Culture & Society

The Wisdom of the Jewish Wedding

The formality and fanfare of Orthodox Jewish weddings emphasize the importance of marriage and family life in preserving the community

Orthodox Judaism’s emphasis on marriage aims to ensure the community’s continued growth. Image Credit: Burke/Triolo Productions/Getty Images

My son got married recently. When I tell my non-Orthodox Jewish friends that he is only 22, it tends to raise some eyebrows. There does not seem to be much of an expectation to get married at an early age these days—or at all, for that matter. But in the Orthodox Jewish world, marriage remains of paramount importance. Parents expect that their children will get married at a young age to other observant Jews.

These expectations help create a robust Orthodox Jewish wedding industry in the U.S.—a stark contrast with the lack of enthusiasm toward marriage that prevails in much of the rest of society. Further, the emphasis on marriage and family life aims to ensure that the Orthodox Jewish community continues to grow and thrive, even as other Jewish populations in the U.S. decline.

Meeting One’s Spouse

For this reason, I thought it might be fruitful to write this primer on the Orthodox Jewish wedding process from start to finish. It begins, of course, with courtship, and the Orthodox Jewish community provides plenty of ways for young people to meet each other at various stages of youth and young adulthood. My son happened to meet his intended in middle school—they both went to the same Orthodox Jewish school, the Berman Hebrew Academy. They started dating in high school and are one of three couples thus far to get married from their relatively small class of 50.

In the Orthodox world, even the kids who do not meet in high school are marrying early. The marriage rate in America is down significantly from 1990, but that is not the case in the Orthodox Jewish community. My son has gone to at least a dozen weddings this year, and we are constantly getting invitations to the weddings of our friends’ children. By contrast, I told a non-Orthodox friend about my rate of wedding attendance, and he said he had not been to a wedding in over a decade.

We were at a wedding recently at a hall that is an hour from Baltimore and an hour from Philadelphia, not really close to any Jewish community. The non-Jewish owner of the hall said that the hall hosts 50 Orthodox Jewish weddings a year, and it is looking to expand further into Orthodox weddings. Of course, this demand creates other pressures: Rabbis are double-booked, bands are hard to get and caterers are often booked months in advance.

If the couples don’t meet in high school, most Orthodox Jewish students take a “gap year” after high school for a year of religious instruction in Israel. When I went to Orthodox Jewish school four decades ago, maybe a third of my classmates did the Israel gap year, but now the rate appears to be much higher. The students who don’t go can expect to be asked why.

Even if gap year attendees don’t meet someone in Israel, the students establish networks and social circles that will affect who they marry. They also sort themselves by which girls’ seminary or boys’ yeshiva they choose to attend. In the wider world, when you meet people, you might ask where they went to college or where they work. In the Orthodox world, the first question is often, “What yeshiva/seminary did you attend?”

After the gap year, the students who go to a secular college might meet someone there, while many Orthodox kids go to single-gender colleges, such as Yeshiva University (Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women) or Touro University (Lander College for Women and Lander College for Men). I’m surprised at how many of my sons’ friends are marrying while in college. When I went to college, almost no one got married before graduating. That seems to be the case nationwide as well. The average age for marriage in the U.S. is 30.6 for men and 28.6 for women, up from 26.7 for men and 25 for women in 1998. But in the Orthodox world today, it’s not at all unusual for kids to get married when they are still in college.

If Orthodox kids fail to meet in various levels of schooling, there is also an active shidduch, or matchmaking, industry. Young single people prepare résumés to present themselves in the best possible light. Since my son met his fiancé in high school, I have not yet observed this process firsthand, but it is replete with its own customs and idiosyncrasies. I still have three younger unmarried children, however, so we shall see how that works out in the years ahead.

The Engagement

Once a couple has met and is looking toward marriage, the proposal dynamic is also complex. In my day, we might take someone to a nice place and then ask them to marry us. That approach is wholly inadequate today. Proposals are incredibly elaborate, with decoys, friend participation, elaborate backstories, destinations, videographers, and other bells and whistles. My son’s proposal to his bride definitely took a village when it came to planning. All these efforts may seem excessive to some, but they elevate the importance of marriage, of relationships and of community support for the couple.

After the engagement, the couple and both sets of parents alert their social circles. This is often, but not always, followed by a l’chayim (impromptu party) thrown at the home of one of the parents. We had 250 people at our l’chayim, which was thrown together in less than 48 hours. The l’chayim is generally informal, with lots of glasses raised and congratulations offered, but no speeches expected. Many times, couples will then have a vort, which is a more formal type of engagement party in which rabbis will give words of Torah learning related to the concept of marriage, often tailored to the couples themselves.

Orthodox engagements tend to be relatively short. Six months is not unusual, and oftentimes they are even shorter. This means there’s a pretty significant scramble to find wedding halls, caterers and bands, and to put everything together quickly.

On the weekend before the wedding, the groom’s family will have an aufruf. This is an acknowledgment in synagogue of the impending nuptials, with a special blessing given to the groom. The groom will generally read a selection from the prophets known as the Haftarah in front of the congregation during the Saturday morning service. The groom’s family and closest friends come together for a festive meal. The bride’s family does something similar, called a Shabbat kallah.

In this period, starting seven days before the wedding, the bride and groom cannot see each other, and sometimes they don’t even speak. They will often send notes to one another as their means of communication. The seven-day period of not speaking is designed to build up anticipation for the wedding day. On the day of the wedding there are photos, but the bride and groom typically don’t see each other before the wedding. What this means is that it is usually only after the ceremony that the bride and groom take photos together.

The Wedding

As for the ceremony itself, some aspects will be familiar from traditional weddings, with the family members, as well as the couple, walking down the aisle to music. Instead of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” however, various Hebrew songs are played. During the ceremony, a series of seven blessings is given out to esteemed rabbis and older respected relatives. The rabbi who officiates is known as the m’sader kiddushin, or the one who performs the order of the sanctification—wedding ceremony.

The ketubah, or wedding contract, is read aloud, and the reader often milks a joke from this Aramaic document by exaggeratedly pronouncing the name of the location—such as “Owings Mills, Maryland”—which are often the only words many guests will understand amidst all the ancient Aramaic ones. The ceremony concludes with the groom breaking a glass, and then the guests rush up to dance the now-married couple into what is known as the yichud room. This is typically the first time the bride and groom will spend time alone behind a closed door.

When they reemerge, they come into the banquet room and are greeted by guests for the first of multiple rounds of exuberant dancing. Men and women dance separately, with a curtain separating them. The men do vigorous, physical dancing, with the groom often being spun, lifted or thrown in various ways. A non-Orthodox friend who attended my son’s wedding referred to this dancing as “the Hebrew mosh pit.” From my brief inadvertent glances across the curtain, it seems that the women’s dancing is more refined and organized, involving coordinated moves. My wife, however, disabuses me of that notion and says that it is mostly circle dancing with a lot of jumping and joyous screaming on the ladies’ side as well.

Between each round of dancing are the courses of the festive meal: the appetizer while waiting for the couple to arrive; the main course after the first dance; and dessert after the second dance. The wedding ends with a special after-meal prayer, with the seven blessings of the wedding service tacked on at the end. Each blessing is given out to a different friend, rabbi or family member.

After the wedding, the bride and groom typically do not go on a traditional honeymoon. Instead, they have six more festive meals over the course of the next six days. These meals are hosted by friends or family of the bride and groom, three for each side of the family. If the two families live close by, as in our case, this is relatively easy, as the meals all take place nearby. If the couples come from different locations, then the bride and groom will travel in the middle of the six days to have these meals—called sheva brachos—with the other family. These meals also end with the special after-meal prayer, followed by the seven blessings of the wedding service. Each blessing is once again given out to a different friend, rabbi or family member.

The whole thing is quite an involved process, and it differs from traditional American weddings in a variety of ways: no bachelor party or rehearsal dinner, few if any toasts or speeches at the wedding, and the week of meals taking the place of the immediate exit to travel for a honeymoon.

This entire ritual, enriched by tradition, highlights the importance of weddings within the Orthodox community. It is predicated on the notion that stable marriages make stable families, which foster stable communities.

This emphasis on marriage is one reason the Orthodox population in the United States is growing, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the Jewish population. In the meantime, the Reform and Conservative sectors of the population are experiencing demographic decline. The emphasis on marriage among the Orthodox is also about more than community development: It is a successful strategy for maintaining Jewish continuity.

With the love, joy and appreciation for the primacy of the relationship of the husband and wife and the importance of the community supporting them, the hope is that the Orthodox marriage rate will continue to be high and that marriage will retain its central position within the Orthodox Jewish community.

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