Under Jewish law, as set out in the Talmud, there are three alternative ways in which a Jewish marriage may be contracted: by a written document, by an oral contract sealed by giving an item of value, or by permanent cohabitation. The traditional Jewish ceremony is a joyous occasion which combines all of these alternative contractual elements, accompanied by religious blessings and elaborate symbolic ceremonials. However it is the voluntary actions of the parties rather than the words of the celebrant which create the marriage relationship.
Within four days before the wedding, the bride immerses in the 'mikvah', a ritual bath fed by pure rain or spring water. Her immersion is accompanied by a blessing and an appropriate prayer. The purpose of the immersion is to effect spiritual purification in preparation for the physical relationship of marriage.
Wedding day fast
It is customary for the bride and groom to fast on the day of the wedding until after the ceremony. This is why the wedding feast is described in English as a 'breakfast'.
Fasting assists the couple to come to the 'chuppah' (wedding canopy and ceremony) in a spirit of solemnity akin to the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Each one's sins are forgiven on that day, as it is considered important to enter upon marriage as a new chapter in life with one’s conscience cleared of the errors or lapses of the past.
The bride wears a white dress, reminiscent of the white garments that symbolise purity on the High Holydays. In some congregations the groom wears a 'tallit' (prayer shawl). Chassidic bridegrooms wear a white 'kittel' (long white cotton coat) - another reminder of the dignity, purity and spirituality of the occasion.
Before the ceremony the bride sits veiled among the women. The groom enters and, in memory of the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah (Genesis 30; 21-27), he raises the bride's veil to see her for the first time on that day.
The Marriage Contract ('Ketuba')
One of the prescribed elements of a Jewish wedding is the delivery of a written marriage contract by the groom to the bride. This contract is usually signed before the public ceremony. The document, called a 'ketuba' or 'writing', is often highly ornamented. The form of the document is prescribed in the Mishna, compiled in the third century CE. It includes provision for the wife’s future maintenance by the husband, and provision of a lump sum in case of death or divorce. (In Australia its legal terms are, of course, subject to Australian family law.) The document is read out during the marriage ceremony.
The public wedding ceremony takes place under a canopy called the 'chuppah', which may take the form of a prayer-shawl supported by poles, or which may be a portable structure. The chuppah symbolises the marital home in which husband and wife will create. It can either be set up in the open air or in the formal setting of the synagogue. The groom comes under the chuppah first in order to await the arrival of his bride. The bride stands on his right in fulfilment of the biblical words: “At thy right hand does the queen stand.” (Psalm 45:10). At a Jewish wedding the bride and groom are regarded as royalty.
The parents of both the bride and the groom stand beneath the chuppah at the ceremony. However the operative parts of the ceremony are performed only by the bride and groom, and neither is 'given away' by a parent.
The Seven Blessings ('Sheva Brachot')
Under the chuppah the cantor sings the Seven Blessings (in Hebrew literally the 'Sheva Brachot'). The fifth, sixth and seventh blessings are translated below:
"Let the barren city be jubilantly happy and joyful at her joyous reunion with her children. You are blessed, Lord, who makes Zion rejoice with her children.
Let the loving couple be very happy, just as You made Your creation happy in the garden of Eden, so long ago. You are blessed, Lord, who makes the bridegroom and the bride happy.
You are blessed, Lord our G-d, the sovereign of the world, who created joy and celebration, bridegroom and bride, rejoicing, jubilation, pleasure and delight, love and brotherhood, peace and friendship. May there soon be heard, Lord our G-d, in the cities of Judea and in the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of joy and the sound of celebration, the voice of a bridegroom and the voice of a bride, the happy shouting of bridegrooms from their weddings and of young men from their feasts of song. You are blessed, Lord, who makes the bridegroom and the bride rejoice together."
The operative part of the ceremony is the giving of an item of value with the intention of sealing the marriage contract. This is the wedding ring, which is placed on the bride’s right forefinger simultaneously with the pronunciation of the formula, “Behold you are consecrated to me according to the laws of Moses and of Israel.” This formula brings the marriage into existence.
There is a growing custom for the bride then to place a ring on the groom’s finger, and pronounce a similar formula, although this has no effect in Jewish law.
The ring must be the groom’s property. It should be plain and without jewels in order to make no distinction between rich people and poor and to avoid any deception or misunderstanding as to its monetary worth. It must be an object of value, but need not cost more than the lowest common coin. The round and endless shape of the ring suggests the hope that the couple will enjoy well-rounded and lifelong happiness.
The Breaking of the Glass
The bride and the groom then drink wine from a cup. The ceremony comes to a dramatic conclusion as the groom smashes a glass by stamping on it. The traditional reason for this custom is that it recalls the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. As it is written in the Psalms: “If I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy…”. However it is notable that the contract of betrothal is sealed by the breaking of a plate, and this may be analogous. The idea is that even at the time of their greatest happiness, Jews must remember the central tragic event in the history of their people: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
After the ceremony
The third alternative way of contracting a Jewish marriage, by cohabitation, is symbolised after the ceremony by the couple entering a room alone.
The wedding feast then takes place with singing and dancing, and in some traditions with entertainment of the bride and groom by the guests. There is also a tradition, not often followed, that the groom’s speech is a formal commentary on the laws of marriage, and there is a growing practice that bride and groom make a joint speech.
For seven days after the wedding, the couple refrain from work and business. Many couples celebrate these festive days in their own homes, indicating that this is where their future joy will be found. In some communities, friends of the couple will arrange evening parties in their homes to read the seven blessings.
Should a couple decide that their marriage has irretrievably broken down, and that there is no hope of reconciliation, Judaism allows for divorce. Divorce, like marriage, is the voluntary act of both the parties, and it is effected by the husband delivering, and the wife voluntarily accepting, a Bill of Divorcement, known as a 'gett'. The Bill of Divorcement is written by a scribe in Aramaic, and is kept by the wife after the delivery and acceptance proceedings.
Although effected by the parties and not by a court, the practice is for the delivery and acceptance of the gett to take place in the presence of the Rabbinical Court, which ensures that the procedures are correctly followed and maintains a permanent record.
The concept of the Bill of Divorcement is very ancient, referred to in the book of Deuteronomy (24: 1-4). However problems can arise from inconsistencies between the operation of the modern civil divorce system, where a divorce is decreed by the Court at the request of either party, and the Jewish system, which requires the consent of both parties.
Under Jewish law the Rabbinical Court can decide that special grounds exist for a party to be compelled to give or receive the Gett. The difficulty is that the Rabbinical Court in Australia has no enforcement powers if a party refuses to co-operate. In order to overcome the hardship which can arise where a party is divorced under civil law but unable to re-marry under Jewish law, the Jewish community has asked for legislation similar to that operating in Canada, New York State and South Africa, which gives the Family Court special powers to assist the parties.
The original marriage contract makes provision for maintenance and lump sum payment in the event of divorce. However this contract is not enforceable under Australian law, and the civil law applies.