Break the Glass and Say Mazal Tov!

What’s the first thing you think of when someone says Jewish wedding? Flower-strewn canopies? Overdone prime rib? Viennese dessert tables? Grooms stomping on the stemware? All of these customs are beloved traditions—okay, maybe the overdone meat isn’t so beloved—and tradition is very important at a Jewish wedding.

Marriage is so significant in Judaism that a famous Talmudic story describes matchmaking as God’s primary occupation after Creation. Celibacy is considered unnatural, and the formal marriage contract, the ketubah, recognizes a husband’s sexual responsibilities to his wife.

Traditions vary among different Jewish groups—Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative; Ashkenazim and Sephardim; Jews from different countries; and lately, at interfaith and same-sex weddings. Nowadays, brides and grooms feel free to choose traditions from different sources to enhance their marriage celebrations. Here are some to consider:

The Chuppah

The chuppah, or wedding canopy, graces all Jewish weddings and most interfaith ones as well. This ancient tradition dates back to the nomadic days in the desert, and symbolizes the couple’s entering a sanctified space and the home they will build together.  Since there are no specific requirements as to size or shape, you can make the chuppah as personal and idiosyncratic as you like. Flowers, Grandma’s lace tablecloth, crocheted shawls—anything goes as long as it’s meaningful to the couple.

Breaking the Glass

The groom’s stepping on a wineglass is the ultimate symbol of a Jewish wedding, but why do we do it? It all depends on whom you ask. It may be a symbol of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, or it may be a reminder that life holds sorrow and destruction as well as joy. It may symbolize the breaking of the hymen as a virgin bride becomes a wife, or the sound of the glass breaking may drive away evil spirits. Whatever it means, it’s always a signal to shout “Mazal Tov!” and get the party underway.

Circling

Although the tradition of the bride circling the groom under the chuppah seven times has always been part of traditional ceremonies, it’s becoming more popular at all weddings. The bride’s rotations represent the sheva brachot, the seven wedding blessings, and the seven days of Creation. The circling also demonstrates that the groom is the center of her world. For more independent brides, an equivalent circling by the groom can make a similar point. The trick is not to get so dizzy that you lose your balance—a real problem for traditional brides who fast on their wedding day.

The Ketubah

Jewish weddings depend on the ketubah, the legal contract, without which there is no marriage. This document spells out the groom’s responsibilities and traditionally is signed by the groom, the rabbi, and two male witnesses before the ceremony. In more liberal circles,  the bride may also sign, along with female witnesses. Ketubot are often lavishly decorated with beautiful calligraphy, and some couples add personal text. Lately, the ketubah has acted as a pre-nuptial agreement, a role that it has longed played in Jewish society.

Henna, a Tradition from India

Jews in India have borrowed the Mendhi ceremony from their neighbors to incorporate into their wedding celebrations. On the night before the big event, in what sounds like a fun version of a bachelorette party, women relatives and friends decorate the bride’s hands with henna, hang flowers from her hair for happiness, and feed her sweets for a sweet new life.

Image courtesy of Bonnie Bogle.

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