of the bride and groom.
Breaking the Glass
The groom smashes a glass on the ground with his foot as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Everyone yells “Mazel tov!”
The newly married couple spends some time in seclusion — at least eight minutes according to strict interpretations of tradition — breaking their wedding-day fast and sharing their first married moments alone together. The bride puts on the jewelry she took off before the huppah ceremony.
For modern couples who do not have a double ring ceremony under the huppah, this is a good time for the bride to present the groom with his wedding ring.
After the yichud, it’s time to join everyone else at the party!