In my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, Samuel Feldman married the love of his life, Abigail Cohen, in May of 1935. His two best friends, John Welles and Claude Willoughby, stood for Sam as his best men. The occasion brought the three friends together after a long separation due to emotional trauma Claude had endured during their college years. John and Claude had enjoyed Sam’s Jewish heritage during Chanukkah, but their participation in Sam and Babby’s wedding would draw them in even closer. It was unlike anything John and Claude had ever experienced.
The signing of the ketubah was the first ritual to involve John and Claude. An ancient document, the ketubah is a marriage contract of sorts that specifies the groom’s commitments to the bride. It is signed by two appointed Jewish witnesses who must not be family members related to the bride and groom by blood. Scandal of scandals: neither John nor Sam was Jewish. As readers will find upon publication of my novel, the lovely Abigail Cohen was one for breaking tradition. She knew how much Sam’s two best friends meant to him. In the eyes of the bride and groom, they were family, and therefore they had the honor of signing the marriage contract. This small detail would make the newlyweds ketubah, a work of art in itself to be framed and hung in their new home, that much more meaningful.
The second ritual, called the badeken, happens right after the witnesses sign the ketubah. The badeken is when the groom covers the bride’s face with her veil. Different sources cite different accounts in the Bible as the reason for this with one explanation claiming it had to do with Rivkah (Rebecca) veiling herself when she first saw Yitzchak (Isaac), another said it was in reference to the heavily veiled Leah during her marriage to Yaakov (Jacob), and another said it was a combination of both incidents. The badeken ceremony can be quite emotional as the bride and groom may not have seen each other for twenty-four hours or as long as one week until this moment.
At this point, the wedding party enters the main ceremony where all the guests are seated. They proceed toward the focal point of the ceremony: the chuppah. I’ll direct you to The Hoopla About Chuppahs to find out how they figure in the Jewish wedding ceremony.
While beneath the chuppah, the bride circles the groom seven times. This beautiful ritual is reminiscent of the Israelites seven trips around the walls of Jericho. On completing the seventh lap, a miracle occurred when the walls of the city tumbled down, and the Israelites were able to capture the city. Every man is like the city of Jericho with a wall built around his heart. Men are often taught to hide their feelings, portray an exterior of impenetrability, and appear as if they have it all figured out. These elaborate defenses hide any sign of weakness or vulnerability as well as guard their deepest secret: they are sensitive and humble, simple and soft inside.
Along comes the wise woman who can pierce this defensive wall by surrounding her husband with the protective atmosphere of her love. She envelops him with affection, reassures him that he is her anchor, her center, and the focal point of her life. By doing so, he feels safe and comfortable, and the walls protecting his heart tumble down for her.
Two cups of wine are used during the wedding ceremony. The first cup accompanies the betrothal blessings and is recited by the rabbi. Afterward the reciting, the couple drinks from the cup. The betrothal blessings express the resolve of the groom and bride to create a Jewish home dedicated to Adonai and the wellbeing of all humanity.
A Jewish marriage becomes official when the groom gives an object of value to the bride. Traditionally, this is done with a ring that is totally plain without stones or marks. It is hoped that the marriage will be one of simple beauty the same as the ring. This is another place where I had my characters break with tradition ever so slightly. Sam’s father, Ezra, was a jeweler of unparalleled skill, and for the wedding of his youngest son, he created a wedding band with his blessing hand carved into the gold.
Upon exchanging of the rings, the couple declares their betrothal to each other. The words “by this ring you are consecrated to me according to the Law of Moses and Israel” form the essence of the marriage service. The ring, an unbroken circle, symbolizes the eternal nature of the marriage covenant. Then the ketubah is read and given to the groom to hand to his bride. She holds on to it for all the days of their marriage as it is her property and has the standing of a legally binding agreement.
The Sheva Brachot, or Seven Blessings, are then recited over the second cup of wine by the rabbi, cantor, or other people wishing to honor the happy couple. These ancient blessings place the bride and groom into a wider social and sacred setting. After these blessings, the bride and groom share a second cup of wine.
The most familiar tradition in a Jewish wedding is the breaking of a glass by the groom. This act concludes the ceremony and signals the guests to shout Mazel Tov, cheer, dance, and start partying. Some of the explanations behind the smashing of the glass include:
- To show that life holds sorrow as well as joy
- A reminder that marriage will change your life forever
- Symbolizes the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem approximately 2000 years ago
- It’s a break with the past, and the marriage will last as long as the glass remains broken
- Symbolizes what is broken in society
- A superstition that the loud noise will drive away evil spirits
- It’s a time to focus prayers and energies on a specific brokenness that needs repaired
- A hope that the couple’s happiness will be as plentiful as the shards of glass or their children as numerous as the shards of glass
- It’s a representation of the fragility of human relationships
The last part of the service occurs when the newlyweds separate from where the ceremony took place. During the yichud, one of the most intimate and private parts of the day, the bride and groom are required to have time alone away from family and guests to reflect on their marriage. In times past, the marriage would have been consummated during the yichud. Afterward, the new couple would join the party.