Jewish Wedding: Denise and Daniel

Every event begins with a venue.

From its placid and unassuming appearance here you might never guess that this restaurant will very soon host an event that is among the very most joyous and sacred in all of Jewish life.

As it does in many cultures, the ring  plays an integral role in the Jewish wedding, too. But with a twist:  it is not about the ring, per se.  (More on this later.)

Wine and Jews have a very ancient relationship, dating back at least 3,300 years. The fifth of the Five Books of the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy), mentions the grapes used for wine as one of the seven species of produce by which the Land of Israel distinguishes itself.

But the first mention of vineyards and wine in the Torah predates even that by many hundreds of years — going as far back as Noah. Not long after leaving his ark following the Flood and returning to dry land, Noah planted a vineyard and drank from the wine thereof.

Down to our very own times, Jewish Sabbaths, Holy Days and official ceremonies are all marked by the solemn inclusion of wine in the program.  And weddings, too, of course!

“In vino veritas,” goes the Latin saying.  The Jews have their own version of that truism: “Nikhnas yayin, yatsa sod,” is the Hebrew equivalent, roughly translated as: “In goes the wine, out pop the secrets.”

But it is a well-established fact that despite the Jews’ liberal use of wine (and other intoxicating liquids), alcoholism among Jews over the course of our history has been surprisingly rare.

“Let them eat cake,” on the other hand, has no direct equivalent in Judaism. But no matter, the Hebrew word for cake, ugah, itself has very ancient origins, too, dating likewise to the era of the patriarchs, at least.  The Torah also uses ugot (the plural form) to refer to the matzah that is central to the Pesach (‘Passover’) festival

But the fine looking cupcakes you see here bear very little resemblance to matzoh (which may be all for the better).

The main point is that cake in its own way symbolizes the very best of God’s manifold kindnesses to us — both sweetness and life-sustaining nourishment all wrapped up in one comely and delicious package. Who could ask for more?

“Mazel Tov!”  Surely you have heard those uniquely Jewish words before, and it would hardly be a Jewish wedding without them. For simplicity’s sake let’s translate “Mazel Tov” as “Congratulations!” or “Best of luck!”

But wouldn’t it be surprising if such a time-honored Jewish expression had not acquired an ironic use as well? Here, then, is a typical example, uttered in profound angst, and with a ringing of the hands:  “So you totaled the car today, did you? Mazel tov!

As is the case with many Jewish words and phrases, there is the modern Hebrew and also the older Yiddish pronunciation. These are, respectively, “mah-ZAHL tohv” and “MAH-zle tuhv”, with emphasis as shown.

The spelling you see in the photo is essentially the Yiddish variant. But all roads lead to Rome, and the (non-ironic!) mazal tov‘s heard on this day, regardless of pronunciation and spelling, express one and the same eternal hope and timeless wish: May the extreme joy you are experiencing on this day fill your entire lives forever!

Each of these gorgeous lasses could herself be a bride. And it won’t be long now — just give them a few more years.

Such is the cycle of Jewish life.

In Hebrew there is an expression, le-dor va-dor, which means “from generation to generation”; it underscores the continuity that is a fundamental ingredient for an enduring Judaism. From Moses and down to our own times every generation without exception has had its adherents who remained faithful to observance of the Torah.

Our children are the future of our nation — provided that we teach them well.

Here is Daniel, our “hatan“, which is Hebrew for “groom”. Except that hatan in Hebrew can have a much broader meaning, approximating “the star of today’s show” or “the man of the hour” …

Even if he is hardly a man at all!

For example, an eight-day-old baby boy on the day of his circumcision can also be referred to as hatan.

So now you know why Daniel is smiling: his hatan experience today will be of a far more agreeable nature.

Here we have Rabbi Gideon Moskovitz of Meyerland Minyan in light conversation with our hatan, Daniel. Rabbi Moskovitz seems bemused; who knows, he may have just given Daniel one final chance to change his mind. But Daniel isn’t having any of that.

Nonetheless, it’s the rabbi’s duty to make inquiry along those lines. Because according to Jewish law, a marriage entered into under duress would be ipso facto almost certainly invalid.

(Note:  Clever rabbis word their contracts such that the fee will be collectible in full regardless.)

Daniel’s good friend Donniel Ogorek served as a witness to the ketubah, which he did by solemnly affixing his signature thereto.

The ketubah is a document of ancient Talmudic pedigree that is strictly business in its content — it is a legal document and not a religious one. Its purpose is to protect the woman in the event of termination of the marriage due to divorce, or death of the husband, by providing her with a monetary settlement from him (or in the latter case, from his estate). We will have much more to say about the ketubah later.

Here we have the kallah (bride) Denise circling her groom seven times under the huppah (wedding, or bridal, canopy) as is traditional — though by no means an absolute requirement in any legal or other sense.  (This practice might be seen, inter alia, as a symbolic pledge of the bride’s commitment to respecting her husband’s person and recognizing his moral authority in the marriage. But many explanations have been given for this custom.)

In the popular conception the word huppah is generally understood to mean the wedding canopy below which the Jewish wedding “ceremony” is conducted. The word “huppah” itself is all but synonymous with the phrase “Jewish wedding”.

Fundamentally, the huppah  symbolizes the home and family which the bride and groom, with G-d’s help, will build together.

However, the word huppah in its more basic — and less familiar–  sense appears to refer to the closed premises within which the bride and groom first seclude themselves alone only with each other. This is a conclusive indicator that the couple is now officially married, because any such seclusion would have been strictly forbidden to them before the wedding. And this, too, is an integral part of the Jewish wedding process; any hall that serves traditional Jews will typically have a special room set aside expressly for this purpose.

Here would be a good place to emphasize that a forum of this sort is wholly insufficient to adequately explicate even just the essentials of Jewish marriage law and traditions. From a Talmudic perspective, our brief coverage has not even touched upon some of the most fundamental principles.

Interested readers are encouraged to seek more complete elaboration from a competent rabbinic scholar or teacher, who might also recommend supplemental reading materials on the subject.

Here we can plainly see that a huppah in its simplest form is merely a cloth supported by a pole at each of its four corners. Not infrequently, that “cloth” is a tallit, a Jewish fringed prayer shawl, as you see here. By Torah law, a kosher tallit is absolutely guaranteed to be four-cornered, rendering it very well-suited for use as the canopy of a huppah.

The bride and groom partake of the wine that has given joyful witness to the sanctity of the enduring union into which they hereby do enter.

The witnesses inspect the ring.

But a ring is a ring is a ring; right? So what’s the big deal?

We cannot teach you an entire tractate of Talmud (Kiddushin, dealing with the laws of Jewish marriage) on one foot.  Rabbinical students easily spend a year studying just that one tractate, and even so only scratch the surface. But here is what you need to know about the ring in the broadest of strokes.

Jewish marriage (or, more precisely, the first of its two stages) is today transacted, in accordance with ancient Talmudic law, by a Jewish man presenting a Jewish woman with negotiable funds or some object of monetary value, relinquishing it into her possession, and telling her unequivocally that he intends, by virtue of that transfer, for her to become his wife “according to the law of Moses and Israel”.

From the above description it will be apparent that said object of value given by the groom to the bride need not be a ring. It might be a car, a cow, an umbrella, or even a loaf of bread or a postage stamp.

Nevertheless, established Jewish custom is that a the object used to transact marriage is invariably a ring.

If you look closely, however, you will notice that the ring being used is composed solely of metal, with no stone attached.  The reason for this is that precious stones can vary widely in value; two stones that appear almost identical to the average citizen may be actually priced at opposite ends of the valuation spectrum.

Therefore, since Jewish law requires that both parties to the marriage have accurate knowledge of the value of the item that is changing hands, precious stones are eliminated from the equation in order to reduce, to the extent possible, any misunderstanding as to the object’s (that is, ring’s) value that could later be cause to invalidate the marriage on grounds of one or both parties having been misled. (Do not construe this, however, as meaning that misunderstandings are totally impossible even when only bare metal is used.)

And so — getting back to the witnesses — it is a vital part of their job to ascertain beyond reasonable doubt that the ring to be used to transact the marriage is of the value that the groom claims it to be, the value that the bride would reasonably understand it to be, and the value that the ring itself, by its appearance, purports to be.

(The witnesses would do well to also demand of the groom some proof that the ring actually belongs to him. The principle of transacting the marriage through transfer of property from groom to bride clearly implies that that property must actually belong to the groom before transfer.)

So, is it a marriage?

Or is it the legal transfer of property?

Jewish law says that it is both.

Traditionally the groom places the ring on the index finger of the bride’s right hand. Various reasons, both legal and homiletic, have been offered for this custom, which often surprises the uninitiated, given that that is not the finger on which a wedding band would normally be worn. (Needless to say, the bride is free to later move the ring to any finger on either hand.)  If, however, the bride received the ring on a different finger or hand, it appears that only an extreme, minority rabbinical opinion (if that) would deem the marriage ineffectual on that basis.

Here Rabbi Yossi Grossman reads the ketubah. This reading is considered an important aspect of the Jewish wedding ceremony, irrespective of the fact that precious few of the attendees will actually understand what they are hearing.

And that is because the language of the ketubah is not even Hebrew, but Aramaic, a language that Jews two thousand years ago could be heard speaking in the street, at home, in the rabbinical academies, and just about everywhere, but which has fallen into general disuse over the past ten or fifteen centuries.

Be that as it may, traditional Jews still pay reverent homage to our past by retaining Aramaic in their ketubot and in various other legal and liturgical contexts. Moreover, much of the Talmud is written in Aramaic, as are a small portion of the synagogue liturgy, including — most notably — the kaddish, a central part of the daily communal synagogue service that is somehow familiar even to many Jews who are otherwise not acquainted with Jewish learning or prayers.

But getting back to the ketubah …

Reading the ketubah publicly at the wedding basically sends a message to the groom, his heirs, current or future, if any, and the entire Jewish community, that regardless of what might happen down the road, any attempt to deprive the bride of her dignity or of monies or property that are rightfully hers will not be tolerated, and that the terms of the ketubah will be enforced to the fullest extent of the law, come what may, because the groom himself has agreed to all this as an absolute condition to this marriage, as Jewish law requires.

In ancient times the ‘weaker sex’ needed every protection that the Rabbis and the Jewish courts could muster on its behalf.

An indispensable component of any Jewish wedding is the practice of “gladdening the groom and bride”. The Talmud waxes eloquent about this mitzvah. The Talmud tells us that even the despicable, murderous Queen Jezebel, who suffered a shockingly ignominious end (see the biblical book of Kings for details) was worthy that her decree would be somewhat mitigated in compensation for Jezebel’s repeated participation in the mitzvah of enhancing the joy of married couples at their weddings.

Instrumental music, singing, dancing, even clowning and clowns, masks and costumes, and every device of merriment beyond your imagination all figure into this noble equation.

When will our bride and groom feel unmitigated, unbounded joy if not tonight? It is our duty to make sure that tonight, at least, they will.

And now, a rite of passage. This is standard fare these days at all Jewish weddings, virtually without exception. The groom is raised and carried on a chair, by a doting but by now exhausted crowd who struggle from below to keep the chair vertical and their precious passenger safe. He probably wasn’t planning on any broken bones for his wedding night. As it is, he’s already given up a whole rib to get here. (See Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 2.)

Beautiful kallah Denise in the background looks on with pride as Aunt Sheila, a pillar of the community, engages Daniel’s father in conversation. And engaging she certainly is, our Aunt Sheila, for this marriage is in a very large sense entirely the result of her efforts. It was Sheila who introduced Denise and Daniel, and got this whole party started.  In all of Judaism, there is hardly any greater mitzvah than this. Aunt Sheila, how can we possibly thank you enough?!

These guests are engrossed in their recitation of birkat ha-mazon (the “Grace after Meals”), a prayer that is not unique to Jewish weddings. Rather, it is recited each and every day of the year after any meal in which bread was eaten. The birkat ha-mazon is, in fact, one of the loftiest prayers in all of Judaism. Such is the emphasis that the Torah places on the notion of feeling and expressing gratitude, in general, and — specifically — on giving thanks and recognition to God, who in His everlasting kindness sustains every living creature.

Here we have a number of restaurant personnel coming to observe a Jewish wedding (or a part thereof). These young ladies and men expressed considerable interest in this exotic event, the likes of which none of them had ever seen before.

In their eyes I see a healthy curiosity, respect for cultures and traditions beyond their own, and a genuine desire to expand their horizons by reaching beyond the realm of their own everyday experience.

The Talmud teaches us that each and every day we should approach the Torah and Judaism with completely fresh eyes, as if we were being introduced to it for the very first time.

Given, then, that this writer has by now been practicing Judaism and studying Torah virtually every day of his life for over fifty years, is it possible that these young boys and girls might actually have some advantage over him in the “fresh eyes” department?