If your idea of a Jewish wedding is a man singing “Tradition” and dancing with a bottle on his head, you may have watched “Fiddler on the Roof” a few too many times. In many ways, modern Jewish weddings are not all that different from any other ceremony.
If you’re the one planning a Jewish wedding, Mazel Tov. You have a lot of different options and you probably want to consult a source a little more comprehensive than us. Consider checking out one of these books: The New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant, The Everything Jewish Wedding Book by Helen Latner or Make Your Own Jewish Wedding by Ana Schwartzman. They’re all available on Amazon. You should also talk to your rabbi or a rabbi as soon as possible. Judaism doesn’t require that you have a rabbi, but your state law probably does, and different congregations have different rules about weddings
Now, if you’ve been invited to a Jewish wedding, you’re probably just wondering what some of these unusual terms are. Many Jewish wedding festivities actually start a few months to a week before the ceremony with an ufruf*. Although it sounds like a Star Trek character, an ufruf is actually a simple ceremony performed at a regular Sabbath service. If the couple is from two different cities, they may choose to hold the ufruf in whichever city they aren’t having the wedding. This lets the other set of parents have a little naches (joy) in showing off the happy couple. Ufrufs are not generally gift giving occasions, so just dress appropriately for synagogue (skirt for women, tie for men) and relax.
Jewish weddings are usually held on Saturday night, after sundown, or on a Sunday. This is because of Jewish laws against certain activities (taking pictures, playing music, etc.) on the Sabbath (Friday night to Saturday night). There is very little about a Jewish ceremony that is required, so depending on how observant the participants are, things may vary.
The day of the wedding may start off with a tish. In a traditional tish the groom attempts to explain the week’s Torah (Bible) portion while other men interrupt and heckle him. Do I need to mention that there’s a lot of drinking going on? Meanwhile, the bride is being entertained by her friends in a separate room. The bride and groom are brought into a third room to sign the ketubah, or wedding contract. The ketubah signing is often a more private ceremony then the wedding itself. Don’t be offended if you aren’t invited to watch this.
The wedding itself takes place under a huppah, or canopy. The huppah can be freestanding, or it can require four huppah holders. Huppah holders do not have to be Jewish and being asked to be a huppah holder is an honor. Don’t worry, it doesn’t require a lot of strength, but you will be standing holding a long pole in front of you for the duration of the ceremony, so dress appropriately.
The first part of the ceremony is actually an engagement ceremony. In the past this ceremony and the wedding were often separated by months or even years – today, not so much. The first thing you notice that may be a little different is “circling.” Traditionally, the bride circles the groom seven times, but many modern couples do a variation on this, either taking turns circling, or circling each other.
After the circling, there will be a blessing over the wine, a sip of the wine, and then the ring ceremony. In a Jewish ceremony, the ring is placed on the bride’s right hand. She usually moves it later. A ring for the guy is not required, but many couples include it. After the ring ceremony comes the actual wedding. This consists of the seven blessings. This is a nice place for the bride and groom to invite others to participate. People comfortable reading Hebrew may be asked to read the blessing in Hebrew, while non-Jewish friends may be asked to read an English translation.
After the seven blessings will come the part you’re probably familiar with, the breaking of the glass. A wine glass (the thinner the better) is placed in a cloth bag or handkerchief, the groom steps on it, and everyone yells “Mazel Tov!” Many modern couples have attempted to break the glass together, and many a modern bride has been unable to dance at her wedding after the groom accidentally stomped on her foot.
After the ceremony, it is traditional for the bride and groom to have 10–20 minutes alone. This is called yichud. It is very bad form to interrupt – in fact, the bride and groom may have asked one or two friends to act as shomer, or guards to prevent you from bugging them while they eat and spend a few minutes reconnecting.
The meal after the wedding is considered a part of the wedding itself, and it’s a requirement that you enjoy yourself, so get ready to party! A couple of things to keep in mind, though: when you sit down at the table, do not start eating. Wait until someone has said the blessing over the bread. Even if you’ve gone out for bacon double cheeseburgers with the bride, it’s very likely that Jewish dietary rules, known as kashrut or kosher, will be followed at the wedding reception. So don’t look for ham sandwiches or ask for butter with your steak and potato.
Jewish wedding dances are a lot of fun. Feel free to join in and enjoy yourself. If you’re a strong guy, you may find yourself being asked to help lift the bride and groom on chairs; this is the part that will probably look a little like Fiddler on the Roof to you.
A few random things to keep in mind: Jews usually don’t bring wedding presents to the ceremony or reception. Today, most couples with non-Jewish guests probably arrange to have a place for you to put your gift, but if you want to look “in the know,” mail it ahead of time. Men are generally asked to cover their heads with a yarmulke or kippah during a Jewish ceremony, even if it isn’t in a synagogue. If you’re a guy, put one on your head as a sign of respect. Many couples have their names and the wedding date embossed on the yarmulke and you can keep it as a keepsake. If the wedding is in a synagogue and you’re wearing a strapless or sleeveless dress, you should bring a sweater or shawl. Not only are synagogues notoriously over air-conditioned, it’s also considered immodest to have bare shoulders. Finally, if the couple (or their parents) is very observant, men and women will be sitting separately during the ceremony and reception. In all likelihood, if this is the case, the bride or groom will have clued you into this before you get there, but if not, just follow along.
Now, as my beloved Bubbie would have said, “Nu? You need more information? Go read a book already. What do I look like, a maven or something? Ach, I need this like I need a potchke in the mouth!”
* Words, in italics are either Yiddish or Hebrew. If you look at other websites or books, you may see different spellings. Don’t let it throw you.