13 Tips to Survive a Traditional Jewish Wedding

Wedding in Herzliya, Israel. Photo: Becca Gomby
Wedding in Herzliya, Israel. Photo: Becca Gomby
Rebecca Gomby

As is the case in all cultures, Jewish weddings are always a cause for celebration. That being said, there are certainly customs which one should know pre-Jewish Israeli wedding, that will help you fit in with the crowd. Here are our top tips.

Crowd, and we do mean, CROWD

Jewish weddings in Israel are often rather large occasions. Unlike American or more-European weddings, the Jewish Israeli motto for traditional weddings, seems to be “the more, the merrier.” People from all facets of the bride/groom’s life will be in attendance. This means; childhood friends, friends from their army units, friends from their travels around South America/India/the Philippines (e.g. the people Israelis meet during their typical post-army tiyul (trip)), university friends, work associates, and all family and friends.

Dressing for the occasion

Weddings in Israel are typically outdoors (weather permitting of course). With warm weather and sunshine nearly 9 months out of the year, chaval (pity) not to take advantage. There are gorgeous venues throughout the country, from coastline Mediterranean views to vineyards, Israel has it all. Guests to weddings should be mindful of two very important things 1) that even at evening occasions, weddings tend to be more casual – usually only the groom is wearing a suit, and 2) be cognizant of the outdoor weddings (and the heat) and dress for the occasion.

A summer wedding nestled in a vineyard. Photo: Becca Gomby

So where are you registered?

One thing that will stand out to most first-timers at Jewish-Israeli weddings is the lack of a gift registery for the betrothed couple. Gifts for the couple consist of cheques from the guests in attendance – you will often see a box or barrel with a slot as you enter the wedding venue, and this is where you can drop your well wishes complete with cash. The better you know the couple, the more money you should be spending.

Making it legal

Jewish Israelis have an interesting dilemma when it comes to deciding whom to have officiating their ceremony, and whether the wedding will be kosher (genuine and legitimate according to Jewish law). Basically, the only truly kosher wedding in Israel is between two Jewish partners, and performed by an approved Rabbi of the Office of the Chief Rabbi. Without the Orthodox Rabbi, the marriage is technically not legal and not recognized by the State. What does this mean? Very often, it means that secular couples are getting hitched with Orthodox Rabbis and kosher ceremonies, even if they themselves are not particularly observant.

The Ketubah

What else makes it legal? The signing of the Ketubah, is the Jewish document outlining the rights and responsibilities of the groom, in relation to the bride. The ketubah holds traditional significance in so far as it dictates the obligations (as outlined in the Halakha – Jewish law), that the Jewish husband will fulfill for his bride. The ketubah is signed by two witnesses and traditionally read out loud under the chuppah. The ketubah in modern times are typically ornate and can be displayed as artwork for the couple, commemorating their bond and responsibility to one another.

Orthodox weddings

Orthodox weddings stand apart from secular weddings in Israel. The observant couple will dress more modestly (women will have long sleeved gowns with less revealing styles), and the attendees to the wedding should also be prepared to dress more conservatively. The ceremony will also have separate seating for men and women, and there are different sections of the traditional pre-wedding practices in which only the men will be needed to participate. Often once the ceremony is over, very Orthodox weddings will have men and women separated by a mechitza (partition), creating two separate dance floors. Modesty is the best policy at traditional Orthodox Jewish weddings.

Traditional Sephardic Jewish Customs

Sephardi Jews are from the areas along the Mediterranean Sea, including Portugal, Spain, the Middle East and Northern Africa. Among the traditions these Jews brought with them as they immigrated to Israel was the tradition of the hina (henna). The henna ceremony typically happens a few days prior to the wedding itself, and is a grand celebration of luck for the couple. The tradition involves painting a reddish-brown dye on the hands of the bride with the drawings ranging from a single large dot to very intricate and detailed drawings, to symbolize health, wealth, and fertility. The festivities typically feature the families dressed in traditional caftans and traditional foods are served.

The order of things

The typical order of a Jewish wedding ceremony in Israel is: Apéritfs, Chuppah (canopy under which the couple is married), Dinner, Dancing, but prepare for the order to be mixed up. Make sure to double check the invitation to see what time the chuppah starts and plan your pre-wedding meal accordingly, you do not want to be too hungry! Keep in mind that Israelis tend to run behind schedule, so if the invitation says 8.00pm, the chuppah may not actually start until 8.30pm or later.

The Chuppah

The Chuppah, or bridal canopy is used at Jewish weddings to symbolize a roof under which the bride and groom will be covered during the ceremony. It consists of a sheet or cloth which is stretched across and attached to four poles, one at each corner of the sheet.

Sheva Brachot

The Sheva Brachot, or Seven Blessings, are the heart and soul of the traditional wedding ceremony. Themes of love and joy are expressed and the blessings, numbered from one to seven, begin with a blessing over the wine (kiddush), and increase in their imagery and metaphorical value as they ascend in order. The final blessing culminates with imagery of the couple being celebrated by their community, reminding all in attendance of the couple’s part in the chain of the Jewish community.

L’Chaim! (To Life!)

Why does the couple smash a glass while under the chuppah? Following the Sheva Brachot the final stage of the marriage ceremony, nisu’in (nuptials), is the customary smashing of the glass. A cup is wrapped in a cloth napkin and (traditionally) placed beneath the foot of the groom. The groom then stomps down and shatters the glass. What is the symbolic value of this tradition? The shattering of the glass reminds the couple and those in attendance that even at the height of personal joy, we must remember the destruction of Jerusalem. As the glass is broken, the wedding attendees shout: “Mazel tov!” (Congratulations and good luck!).

Getting there and back

Many couples will arrange hasaot (transportation) between major cities in Israel (Tel Aviv or Jerusalem), where many of their guests may be traveling from, to the wedding venue itself. Tip for first timers – young couples in Israel often have weddings that run late into the early hours (2:00 or 3:00am), with the hasa’a typically leaving to return back to the city of origin at the close of the wedding celebrations. So, if you’re hoping to party a little and then get home to get a good night’s sleep, make sure to arrange an alternative ride back.

Commemorating the occasion

One of the highlights for most Israelis attending weddings, (beyond the joyous celebration itself), is getting magnets with friends to commemorate the evening. Typically, there is a photographer at the wedding specifically tasked with taking photos that will immediately be printed on-site for guests to take home with them. Make sure to grab your friends and take advantage of the photo op – you will be hard pressed to find an Israeli home without a myriad of wedding magnets decorating their fridge.

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