- Dating & Shidduchim
- L’Chaim: Engagement Party
- The Wedding Day
- The Wedding Ceremony
- The Wedding Party
- Married Life
- Family Purity
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Dating & Shidduchim
Traditionally, the first stage leading to Jewish marriage is the shidduch, or matchmaking. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean that everything is arranged without taking into account the wishes of the prospective bride and groom. In reality, matches are very often made without the services of a matchmaker; someone who knows a young man and woman and feels that they are compatible may suggest that they date; in fact, it is usually friends or relatives who are intermediaries for the prospective couple. Although there is certainly no legal requirement that marriages be arranged, nevertheless, the custom of matchmaking has remained strong, because Judaism considers choosing a partner for life too important to be done haphazardly. In any case, the final decision rests entirely with the couple. According to Jewish law neither a man nor a woman may be married without consent.
Assume that a shidduch has been suggested and the couple (often the couples parents as well) determines that the prospective match appears reasonable. They arrange to meet. Subsequent dates help them determine if they are indeed compatible. Such meetings provide an opportunity both for casual conversation that enable the couple to become better acquainted and for discussion of issues important to marriage. For these reasons, the dates usually do not involve going to a concert or any place that does not allow for conversation. Personal meetings also allow the couple to determine whether or not the vital ingredient of physical attraction exists between them. If the couple remains interested in each other after the first few dates, they continue meeting until they can determine if marriage is right for them.
One of the features that mark the dating process of observant Jews is that physical contact between a man and a woman is prohibited until they are married. According to Jewish law they are also not permitted to be alone in a closed room or secluded area. These restrictions are made because human nature is such that close contact often leads to physical intimacy. In addition, they also help ensure that a marriage partner will be chosen for his or her personality, intellect and emotional compatibility and not because of physical desire alone. The absence of any prior physical relationship also enhances the joy of intimacy when the couple marries, and contributes to the stability of the marriage.
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L’Chaim: Engagement Party
When two people feel that they have found the “right” one the man proposes marriage (although there is nothing wrong with the woman proposing). Once he has proposed and she has accepted, the families meet and announce the engagement with a small reception, known as al’chaim(presumably because the traditional blessingl’chaim- to life - is usually offered on this occasion). Some families sign a contract, thetenaim, meaning engagement conditions that delineate the obligations of each side regarding the wedding expenses, and set a date for the wedding. This signing is sometimes accompanied by a formal meal to which relatives and close friends are invited.
During the engagement period the bride and groom get to know each others families and continue to meet. Even though the couple is engaged, the same restrictions regarding touching and being alone together still apply. In addition, they are forbidden to sleep in the same house. There is a common custom among Ashkenazic Jews for the bride and groom to stop seeing each other one week before the wedding, in order to enhance the joy of meeting at their wedding after a time of separation.
On the Shabbos before the wedding, the groom is given the honor of analiyahto the Torah, and is showered with nuts and candies thrown by the congregants. This event is called anaufrufin Yiddish. After services a special celebration is held in honor of the groom. Close friends of the bride usually spend the Shabbos before the wedding with her (called the Shabbos Kallah, Shabbos of the Kallah) and have an informal party.
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The Wedding Day
It is customary for the bride and groom to fast on the day of the wedding. One reason for this practice is that the bride and groom are considered like new beings when they get married. The day of the wedding therefore becomes a personal Yom Kippur, a Day of Atonement - a time for fasting and repentance, giving them the opportunity to begin their new life with a clean slate.
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The Wedding Ceremony
During the early stages of the wedding, the first order of business is the completion, signing and witnessing of thekesubah, or marriage contract. This contract is required by Rabbinic law, and according to some authorities, dates back to Biblical times. Thekesubah, which is written in Aramaic, details the husbands’ obligations to his wife, including food, clothing, dwelling and intimacy. The contract also creates a lien on all his property to pay her a sum of money for support should he divorce her, or predecease her. The document is signed by two witnesses, and has the standing of a legally binding agreement in Jewish law, which in some countries is also enforceable by civil law. Thekesubahis the wife’s possession, and it remains in her care.
While the kesubah is being completed and signed, the guests partake of light refreshments, including alcoholic beverages if they wish, for the traditional l’chaim. The groom then performs thebadeken, or “veiling”. Accompanied by his father and future father-in-law, musicians and the male guests, he walks to the room where the bride is receiving her guests. She sits like a queen on a throne-like chair, surrounded by her family and friends. The groom, who has not seen her for a week, covers her face with a veil, just as the Biblical Rivka covered her face when she first saw her future husband Yitzchak. The bride and groom then go to their separate rooms where they prepare for the chuppah.
The next stage is known as thechuppah, or canopy. Thechuppahis a piece of cloth suspended like a roof over the heads of the bride and groom as a symbolic home for the new couple. When possible, the ceremony is performed under the stars to call to mind the blessing given by G-d to the patriarch Avrohom, that his children be as numerous “as the stars of the heavens.” Sometimes the ceremony is held outdoors. More often, thechuppahis set up under an open skylight inside the wedding hall to comply with this custom. The groom is accompanied by his parents (or his father and father-in-law, depending on custom) to thechuppah. He often wears a white robe, known as akittel, indicating that the bride and groom are starting a new life with a clean white slate. They are uniting to become a new entity, without any previous sins. Then the bride, escorted by her parents (or her mother and mother-in-law, depending on custom), walks to thechuppah. As the groom and bride respectively walk to thechuppaha cantor or friend sings liturgical poems in praise of G-d and asking for His blessings for the new couple. The bride and groom can utilize this holy time to pray for the success of the marriage, for health, children and financial sustenance. In fact, numerous couples take the opportunity of this moment of concentrated sanctity to pray for matters close to their hearts, for their unmarried friends to find their true partners in life, for the benefit of all Jewish people around the world, and for the health of sick people whom they know or whose names have been submitted to them.
When the bride arrives at thechuppahshe walks around the groom seven times with her mother and mother-in-law. This encircling reflects the woman’s capacity to create a protective, surrounding light around the household, one that will illuminate it with understanding and love from within and protect it from harm from without. The number seven also corresponds to the seven days of creation, and symbolizes the fact that the bride and groom are about to create their own new world together.
The bride then stands beside the groom, and an honored rabbi recites a blessing over a cup of wine followed by a blessing that praises and thanks G-d for giving us the laws of sexual morality which preserve the sanctity of family life and the Jewish people. The bride and groom then drink from the wine.
The groom takes a plain gold ring and in the presence of two witnesses places it on the index finger of the bride. He then recites: “Behold you are sanctified to me with this ring, according to the laws of Moses and the Jewish People.” Thekesubahis read aloud, usually by another honoree, after which it is handed to the bride. The bride then gives the kesubah to her mother or to a friend for safekeeping for the duration of the wedding, after which it stays in her possession for as long as they are married.
Seven blessings,Sheva Brachos, are now recited, either by one rabbi or by several people whom the families have chosen to honor. The one who recites the blessings holds a full cup of wine. They begin by praising G-d for His creation in general, for the creation of human beings, and continue with praise for the creation of the human as a “two part creature”, man and woman. The blessings contain prayers that the new couple will rejoice together forever as though they were the original couple, Adam and Eve, before the sin in the Garden of Eden. They conclude with a prayer that Jerusalem be fully rebuilt and restored with the Temple in its midst and the Jewish people within her gates.
At this point the bride and groom each take a sip from the cup of wine. The groom then breaks a glass by stomping on it. This custom dates back to Talmudic times, and is intended to remind us at our moments of greatest joy of the destruction of the Temple. With the breaking of the glass, the band strikes up a lively tune, and everyone wishes the new couple“Mazel Tov!”
The wedding ceremony completed, the couple is ushered by dancing guests to the door of thecheder yichud, “the private room.” They are now permitted to be alone with each other in a closed room; an intimacy reserved only for a married couple. According to many Ashkenazic authorities, being alone together in a locked room is a necessary element in legalizing the marriage, therefore their entry into “the private room” must be witnessed by two people. The witnesses remain outside the locked room for a few minutes, to ensure that no one disturbs the couple.
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The Wedding Party
While the new couple is spending some time together, the guests sit down to a festive meal. When the bride and groom are ready to make their entrance at the reception, the band begins a lively song and announces their arrival. Everyone joins in dancing around the bride and groom.
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Judaism views sexuality as holy and pure, something that has the potential of bringing man and woman to the highest levels of spirituality.
“Marital relations are holy, pure and clean, when done in the proper manner, at the proper time, and with the proper intentions. Whoever thinks that there is something disgraceful or ugly about these matters is seriously mistaken… All believers in the Torah believe that G-d created everything in His great wisdom and that He did not create anything that is disgraceful… G-d is pure of spirit and nothing comes from Him that is intrinsically evil, and it was He Who created man and woman in every detail.” (Ramban, Kabbalist, Igeres Hakodesh, 2)
A fundamental element of marriage is the reuniting of male and female. Physical intimacy is one of the prime means of achieving this oneness. By giving pleasure to each other, the man and woman truly become one unit. Intimacy must be an expression of love which grows out of the desire to give to ones spouse, not only to take. This is one reason why intimacy is forbidden in situations where the husband has decided to divorce his wife, when either of them is drunk, or if there is coercion. In each of these cases, the intimacy is primarily an act oftakingpleasure, not of giving. Judaism prohibits intimacy outside of marriage for the same reason. It is only when a man and woman are prepared to publicly, formally and legally commit themselves to each other that their physical relationship will be one of giving, not of taking. The Hebrew word for sexual immorality,znus,is related to the word zan, which means to satiate. The idea is that sexual immorality is generally motivated by a desire for self gratification; each person thinks only of his or her own satisfaction. In the case of a husband and wife, who love each other and are committed to each other, the main focus is not fulfillment of self, but the giving of pleasure to the other. The Torah itself obligates the husband to give his wife fulfilling sexual pleasure, independent of the mitzvah of procreation.
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The laws of family purity have been observed by the Jewish people for thousands of years, sometimes with incredible self sacrifice. They have formed the basis of a harmonious married life, have introduced holiness into the physical world, and have taught millions of Jews that the art of self-discipline is a vital key to pleasure and happiness.
The Torah prohibits any physical intimacy between husband and wife for approximately twelve days each month, from the onset of the woman’s menstrual period until she has immersed in a mikvah (ritual pool) seven days after her period ends. The laws of purity and impurity reflect spiritual realities that are beyond human comprehension. They do, however, confer physical benefits as well.
The sages of the Talmud discuss some of the effects of the family purity laws in direct, pragmatic terms. Thousands of years ago, they commented on factors in human nature that are only now being confirmed by social scientists. Recent studies have found that one of the most common problems experienced by married couples is that of boredom; a lack of novelty in their intimate life. The desire for new and exciting experiences is a major factor in infidelity. The Sages explained that the laws of family purity are designed to provide a solution to this problem. The period of abstinence during and after the wife’s menstrual period makes the time that the couple is together again seem like a honeymoon. The joy, newness and desire that existed at the beginning of the marriage are re-experienced every month after the wife has immersed in the mikvah and returned to her husband.
The period of separation also creates a situation in which the husband and wife cannot use physical means to communicate. Since they are forced to interact emotionally and intellectually without any physical contact, their relationship is deepened and strengthened. The common complaint that men treat their wives like “objects” finds no basis in a Jewish marriage where husband and wife interact on multiple levels.
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