Thursday, December 11, 2008

What happens at a Jewish wedding?

I prepared this document for families anticipating a wedding, and decided to share it here in the hope that you would comment with any thoughts on ways to improve it.

This is not intended to be comprehensive; it is a bare-bones introduction, although it is written to be intelligible for any audience.

What Happens at a traditional Jewish Wedding?

Please note:
1) I mention “parents” several times in the following document, but sometimes circumstances demand that it be a surrogate. I don’t mention surrogates each time in the document, for the sake of brevity, but surrogates are fine.

2) I mention “witnesses” several times in the following document. In Jewish law, a “witness” is an adult Jewish male who observes mitzvot and is not a close relation of the parties involved.

At the start of the wedding
The kallah (bride), along with her mother and the mother of the chatan (groom), greet guests in a specially designated room.

The chatan (groom) stays in another room, with his father and with the father of the kallah. This room is usually called “the chatan’s tish,” meaning “the groom’s table.” Sometimes the chatan presents a small speech, and sometimes the friends of the chatan sing songs of celebration.

There is food in both rooms, but the kallah and chatan do not eat.

Historically, the families of the chatan and kallah would undertake various financial obligations for the wedding and for the couple’s needs. In order to ensure that there were no unresolved financial issues, some time before the wedding the two families would get together, and the father of the chatan and the father of the kallah would confirm before witnesses that there were no outstanding claims. The witnesses would sign a document, “Tenaim,” which would certify that they had seen this confirmation (tenaim = conditions).

Today, most Jews sign this document at the chatan’s tish rather than beforehand; the father’s agree to the Tenaim in front of two witnesses, and the witnesses sign the document.

The mothers of the chatan and kallah generally come in for this as well, and when the Tenaim are complete, they break a plate together. This is meant to indicate that just as a broken plate cannot be reassembled, so one’s word, once broken, cannot be made whole.


Jewish law requires that a husband accept certain responsibilities for his wife’s care, and that he guarantee a sum of money for her in the event of, Gd-forbid, divorce or his death. These responsibilites and guarantees are recorded in a document called a Ketubah (ketubah = written).

We complete the Ketubah at the chatan’s tish; the chatan agrees to all of the responsibilities recorded therein, in front of witnesses who then sign the document.

The Ketubah will be brought to the chuppah when the chatan and kallah go there later.

Depending on the timing, there may be a minyan for minchah at the chatan’s tish before or after the ketubah is completed.


Traditionally, the chatan and kallah do not see each other for a week before the wedding; the first time they meet is after the completion of the ketubah, at the bedecken.

Various sources are brought to explain why we have a bedecken at all, and even what the word bedecken means, but this is what happens: The chatan is escorted by family and friends into the kallah’s room, generally with a lot of music and fanfare.

When the chatan arrives at the kallah’s chair, the kallah’s father offers her a blessing. This is usually the blessing Rebecca’s family gave her before she went to marry Isaac (Genesis 24:60) and the blessing of the kohanim (Numbers 6:24-26). In some families the kallah’s father puts his hands on her head while offering this blessing.

Sometimes the mother of the kallah, and/or the parents of the chatan, may offer a blessing as well, and sometimes the rabbi does so, too.

The chatan then leaves the room, again with music and fanfare. The guests enter the chuppah room, and the families prepare for the chuppah.

Some have the custom of placing a little bit of ash on the chatan’s head before the chuppah, as a way to recall the destruction of the Beit haMikdash (Temple in Jerusalem). The ash is on top of his head, and not visible to others.

Arrival under the Chuppah

The chatan arrives under the chuppah, usually escorted by his parents. He puts on a kittel and/or tallit under the chuppah, depending on family custom.

Someone sings a song, “Mi adir,” when the chatan arrives.

The kallah arrives under the chuppah; in some families the chatan comes out to welcome her.

The kallah circles the chatan 7 times, accompanied by the mothers of the chatan and kallah, and someone sings a song, “Mi ban siach.”

The chatan and kallah then stand facing toward Israel, with the kallah on the right and the chatan on the left. The rabbi, and two designated witnesses, stand facing them.


A cup of wine is filled.

The rabbi recites two blessings on the wine, one for the wine and one for kiddushin, the initiation of marriage. The chatan and kallah answer Amen, and each drinks some of the wine.

In front of witnesses, the chatan produces a ring, shows it to the kallah, certifies that it is his own, recites the words “Harei at mekudeshet li bitaba’at zu k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael (Behold, you are betrothed to me with this ring, in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel),” and places it on the kallah’s index (not ring) finger.

Dvar Torah / Ketubah

At this point, in some weddings, the rabbi or a guest present a brief speech.

Also at this point, in some weddings, someone reads the ketubah aloud.

The chatan then hands the ketubah to the kallah, in front of witnesses. The kallah generally then gives it to someone to store safely for her until after the wedding. The kallah must always, throughout her marriage, know where the ketubah is; if it is lost, a rabbi should immediately write a new document, called a ketubah d’irkisa (“ketubah that was lost”), for her.

A second cup of wine is filled.

Seven blessings are recited, sometimes by the rabbi and sometimes by guests. The person reciting the blessing holds the cup of wine.

The chatan and kallah drink from the cup.

Breaking the glass

The chatan stamps on a glass, breaking it, to remind us of the destruction of the Beit haMikdash. The assembled sing “Im eshkacheich,” a passage from Psalms about remembering Jerusalem.


The guests then dance the chatan and kallah out of the room, to a specially designated room known as the “Yichud room” (yichud = isolation).

Some Jewish legal scholars have argued that the actual moment of marriage takes place when the chatan and kallah are first secluded together; the purpose the Yichud room is to give them that seclusion.

The rabbi and two witnesses inspect the room to ensure that no one is inside, and no one could get in from any means other than the main door. The chatan and kallah enter the room alone and close the door, and the witnesses stand by the closed door to ensure that no one enters for at least ten minutes. After that the witnesses depart, and the chatan and kallah may emerge when they choose.

What to bring

Items the caterer might provide, but you should check to be certain:
A plate to break at the Tenaim (and some provide a special hammer as well!)
Kiddush cups or glasses for the wine under the chuppah
Wine to use under the chuppah
Glass to break under the chuppah

Items you or the rabbi will need to provide:
Tenaim form
Ketubah form

Items you will need to provide:
Kittel and/or tallit
Wedding ring
Joy and celebration!


  1. Much less intimidating than reading R Aryeh Kaplan's MADE IN HEAVEN (which is great, but it's a bit thick).

  2. Nice and concise. Although we used an alternative ceremony (Rachel Adler's Brit Ahuvim, based on partnership law, instead of acquisition law), we had to make a 4-page program to explain all the Jewish bits to the guests, most of whom - even the Jewish ones - had never been to a wedding with the sheva brachot, circling, or ketubah.

  3. Neil, Tzupporah- Thanks! I do go for simplicity in these things.

  4. many details of wedding customs come from the zohar's description of how god "married off" adam and eve. the proof is -- even non jews (in the western world, at least) use many of our customs / procedures.

    another intersting post would be the different (jewish) customs you allude to in this post.

  5. Nicely done and very inclusive. A few points from our 4 (so far) weddings. Our first set of machetunim - the father was from a Yekkish (German-Jewish) background said 'we don't break plates' so we didn't (although of course at the chuppa my son did break the glass).
    My daughter married a Sephardi and we didn't circle the groom at all. In addition they don't do yichud so although the couple did go off by themselves to a room, no witnesses checked or stood there and they did not lock the door (in other words it was not ashkenazi yichud). The third really different thing about that wedding was mesader kiddushin told my daughter to give me the ketuba and that I should take it home with me and she should never have to look at it! I have it in the same drawer where mine is, but somehow it doesn't feel right.

  6. FA-
    Yes... when I have time...

    That's fascinating! I'd be very curious to know the origins of those different practices. The yichud one is particularly interesting - it really comes from a concern for the Rambam's position on how marriage is effected, so I'm surprised to hear of Sephardim who don't do it.
    As far as the ketubah recommendation - if you have any way to contact the mesader, please do so. That sounds like such interesting advice, I'd love to know the source.

  7. Concise description of what goes on, but you've left something out of the Bedecken. The Yiddish word out of the German word bedeckung is "to cover up." I believe that the tradition is that when the choson is brought in front of the kallah he covers her face with a veil. She is then not uncovered again until the chupah is complete, although I have seen it done that the choson checks once quickly under the veil when the kallah arrives at the chupah. Otherwise why call this part of the wedding bedecken?

  8. RH:

    1) no RCA prenupt?

    2) perhaps he told her to give the ketubbah to her mom because it would be an ayin ha-ra to keep it at home?
    (incidentally, the mesader kedushin who married us didn't approve of making the ketubbah into a piece of artwork that people display. )

    3) "so I'm surprised to hear of Sephardim who don't do it"

    i thought that the accepted sephardi minhag is not to do it. those who do it only do so as a result of the ashkenazation of their world.

    i'm surprised you didn't hear about it, as h. ovadia yosef's son got into some trouble last year with his comments on the the practice.

    t. hayyim david halevi, on the other hand, has a more sensitive teshuvah on the matter, but then again he was a very sensitive rav.

  9. This might sound outlandish, but I've heard it asked what happens in the yichud room. It might be shocking that some people even ask, but it might be worth mentioning that the chasan and kallah break their fast (and leave it at that). BTW I don't think you mentioned the minhag (halacha?) to fast on that day.

  10. ProfK-
    I didn't mention it because I am not sure of the different minhagim. I've seen several different things done with the veil, and I'm not sure which are minhagim and which are ignorance. So I left it alone - but I agree that this should be developed.

    I always use the RCA pre-nup, but that's before the wedding. I really don't recommend handling this during the chasan's tish!
    Re: Yichud - I'll have to look into it.

    I hinted at the fast, but I didn't mention it (like the prenup above) because it isn't of the wedding itself.
    Re: Explaining what happens in the Yichud room - Good point; thanks.

  11. I enjoy your blogs and your open-minded and open-hearted energy when you write and respond to comments! Thanks.