The Torah portion of Chayei Sarah tells the story of how Avraham and his servant Eliezer found the perfect wife for Avraham’s son Yitzchak: Rivkah.
Our sages derived several lessons about marriage from this story besides the obvious one that a person should choose a spouse from a good family and with admirable character traits.
Listen to All Leads
The verse says that Eliezer prayed to G-d to help him find the right wife for Yitzchak “at evening time, when the maidens go out to draw water (Gen. 24:11).” The Midrash says (Bereishit Rabbah 59:12 as explained by the Etz Yosef) that Eliezer went to the well so he could overhear the conversations of the young girls who were drawing water, and that would help him find the right girl for Yitzchak. Based on this the Midrash, concludes that when a person goes to find a wife and he hears the dogs barking, he should listen to what they’re saying. This means he should take heed of even the casual comments made by random strangers about his or her prospective spouse as they can be very revealing.
After Yitzchak married Rivkah, the Torah recounts how Avraham married Keturah. Based on this, the Midrash says (Bereishit Rabbah 60:16) that if one needs to get remarried but has a child of marriageable age, he should first see to it that his child gets married and only after that should he look for a wife for himself.
The Blessing of the Wedding
When Rivkah was departing from her family, they blessed her, as it says (Gen. 24:60), “And they blessed Rebecca and said to her, ‘Our sister, may you become thousands of myriads, and may your children inherit the cities of their enemies.’” The Talmud (Kallah Rabati, Chapter 1) says that this is a source for the blessing we say at the time of a wedding.
Covering the Face of the Bride
The Torah recounts that when Rivkah saw Yitzchak approaching, she fell off the camel and covered her face. The commentaries (Ralbag and Chizkuni) say that she did this out of modesty. Some opine that this is the source for the bride’s face being covered with a veil at the Chuppah (Ta’amei HaMinhagim).
The rest of this article will discuss the reasons for some of the customs at a Jewish wedding.
Text of the Tena’im Document
The Tena’im document, which outlines the financial obligations of each side for the wedding expenses, begins with the words המגיד מראשית אחרית – “He who tells the end from the beginning” (a reference to the A-lmighty), alluding to the teachings of our sages (Sotah 2a) that one’s spouse is announced in heaven at the time of his conception (Ta’amei HaMinhagim).
On the Shabbat before the wedding, the Chattan is honored with an Aliyah to the Torah, and the community celebrates with him. The same should be done on the Shabbat after the wedding. (In practice, Ashkenazim celebrate on the Shabbat before the wedding while Sefardim do so on the Shabbat afterwards. If possible, the Chattan should get an Aliyah on both occasions. See Biur Halacha on Siman 136.)
This custom is mentioned in the Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer (Chapter 17). It says there that when King Solomon built the Bait HaMikdash, he made two special entrances. One was for chatanim (bridegrooms), and one was for aveilim(mourners) and menudim (those who were excommunicated). The people would sit between these entrances and give good wishes to the chatanim and (lehavdil) words of comfort to the aveilim. They would bless the menudim that they should repent and become accepted back into the community. After the destruction of the Bait HaMikdash (may it be rebuilt speedily), it became customary that the chatanim and aveilim would come to shul so that the community could share in their joy and (lehavdil) sorrow.
The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe explained (end of the Ma’amar Vechol Banayich, 5689) that the Chattan and Kallah are about to strengthen the world by establishing a home according to the Torah and having children (with G-d’s help) who will be involved in Torah. Therefore, before the wedding, the Chattanis called to the Torah which is the source of all physical and spiritual blessings in this world.
It is customary to shower the Chattan with candies after his Aliyah (in the past, nuts and raisins were thrown). The sweetness of the candies is a good omen that the couple should have a sweet life together. In some communities this was also done at the badeken (see below).
It is customary that the Chattan immerse in a Mikvah on the day of the Chuppah just as one does on Erev Yom Kippur (Yalkut Me’am Loez, Devarim 22:13). This is to help him to do Teshuvah (repentance), for on this day he is forgiven for all his sins. The kallah must, of course, also immerse in a mikvah prior to the wedding. (This is not a custom but is necessary based on the laws of family purity.)
The reason we say that “G-d is happy (שהשמחה במעונו)” during the Grace after Meals of a wedding and Sheva Brachot is that G-d is happy since the Chattanand Kallah have been forgiven for their sins (ibid).
It is proper for the Chattan to give Tzedaka (generously) on the day of his wedding. This is a segulah that his wife should not miscarry and should have healthy children (ibid).
In addition, it is proper to invite poor people to the wedding feast. The Zohar (vol. 1, 10b) says that this ensures that the Satan will not make negative accusations.
The Ashkenazi custom is that before the Chuppah the Chattan goes to the room of the Kallah and covers her face with a veil. As mentioned above, this is a sign of modesty. This is called Badeken (covering). Some say that this ceremony is part of the Chuppah ritual (Rama Even Ha’Ezer 55:1). Sefardimdo not have the custom that the Chattan be the one to cover the Kallah’s face (Sova Semachot by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef 6:1).
Dressing the Chattan
It is customary for the Chattan to wear white garments, specifically a kittel, under the Chuppah. The white color symbolizes forgiveness for his sins while the kittel is reminiscent of the time of death and reminds us that even at the height of our joy we must remain humble by remembering that we are merely mortals.
The parents (or friends) of the Chattan should help him put on these garments. This is similar to how a corpse is dressed by others, and it reminds the Chattanto do Teshuvah as one must do before his final day.
The mood of the Chuppah should be serious until after the ceremony. Several reasons are given for this (ibid):
- It reflects the fact that this day is compared to Yom Kippur for the Chattanand Kallah.
- The Shechina (Divine glory) is present at a Chuppah. The souls of the Chattan and Kallah’s predecessors are also present.
- Present as well are the souls of the children that are destined to be born to this couple. And just as a baby cries at birth (having descended from Gan Eden to this world), his or her parents cry at this time.
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef writes (ibid) that the Sefardic custom is to be joyous at the time of the Chuppah.
Breaking of the Glass
It was customary to place ashes on the head of the Chattan to remember the destruction of Jerusalem. However, this is no longer customary. Instead, we break a cup at the end of the Chuppah ceremony to recall the destruction (O.C. 560:2).
This custom is alluded to in Talmud (Brachot 31a) where it recounts the following story. Rav Ashi made a wedding feast for his son and he saw that the Sages were excessively joyous. (It is not proper to be excessively joyous until the times of Moshiach). So he brought a cup of extremely valuable white glass and broke it before them, and they became sad. Tosfot says that this is the basis for our custom to break a cup at a wedding. The Ravaya (Berachot Siman 91) writes that nowadays it is customary to use a cheap glass in order not to embarrass families who cannot afford an expensive one.
The custom is to break a glass cup, symbolizing that just as glass can be melted and reused, so, too, G-d will soon rebuild the Bait HaMikadash and renew his relationship with us (Tzofnat Pane’ach of the Maharit, Parshat Devarim, pg. 197c). Since at that time we will not have any evil inclination, it is appropriate to use glass which looks the same on the inside as the outside (Pri Megadim in Mishbetzot Zahav 560:4).
At an engagement ceremony (Tena’im) it is customary to break a ceramic plate. The Pri Megadim explains that since the couple isn’t yet married it isn’t appropriate to recall the wedding between G-d and the Jewish people. As such it is not necessary to break something made of glass (which symbolizes the ultimate reunion of G-d and the Jewish people). The reason for the custom is therefor only to not have excessive joy as in the story of Rav Ashi above. As such, it is better to break something ceramic at that time which represents humility since ceramic is made from earth.
Some say that the glass cup should be the one used to make the blessings under the Chuppah (Tzofnat Pane’ach, ibid) while others say a different cup should be used (Pri Megadim, ibid). Chabad custom (that I have observed) is to follow the first opinion.
Some have the custom to recite the following verse at the time of the breaking of the glass (Tehillim 137:5 and 6): אם אשכחך ירושלים – “If I forget you, O, Jerusalem… if I will not place Jerusalem at the head of my rejoicing (Taz on O.C. ibid).”
Immediately after the breaking of the glass, the mood changes to one of joy and celebration. The sins of the Chattan and Kallah having been forgiven, we can now begin the mitzvah of celebrating with them.
There are many other customs of the wedding ceremony. G-d willing, we will explain those another time.
May we soon experience the wedding of G-d and the Jewish people with the coming of Moshiach!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach and a Chodesh Tov!