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The following are some common customs before a Jewish Wedding:
Engagement in Jewish law is more than just the intention to marry; it carries considerable legal and social significance. The official Jewish engagement takes place at the groom's table, with the signing of "Tena'im," which creates the Jewish legal status of "engaged." The honor of reading the contract (in Aramaic) is often given to a prominent rabbi or close friend. Then, the mothers of the bride and groom break a china plate, signifying the completion of the engagement agreement.
Te'naim is a mutual agreement between the bride and groom's parents. It concerns the date and financial arrangements of the marriage. The Te'naim dates back to the third century C.E.; it serves to discourage disorganized arrangements as well as misunderstandings that can lead to hurt feelings and strained relationships. Often, the signing is accompanied by an engagement party for the couple and their parents. Te'naim is primarily an Orthodox custom.
There is the notions of Eirusin, Qiddushin, and Nissuin. Eirusin refers to giving the ring (meaning the bride-to-be can't marry anyone else, but they are not yet husband and wife in any fiscal or sexual sense). Qiddushin is the acceptance of the ring. Nissuin refers to sharing a home: chuppah, yichud, or consumating the marriage (the tannaim dispute which is necessary). This time is not really betrothal, but is more than getting engaged, and yet not quite fully married. There is no western equivalent, really. The maximum period of time allowed is a year. This was a rabbinic enactment toward the end of the 2nd Temple era (around the time of Jesus), so as to prevent men from performing eirusin and then never committing to marriage (nissuin). In fact, if you waited more than a year, the court required you to support your bride anyway, to prevents stringing her along. The problem with having a long engagement is that hormones get impatient. So, by the 12th century the norm was to perform eirusin in the morning, have a full day of wedding celebrations, and have nissuin right before sunset. Today they are even closer together. The ring is given under the chuppah (bridal canopy). Technically, Eirusin is the giving of the ring, Qiddushin occurs as when she accepts the ring, and nissuin an instant later as they are already under the chuppah. Some opine that nissiun requires being alone together, so we dance with the couple from the chuppah to a yichud room (lit: being alone room). According to this opinion, nissuin is 15 min or so after qiddushin.
Before the wedding, the couple selects a rabbi and meets with the rabbi to set a date and place. The rabbi instructs and counsels the couple as they prepare for the day.
Jewish marriages do not take place on Shabbat, festivals or the High Holy Days. This is because "one does not mix one occasion of rejoicing with another." This keeps the celebration of the holyday separate from the celebration of the wedding (such separation is important: consider the dilemma of Christian children who are born on Chistmas: Whose birthday is being celebrated?) However, weddings may be held on Chanukah and Purim. Wedding are not traditionally held on days of public mourning as the mood of such days would diminish the joy of the wedding. This includes Tisha B'Av, the fast of Gedaliah, the tenth of Tevet, the fast of Esther, the seventeenth of Tammuz,the period between Pesach and Shavuot, and the three weeks from the seventeenth of Tammuz until Tisha B'Av. The one exception Lag B'Omer, the thirty-third day in the Counting of the Omer, which is a popular wedding date in Israel. This is an especially popular time to get married in Israel. Tuesday is considered a good day to have a wedding, because in the account of Creation (Genesis, chapter 1), we read ki tov ("it is good") twice on the third day.
On the Shabbat morning before the wedding, it is common for the hatan (groom) (sometimes the couple is called) to be called up to read the Torah in the synagogue. This serves to announced the forthcoming marriage to the community and permit everyone to wish the couple mazel tov. In Ashkenazic communities, this was the equivalent of the "If anyone has any objections to this marriage..."; that is, it permitted anyone with information concerning impediments to the validity of the marriage to voice them. After the groom recites the final blessings, Sephardic communities throw candy and raisins to wish the groom a sweet life. Those who try to avoid Yiddish call this the "Shabbat Chatan", Sabbath of the Groom. Note that usually there is a simultaneous "Shabbat Kallah", where the brides' friends make a party for her.
The couple will not have seen each other for the week before their wedding day. On the wedding day itself, they fast and recite special prayers; the day is a personal Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) for them. Thus, they are fasting as an atonement for sins. The fast also emphasizes the serious nature of the commitment. The custom is that they fast from dawn until the chupah ceremony is completed. If the marriage takes place on a day of public celebration (Rosh Chodesh, Chanukah, Tu B'Shevat, or Purim) then the fast is suspended. The fast permits the couple to begin their married life free from the taint of sin, a fresh slate, as it were.
Traditionally, the bride visits the mikveh before to the wedding. This is done to mark the change of status.
Keeping with the Yom Kippur theme, the bride and groom traditionally wear white at the wedding as a symbol of purity.
The bride is often seated on a bridal chair, and is greeted by friends and family members. In an adjacent room, the groom meets with his friends, who may sing and share the celebration. He may attempt a brief lecture on some issue in Jewish law; if so, custom dictates that he be interrupted by his friends' singing.
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.
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Daniel P. Faigin <email@example.com>