Understanding marriage ceremony’s customs reveals hidden meanings


Years ago, long before I was ordained, I asked my friend Rabbi Larry Goldmark where he saw God. His response: “I see God when I marry a couple. The bride sees the groom; the groom sees the bride; but I see God standing in between them.” At the time, I thought it was a standard and hollow “rabbinic” answer, but years later, when I officiated my first wedding, I learned that no words were ever truer.

There is something truly divine about the wedding ceremony. A palpable feeling exists in the room — and especially under the chuppah — that is beyond words. But I have learned in counseling many couples that the experience of the ceremony is significantly deepened as the ritual becomes more fully understood, its hidden meanings revealed. 

What are some of those meanings? Why and how does this ceremony move us to the core of our souls? How should we prepare and what are the decisions that need to be made in order to make the wedding the most meaningful experience possible for the couple?

Each ritualized part of the wedding plays a part in deepening the effect of the ceremony. Going through each part of the wedding is good not only for a couple about to be married, but for all of us who strive to deepen the moments of our lives. It is also important to recognize that all marriages are “interfaith” — no two people come to the marriage with the exact same relationship with God, and so each wedding ceremony must be personalized for the couple. Even the required traditional elements of Jewish weddings — the ketubah, exchange of rings and yichud — can have different traditions or variances that are reflective of the couple.

The ketubah

This is the beginning of the ritual. A concretized manifestation of a couple’s commitment, the action of executing this contract takes their love and locks it into the physical world. The traditional text is “legalese” — like a mortgage agreement making a new homeowner consciously aware of his or her commitment — but the ketubah also helps the couple understand at a deep psychological level that their love is now becoming physically manifest, and this union is actually real. It is the first step in truly knowing that they will be together forever. Although the traditional text is standard and is a contractual obligation, variations abound for the English aspect that can be reflective of the couple’s personality. The amount of accompanying art that is available for ketubot is astounding, often with subtle meanings in the symbols the artist includes. I make it a point to spend time with each couple as they pick their ketubah so that they understand the deeper meanings of the artwork; and many couples even have artists create a personalized piece just for their wedding, filled with images that are especially meaningful to them.

The chuppah

Although it is traditional to have the posts of the chuppah held by four friends, it has also become customary in many communities to have a free-standing structure. What is important is to realize that the chuppah is a recapitulation of the Garden of Eden, with the bride and groom being like Adam and Eve. It needs to be temporary, so that the couple always remember that everything in the physical world is temporary, but their love is eternal. It is the tallit hanging above them that reminds them that their love is truly divine, and it is a beautiful custom for it to be the tallit of the groom, with new tzitzit that have been tied by the bride. Many brides are scared that the knot-tying is too difficult, but there are many simple instructions, and it creates an even more sacred space when the tallit is an expression of their partnership.

The circling

As the couple enter the chuppah, often the bride circles the groom seven times. Seven is the number of “wholeness” (Shabbat); and the circling is a physical demonstration of the bride spiritually protecting the groom. In many egalitarian communities, it has become customary to demonstrate a mutual protection by the bride circling the groom three times, the groom circling her three times, and then the pair circling each other. 

The wine

Once under the chuppah, the couple drink their first of two glasses of wine under the chuppah: a symbol of partnership. God makes the grapes, but we make them into wine. We need God and vice versa, as the bride and groom need each other. I have found that it is a wonderful way to unify the families if the bride’s family gifts one Kiddush Cup for under the chuppah, and the groom’s family gifts the other. 

Vows and rings

Although vows are not a part of the traditional ceremony, many brides have grown up looking forward to saying, “I do.” The best time to do this is immediately before the exchange of rings. Whether the couple are asked the standard questions that are typically found in a secular or non-Jewish wedding, or they make statements that they have written, it can be a beautiful addition to the ceremony. A couple need to determine if this would serve them, or if they are fulfilled with the traditional ring exchange and words of “with this ring,” etc. The exchange of rings is another physical manifestation of their love — a love without beginning or end that has existed before they were even born.

The Seven Blessings

The Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings), which all praise God and the sanctity of the relationship, are a wonderful time to really personalize the ceremony. There are multiple options. One is to have the rabbi say all 14 statements (seven in Hebrew and their English translations) or the couple could honor family or friends by having them recite some of these blessings. The key is to make sure that the participants know their time and words well in advance of the actual ceremony so that it is a smooth transition between parties. 

The couple can also choose to have the groom under the bride’s veil during this time; wrapped in the rabbi’s tallit; and even have their hands bound together with tefillin (a medieval custom). Any or all of these can be meaningful expressions of the personalized service, and it is important for the couple to make these decisions consciously. It is often an extremely powerful and memorable part of the ceremony for the couple to be blessed by friends and family while they are in their own “tent” under her veil and wrapped in the tallit.

Breaking the glass

There are many interpretations of the breaking of the glass, and often we are taught that it is to temper our joy with a remembrance of the destruction of the Temple. The interpretation that I most appreciate is that the breaking of the glass is an explosion of their love together as it explodes into the world. Grooms: Make sure that you hit the glass with the heel of your foot.There have been more cases than anyone wants to admit of a groom trying to break it with the ball of his foot and hurting himself.

Yichud

One of the most underappreciated parts of the ceremony (in the less-observant world) is yichud. Immediately after the breaking of the glass, the couple are to go to a private chamber, with a shomer or guardian outside to make sure no one comes in. There, they feed and nurture each other. Some rabbis will say that a couple must make love at this time, but the reality is that just spending private intimate time together for a few moments is the culmination and realization of the ceremony. After months of planning, the wedding and reception go by so quickly, and these few moments are consistently some that couples remember forever. It is more important than most couples recognize initially, and richly beautiful as the couple realize that they are really married.

How to do each of these ritualistic parts of the ceremony is a choice that the couple make through multiple dialogues with their rabbi and each other as they prepare for the wedding. The discussions that arise as they decide each part start to help them really learn how to negotiate their partnership and, with the rabbi’s guidance, can become models on how to negotiate other dialogues in the future.

I always remind couples leading up to their ceremonies: This is your wedding. It needs to be a reflection of your love and commitment. By doing this ceremony, you are literally changing the world, so know fully what you are actually doing in each step. Know the meanings of what you do, and bring a consciousness and depth to the experience; not only will it be more meaningful for you, but in so doing, you will directly affect the lives of those you love who have come to celebrate this special day with you.

May we all be blessed to know the meanings and joys of the wedding ritual in every moment of our lives, and always remember that we are not only in partnership with our spouse, but that God is the glue that binds our love together.

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of Temple Ner Simcha (nersimcha.org), and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together.” He can be reached at rabbibarclay@aol.com.