Jewish weddings ceremonies herald the sanctity of marriage, and are rich with tradition. The main focus of the day, though, is to make the chosson and kallah happy on their special day.

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The Meaning of a Jewish Wedding

Ask a seasoned photographer or popular wedding singer to fully tell you what a Jewish wedding is all about, and they’ll be hard pressed to answer, despite having attended hundreds of weddings. No camera can ever fully capture the radiant joy and purity of the kallah as she stands together with her chosson under the canopy representing their first home. No recording can ever fully transmit the special energy of the soulful melodies and joyful tunes that mark the moments of the chosson and kallah’s celebration. In short, summing up in words the kaleidoscope of images and sounds associated with a Jewish wedding ceremony is virtually impossible.

But one thing about Jewish weddings is quite certain: Whether in Marrakesh, New York, Jerusalem, Tehran, or anyplace else on the planet, a touch of heaven rests in every single Jewish wedding custom.

Lights, Canopies, and Ashes: Universal Jewish Wedding Customs
There’s a hum of happy guests in the wedding hall. Some people are sampling finger food at the smorgasbord and the band is playing a quick tune. However, the electricity of a Jewish wedding begins with the entrance of the kallah (bride). As she is seated on her throne-like chair, all eyes are drawn to her white dress and shining face. On her wedding day, a kallah has a special grace that’s reflected in the meaning of the color she wears. White represents purity, and tradition teaches that the wedding day is an auspicious occasion for both the chosson and kallah – it serves as their personal Yom Kippur, a day of atonement as they stand on the brink of a new beginning. On this day, the chosson and kallah generally fast and spend the day in prayer and repentance, so that their sins are forgiven and they are as pure as fresh snow.

A reception (commonly referred to as a Kabalas Panim) for both the chosson and the kallah gives guests an opportunity to come forward and extend their mazel tov wishes. Accordingly, many people also ask the chosson or kallah for a blessing, since their tefillos are those of people unstained by sin. The Kabalas Panim also culminates with the arrival of the chosson, who covers his kallah’s face with a veil. One of many beautiful Orthodox Jewish wedding traditions is that both chosson and kallah are blessed by their parents at this point.

Orthodox Jewish wedding traditions involve ashes that are placed under the chosson’s hat immediately prior to the chuppah ceremony. Why? These ashes signify mourning, and are intended to remind the chosson of the day of death. As the groom prepares to begin a new stage of life with his kallah, the ashes remind him to focus. Marriage is not only about fanfare and glitz, but rather about building a relationship with someone that will extend past this world for all eternity. Remember that a day of death will come when everything except for the good deeds you’ve invested in will fade away.

At this point, the climax of the Jewish wedding, the chuppah, begins.

Throughout the ages, every kallah’s path towards the chuppah (canopy) under which her groom stands to greet her has been illuminated by torch light. The reason? Those lights are meant to recall the great fire which once marked a marriage of sorts: The one at Har Sinai, when the Jewish nation became bound to Hashem forever as His people, through the giving of the Torah. That ultimate Divine gift is our life, our light, and also our guide. As the chosson and kallah walk towards the chuppah at the beginning of the Jewish wedding ceremony, the torchlight therefore becomes both a reminder and an inspiration for commitment, and holiness.

Under the chuppah, the actual marriage ceremony, followed by seven blessings, is performed. Generally, the seven blessings pronounced after the reading of the kesubah are recited by rabbis and other respected wedding guests. These seven berachos are not just joyful praises to G-d, who created man in such a way that he has the capacity to give to a life partner: They are also prayers which beseech that the joy felt at this wedding be mirrored across all segments of the Jewish people with the rebuilding of the Temple and the renewed closeness with Hashem that the wedding will bring to the world.

Essential to this portion of the Jewish wedding is the reading of the kesubah, the marriage contract that signifies the commitment the chosson makes to his kallah. After the kesubah is read, the chosson declares that the kallah is now sanctified to him according to Torah law, and places a wedding ring upon her finger.

Who else is key to the chuppah? Two men, unrelated to the chosson and kallah, are given the honor of serving as eidim – witnesses – of the contractual marriage bond forged at that time. Usually, the chosson’s teacher or Rav is given the honor of being mesader kiddushin, ensuring that the ceremony is properly conducted according to rabbinic law.

Since the sanctity of the chuppah is so tangible, different communities across the world mark that holiness in different ways: German Jews, for example, have the custom to recite special chapters from Tehilim (Psalms) at this point in the wedding.

Relatively speaking, the chuppah is quite short. It is, however, a time auspicious for prayer as the Shechina comes down to preside over the union of these two separate individuals as they merge together to build a Jewish home. Many people request that the chosson and kallah, who daven for their new future together under the chuppah, also have others’ needs in mind at that time. Thus, the very first moments of their marriage begin with the act of giving to others.

What commonly marks the end of the chuppah ceremony is an interesting act: The chosson breaks a glass under his foot to symbolize sadness and incompletion. Why?

As the chosson and kallah set forth to build their new home, we remind them of a great House once built that is now destroyed: Hashem’s House, the Bais HaMikdash (Temple in Jerusalem). There’s a powerful lesson behind that simple concept. The chosson and kallah, as they leave the chuppah, have to remember that there is a third partner in their marriage: Hashem. At every time of joy and celebration, we must remember the absence of the Bais HaMikdash, the most central part of our lives, and pray for its glorious return. The new marriage also has to involve a commitment to draw close to Hashem through giving time, thought, and effort to serving Him properly.

Following the chuppah, the guests are given the opportunity to perform a special mitzvah: Gladdening the hearts of a chosson and kallah. Throughout the rest of a Jewish wedding, music, dancing, song, words of Torah, and an elaborate meal are enjoyed by all wedding guests. In fact, many communities have the custom to prolong these festivities long into the night.

The wedding culminates in bentching and a repetition of the seven blessings said under the chuppah, which all underscore the holiness of a Jewish marriage, Hashem’s involvement in a Jewish wedding, and prayers for the ultimate reunion of Klall Yisrael with Hashem in a rebuilt Yerushalayim. These blessings also remind the chosson and kallah of their new responsibility: to give happiness to each other.

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Ancient Jewish Wedding Practices

Throughout the ages, this lesson about giving expressed itself in the beautiful Jewish wedding traditions unique to different communities. In Medieval Germany, for example, the chosson and kallah were walked through the narrow cobblestone streets in the hush of the pre-dawn hours so that part of their wedding under the chuppah was held under the stars. Even today, it is customary that a window is opened above the Chuppah so that the chosson and kallah are standing directly under the stars.

Why? The stars represent the blessing given to Klal Yisrael’s forefathers, who were promised by G-d that their descendants would be as numerous and luminous as the stars. The young couple, just about to begin life together, were therefore reminded first of their joint destiny and purpose: To raise a new generation of such children in the Jewish tradition.

In many Medieval European communities, the Jewish wedding ceremony itself was conducted in the synagogue. From that, a similar lesson is drawn: the Chasam Sofer explains that the early Torah giants who instituted this custom saw that it was important to conduct the wedding in a place of holiness and prayer. As the chosson and kallah embarked upon a new stage in life together, they were given a gift: the most auspicious and sanctified of settings to help them start off the journey on the right foot.

Wedding Guests: Getting In on the Giving
Tradition teaches us that lessons about giving, if properly taken to heart, can transform the chosson and kallah. In fact, a Jewish wedding ceremony has the power to make the bride and groom into new people, free of all past sin, whose prayers – fittingly – can serve as conduits of pure blessing and giving from Hashem.

Knowing that a Jewish wedding ceremony teaches us volumes about giving to others and drawing closer to Hashem is inspiring and exciting – but as wedding guests, there’s more we have to realize. Asides from capitalizing on the blessings a chosson and kallah can give on their wedding day, we can also help the bride and groom accrue merits on this auspicious day through the giving involved in hachnosas kallah.

Jewish wedding gifts often include challah covers, separate dishes for Pesach, salt shakers…the list goes on and on. Another meaningful wedding gift that is appreciated by the chosson and kallah is a charity donation in their honor.

A wedding charity registry, where people donate to a favorite charity of choice listed by the chosson and kallah, is a revolutionary concept – but one that resonates with so many incredibly compassionate couples aware of just how integral giving is to marriage and Judaism.

Another charity opportunity is to donate to a fund for poor brides who could not otherwise afford the costs of setting up a new household. Many times, such wedding charities actually succeed in covering all the costs of an impoverished bride’s needs.

Wedding charities are gifts, then, that pay infinite dividends: they give to both those who are gifting (the guests and bridal couple) as well as those who receive. It is for this reason that many choose to sponsor the wedding of a poor bride and groom on the day of their own wedding.

Kupath Rabbi Meir, with its extensive experience assisting destitute chassanim and kallos in Israel, has developed various assistance programs along the lines of wedding charities and a wedding charity registry to help with Hachnosas Kallah in Israel. Accordingly, they have merited to bring many brides to the chuppah with dignity and joy. Their rabbinic advisory board, which oversees every case brought to their attention, ensures that charity is disbursed discreetly and as needed.

Asides from distributing money, Rebbe Meir Baal Hanes Charities also has invested significant effort in more creative ways to help needy families: they single handedly managed to fashion a wedding hall that offers low-cost weddings to the poverty-stricken in Bnei Brak and surrounding areas. When the chosson or kallah comes from a broken home, they offer financial guidance to the young couple that provides them with the ABC’s of budgeting.

What lies behind their success in helping so many, however, is the realization that giving is an endless circle; the recipient and the giver both ultimately equally receive from the One Above.

Certainly, then, there is a touch of heaven that rests in every single Jewish wedding custom, and a holiness that makes each moment feel like a taste of another world. What every chosson and kallah shares is the ability to tap into the opportunity of giving that lies behind that most important experience of their lives. To help them leverage that power is the mission of Rebbe Meir Baal Hanes Charities.