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Parshas Vayeitzei (5769)

What They Never Told You About Jewish Weddings

If you have ever been at a traditional Jewish wedding, you will surely have noticed many fascinating, and sometimes strange, customs. Before the actual wedding ceremony, the groom is marched to the bride with lively song and music where he lowers the veil over her face (this is traditionally called the Badeken, a Yiddish word for “veiling”); Under the chuppah (wedding canopy), the bride circles the groom a dizzying seven times; At the end of the ceremony, the groom breaks a glass and everyone shouts “Mazel Tov!”

Each of these beautiful traditions can be traced back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Some, like the Badeken, were even practiced in Biblical times, well over 3500 years ago!!

Unfortunately, as with many Jewish rituals and customs performed today, the reasons behind them are often forgotten and their original meaning distorted.

So, for example, many Jews think that the Badeken is meant to recall the nuptial episode that occurs in this week’s Torah portion, where Jacob’s trickster father-in-law Laban pulled a fast one on Jacob by putting his daughter, Leah, in place of Jacob’s chosen bride, Rachel [see Genesis 29:22-26]. The deception was possible because of the heavy veil brides wore. When the groom personally veils the bride, it’s a kind of insurance policy against bridal surprises.

Then there are those who think that the bride traditionally circles the groom seven times under the chuppah to show that he is the center of her universe.

Others mistakenly believe that the groom’s breaking of the glass at the end of the ceremony is nothing more than a signal to the band to begin playing Od Yishoma, the festive and lively song traditionally sung to escort the newlywed bride and groom away from the chuppah. (Still others explain that this is the last time the groom gets to put his foot down ... okay, that’s just a joke - but there is some truth to it!)

Of course, to those who spend time researching and studying Torah laws and customs - and who don’t believe everything they read on Wikipedia - it becomes clear that the Badeken has nothing to do with switched brides, the circling of the groom is not about male dominance and patriarchy, and the breaking of the glass is a whole lot more than a signal to the band. [For a full treatment of the customs and laws of traditional Jewish weddings, including sources, I highly recommend the book Made in Heaven: A Jewish Wedding Guide by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.]

I would like to focus on just two of the many rich traditions surrounding Jewish weddings - the aforementioned Badeken, whose real source can be found in the Torah portion that was read two weeks ago, and the celebration of Sheva Berachos during the bridal week, a custom we first find mentioned in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Vayeitzei.

What is the real reason for the Badeken, the groom’s veiling of the bride before the chuppah?

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that the custom of covering the bride’s face when she is approached by the groom is based on the Biblical story in Genesis 24:65 where it says that when our matriarch Rebecca met Isaac, “She took a veil and covered herself” This is a sign of modesty that brides keep to this very day. Moreover, Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca marked the beginning of the Jewish people. The bride emulates Rebecca in the hope that she will be equally worthy in her marriage.

Some say that another reason the groom covers the bride’s face is to indicate that he is not primarily interested in her physical beauty. Beauty is something that will fade in time, but if the groom is also attracted to the girl’s spiritual qualities, he is attached to something that she will never lose.

What many do not often realize is that, in addition to all the beautiful symbolism of the Badeken, it also has legal ramifications. You see, according to Halachah (Jewish Law), there are two parts to the traditional wedding ceremony, the betrothal (erusin), and the actual marriage (nesu’in). Nesu’in consists of the bride and groom symbolically setting up house together through a process known as chuppah. While many authorities hold that “chuppah” is accomplished when the bride and groom stand together as one under the wedding canopy, others maintain that the Halachic requirement of chuppah is best fulfilled through Badeken when the groom places the veil on the bride, thus initiating their new set-up as husband and wife.

Thus far we have been discussing customs of the Jewish wedding itself. But what they certainly never told you about Jewish weddings is that it ain’t over when the fat cantor sings. You see, it is not the Jewish practice for the bride and groom to “escape” on a honeymoon right after the wedding. Rather, they remain in their home community. They are beginning their married life, not separated from the community, but as an integral part of it.

This beautiful tradition serves as a powerful reminder to the young couple of the tremendous opportunity and great responsibility they now have as yet another Jewish family in the community who can create a Jewish home that will manifest G-dliness and radiate light and goodness to all those around it.

During the bridal week, the newlyweds remain together at all times, learning to enjoy each other’s company. It is also customary for close relatives or friends to make special meals for the bridal pair. Such meals are known as Sheva Berachos (literally, “Seven Blessings”), since the Seven Blessings are said after the Grace, just as at the wedding.

This seven-day celebration, which was ordained by Moses, was a custom even much earlier. Thus, after Jacob married Leah and realized that he had been tricked, he demanded that Rachel be given him as a wife. Laban, Rachel’s father told him, “Wait until this week [with Leah] is over, and then we will give you the other girl” (Genesis 29:27). From this, it is evident that even in the time of the Patriarchs, there was a custom of family and friends celebrating together with the bride and groom for seven days after the wedding.

So I hope we have all learned a thing or two about Jewish weddings ... May G-d bless us all that we should only share Simchas and joyous occasions. Amen!

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