In Sickness and in Taffeta

As a woman prepares to say "I do," her friends prepare to stand by her side in purple puffy dresses and lavender dyed shoes. In sickness and in health, in velour and in taffeta, in chartreuse and in lemon. As her bridesmaids, they will participate in a tradition that may be as old as Judaism itself.

There are several theories behind the inclusion of bridesmaids in a Jewish wedding ceremony. According to halacha, the ketubah must be signed by two witnesses, both observant males over the age of 13 who are unrelated to the couple. These witnesses, often close friends of the groom, may then go on to act as groomsmen during the wedding ceremony. In time, women also brought their own attendants, or bridesmaids, to stand by their side under the chuppah. In today’s more liberal weddings, bridesmaids may also act as official witnesses.

It is also believed the angels Michael and Gabriel attended the wedding of Adam and Eve as royal escorts or shoshvinim. In that tradition, a bride and groom each choose two shoshvinim to act as their left and right hands during the wedding ceremony and throughout their marriage. Today, bridesmaids carry on that shoshvinim tradition, spiritually and emotionally escorting the bride through every stage of the wedding process.

A bride looks to her right-hand woman often during the prewedding months.

"My bridesmaid, Morgan, was so thoughtful and so selfless and really put herself out," said newlywed Rachel Hoisman, who married husband, Danny, on Aug. 26 at Sephardic Temple Tiffereth Israel. "She really took the time to think about what I was going through during all the planning."

Tovah Reiss, who will marry fiancé Scott Kramer on Nov. 22, found her eight bridesmaids to be invaluable during her engagement.

"They threw me the most wonderful shower and bachelorette party, all of my out-of-town bridesmaids flew to L.A. to help out at least once this year," she said, "and they just keep calling to check in and ask what they can do."

Reiss’ sister-in-law designed the shawls the bridesmaids will wear under the chuppah next week, and along with Reiss’ sister, designed Kramer and Reiss’ ketubah.

"With everything my bridesmaids have done for me, I can honestly say I feel like I have been treated like a queen," Reiss said.

As she should be. Jewish tradition likens the bride and groom to a king and queen, and it is both an honor and an obligation to treat the couple like royalty. During the kabbalat panim, or precermony reception, the bride is seated in a "throne," surrounded by her bridesmaids, as the guests greet her with praise. During the ceremony, the procession of identically dressed women who precede the bride down the aisle is reminiscent of a royal entourage arriving ahead of their royalty’s grand entrance. During the reception, the bridesmaids are called upon like court jesters to entertain the newlyweds. According to the Talmud, whoever gladdens the chatan (groom) and kallah (bride) is "as if he rebuilt one of the ruins of Jerusalem." At many Orthodox wedding parties, bridesmaids bring "shtick" like elaborate masks and flower leis; they perform songs, jokes, skits and even magic tricks. Some bridesmaids fulfill this mitzvah by simply ensuring that the bride is having fun.

"My bridesmaids came up and danced for me, and with me," said Hoisman, 33, whose Orthodox wedding entailed separate gender dancing. "All the dancing and celebrating with my friends — it was really great."

While the bridesmaids try to treat their bride like a queen, today’s brides try to treat their friends like more than ladies-in-waiting.

"I want to avoid being Bridezilla," said Marni Feenberg, who will be wed at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills in June. "I asked my friends to be my bridesmaids because I want them next to me, that’s what’s important."

According to Bridesmaid101.Com, bridesmaids’ duties have grown to include scouting wedding locations, addressing invitations, ordering favors, shopping for the wedding dress, planning a bridal shower and a bachelorette party. On the wedding day, the bridesmaids should assist the bride with her dress, makeup and hair, seat guests, provide moral support and bring an emergency kit with bobby pins, contact solution and needles and thread. But calendar and financial challenges have led women to scale back on these nuptial demands.

"Once upon a time, bridesmaids did bring the emergency bobby pins, they were involved in all the planning, but today women are really busy with their own jobs and lives, so you just hope they remember to show up at the rehearsal," said Hollywood Hills resident Hoisman, whose six bridesmaids helped with a bachelorette party, but not with picking flowers, selecting a wedding dress or making party favors.

Being a bridesmaid often comes with a hefty price tag. Showers and bachelorette parties, shower gifts and wedding gifts, travel, hotel, dress, shoes, makeup and hair sessions — being a bridesmaid is a costly commitment. To help lower the costs, brides are starting to ease their bridesmaid expectations.

The attendants may still appear like a matching royal entourage, but their dresses are both affordable and practical. Hoisman’s bridesmaids wore Nicole Miller blush pink silk skirts and cream-colored twin sets.

"After the wedding, the girls could shorten the skirt and wear it to a cocktail party or even shul," said Hoisman, who owns her own real estate development company.

Reiss’ bridesmaids bought matching dresses, but could select their own shoes.

"They all have different money situations. One of my friends will probably buy a $500 pair of Jimmy Choos while another will spend less than $50," said Reiss, 24, who hired two Mac makeup artists to work with the women on the wedding day. "They can wear their hair however they want and their makeup is my treat," Reiss said.

Feenberg, a manager with Fox Music, decided to give her five bridesmaids an even bigger break.

"My bridesmaids can pick their own dresses, it can be something they have in their closet or something new, as long as it’s long and black," said Feenberg, a Woodland Hills resident. "After being a bridesmaid four times and buying dresses I’ll never wear again, I didn’t want my friends to have to bear that same kind of expense."

In fact, these brides are the ones spending money. As a token of their appreciation for their friends’ support, both Reiss and Hoisman bought their bridesmaids jewelry. Hoisman’s bridesmaids received tourmaline stud earrings from Saks Fifth Avenue, and Reiss’ will receive sterling silver necklaces from Tiffany’s. So the brides are now giving their bridesmaids the royal treatment.

And so it seems the Jewish bridesmaid is becoming less about tasks, duties and matching nail polish and more about friendship. These brides truly appreciate the friends who stand by their side, not just at a shower, during a dress fitting or under the chuppah, but at all times.

"All of my bridesmaids are very special people in my life, and it was important to have them as a part of my wedding," Hoisman said.

Like Michael and Gabriel, Reiss’ bridesmaids are her cherished royal escorts.

"My bridesmaids are my closest, nearest and dearest best friends," said Reiss, who is the first of her friends to get married. "They’re my college roommates, my oldest childhood friend, my overnight-camp friend, my sister and my sister-in-law. And I couldn’t imagine them not being there every step of the way."