Why Can’t Jews Get Married on Shabbat?

breaking the glass

“Why can’t Jews get married on Shabbat?” a reader asked me recently. She and her fiancé had made a lot of expensive wedding arrangements, only to discover that very few rabbis will officiate on Shabbat (between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.) Now they are scrambling to find an officiant that will agree to officiate before sundown on a Saturday evening in the summertime.

TRADITION – At weddings, couples do many expensive and inconvenient things to honor tradition. Brides may pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for a dress they will only wear once. Couples mull over the “old, new, borrowed, and blue” custom. People who do not frequent synagogues or churches suddenly need a rabbi or priest. We do these and other things because on one of the biggest days of our lives, tradition matters. And it is Jewish tradition that weddings do not take place on the Sabbath and certain other days.

SHABBAT – Shabbat began at creation: as the story goes in Genesis 1, in six days God worked to make the world, and on the seventh, God rested. One of the traditions of Shabbat is that like God in the creation story, we don’t create new things on that day. What happens at a Jewish wedding is the creation of a new household among the Jewish People. It’s one of the most important events in not only the couple’s lives, but in the life of their Jewish community and the Jewish world. It should have a good start, and for a Sabbath-observant Jew, “breaking” Shabbat is not a good start.

RABBIS – Rabbis become rabbis because they care deeply about Judaism. Shabbat is the holiest day of the Jewish week, and it actually “outranks” nearly all the holidays. It isn’t a judgment on the couple or the family; it is a question of the rabbi’s personal boundaries.

So what is a couple to do?

1. Talk as a couple about what you really want out of this wedding. Is Jewish tradition important to you? If so, get in touch with a rabbi and include them in the process. They will be happy to take you through a process of learning the Jewish traditions for weddings and making educated choices about what you do and don’t want.

2. If you are in the early stages of planning your wedding, talk with your rabbi before you put deposits on the venue and the caterer!

3. If you have already made arrangements that cannot be changed, then it’s more complicated. There are some rabbis who officiate on Shabbat, but you may have to look out of town to find one. If it is actually not all that important to have a rabbi, maybe you have a relative or friend who could officiate. Many states have arrangements for one-day officiants. Any marriage that is recognized by the state is also recognized by the Jewish people.

Please don’t be mad at the rabbis you call who say they won’t officiate on Shabbat. They are exercising their right to observe Judaism according to their beliefs. You are exercising yours as well. You and that rabbi just aren’t a good match. Getting angry or calling them names will not persuade them to do what you want.

Your wedding day is one of the most important days of your life. Take your time figuring out what you really want out of it, and the tone you want to set for the rest of your life together. Your wedding day truly is “the first day in the rest of your life.”

What’s an Aufruf?

A few days ago I mentioned that friends who were getting married “had an aufruf.” I gave a link to definition, but thought this was a nice opportunity to say more about Jewish wedding customs.

Aufruf is Yiddish for “calling up.” Ashkenazic synagogues often call the groom up for an aliyah to the Torah on the Shabbat before the wedding. In liberal congregations, the couple is usually called up together. They have an aliyah, which means that they chant the blessings before and after a section of the Torah reading.

After the reading, the rabbi may offer a mishebeyrach (literally “May the One who blessed,” a prayer) for the couple. Usually then there’s singing and clapping. The YouTube video above is the usual song “Siman Tov uMazal Tov,” often sung at simchas (happy occasions).

Siman Tov uMazal Tov  uMazal Tov uSiman Tov (3x)
Hey lanu, y-hey lanu, y-hey lanu, uv’y’hol Yisrael (3x)

Translation:

A good sign and good luck, and good luck, and a good sign (3x)
May this be on all of us and on all of Israel! (3x)

In Sephardic and Mizrachi congregations, this is done on the Shabbat after the wedding.

So if you are invited to an aufruf, know that (1) it will take place in the middle of a Torah service and (2) If you clap along with the song, that’s good enough!

 

 

Traditional Jewish Weddings 101

A traditional illustrated ketubah (Jewish marr...
A traditional illustrated ketubah (Jewish marriage contract). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Invited to a Jewish wedding? Not sure what to expect? Here are some Jewish wedding traditions you may encounter.

HEBREW IN THE INVITATION – One wedding custom is to have everything on the invitation in both Hebrew and in English. Don’t worry, the translation is right there in front of you. No one will expect you to speak Hebrew at the wedding, except perhaps for Mazal Tov [Congratulations].

WHAT SHOULD I WEAR? – The invitation will probably tell you what you need to know (“formal,” “black-tie,” etc.) If the wedding is Orthodox, there may be expectations about modesty for women (no miniskirts, décolletage, etc.) If you have any questions about what to wear, call well ahead of time to ask.

WHAT CUSTOMS ARE DIFFERENT FROM A CHRISTIAN WEDDING? There are a number of distinct Jewish wedding customs. You may see some or all of these:

  • KETUBAH – A wedding contract, signed before the wedding begins or as it starts.
  • BEDECKENBedecken, “veiling” is a formal visit to the bride by the groom and his party just before the wedding (she and her attendants are in a separate room) and the groom sees her before she is veiled. This goes back to a Biblical story in which Jacob married the wrong woman when his fiance’s family deceived him.
  • CHUPPAH – The chuppah is a wedding canopy that symbolizes the new household that comes into being with this wedding. The bride and groom and their parents stand beneath it.
  • CIRCLING – The bride may walk seven circles around the groom during the ceremony, or in an egalitarian service, the couple may circle one another. Their lives will revolve around each other from now on.
  • PLAIN RING – For Jewish law, only one ring is required, given by the groom to the bride. It is a plain ring made of precious metal. The origin of this custom is that the groom is giving the bride an object of verifiable value as part of the wedding contract. Some couples use a plain ring that is in the groom’s family for this purpose, but the ring that the bride will wear after the ceremony is a ring with stones.
  • HEBREW VOW – The vow is usually in Hebrew, with the giving of the ring(s). The translation of the vow is “Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel.”
  • SHEVA BRACHOT – “Seven blessings” – These blessings are sung in Hebrew for the bride and groom. They celebrate not only this wedding, but the addition of a new household to the Jewish People.
  • BREAKING THE GLASS – The rabbi wraps a glass in cloth; the groom crushes it with his foot and everyone cries “Mazal tov!” There are many different stories about this custom.
  • DANCE THE HORA – At the reception, you may be invited to dance the hora – it’s a big circle dance, and if you “go with the flow” you won’t get in much trouble.

HOW CAN I BE A GOOD GUEST? Mostly, do the same things you’d do at any wedding: be happy for the couple, be pleasant to other guests, don’t drink too much, and so on. When in doubt, copy other guests who are near your age and gender.

 

The descriptions above deal with a traditional Jewish wedding between a bride and a groom. I’ll write about same-sex ceremonies and egalitarian practices in future posts.

A Jewish wedding is a time of great rejoicing, not only for the bride and groom, but for their families and for the greater Jewish community. Have a great time at the wedding!

Tips for Planning Your Jewish Wedding

Chuppah
Chuppah (Photo credit: afagen)

There was another one of those messages on my voicemail today:

“Rabbi, I got your name from —–, and here’s the thing, we’re getting married this March 2 and we have already reserved the hotel, we just need a rabbi and —– said you taught her Intro class and were really nice! Can you call me back so we can make arrangements? Oh, and what is your fee?”

My heart sank. I looked at the calendar and sure enough, the date in question is 8 weeks away and Shabbat. I will return the call, and I will be happy for them and friendly. And at the end of the conversation, no matter how friendly I am, they will be unhappy with me and it will just be sad. Because you see, I can’t help this couple.

Here are some tips for making your Jewish wedding plans a success:

1. CALL YOUR RABBI ASAP. Before you book the caterer, before you pick the venue, before you shop for a dress, call your rabbi. If your heart is set on a particular rabbi, the rabbi of your youth, you need to get on his or her calendar. Once something is set for a particular date, it’s hard to move. Rabbis’ calendars fill fast, faster than caterers’.

2. IF YOU DON’T HAVE A RABBI, BUT WANT A JEWISH WEDDING, START LOOKING ASAP. Even if you are not set on one particular rabbi, most rabbis will want to take time to get to know you and do some premarital counseling. This will help them give you a nicer, more personal wedding; it will also help you stay focused on what you are doing. You are not just planning an event, you are planning a major life change. The rabbi can help you prepare for it, and many rabbis won’t officiate without doing so.

3. IF YOU HAVE ANY SPECIAL NEEDS OR WANTS, START LOOKING FOR A RABBI NOW.  By special needs, I mean if one of you is not Jewish, or if you expect any special family challenges, if one of you is Orthodox and the other Reform, if you have any special desires like “no mention of God” or a wedding that is close upon Shabbat (between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday). Not all rabbis feel that they can officiate at weddings that will create an interfaith household. Only a few rabbis will officiate on Shabbat. And you may need a rabbi with special sensitivity if you have a complicated family situation. In any of these cases, you don’t want to be looking for your rabbi six weeks before the wedding, because you are likely not to find him.

The right rabbi can help you navigate a lot of the other hurdles you will face on the way to the chuppah. She can help you deal with overwrought relatives. He can help you not lose sight of the awesome life change you are making. She can help you with the other details of a Jewish wedding, including understanding what they mean: the chuppah [wedding canopy], the ketubah [wedding contract], and so on.

Even the not-quite-the-right-rabbi can point you to other rabbis who might be a better match for your wedding. The sooner you call us, the more likely we can help you.

I’m sure you have noticed that all my “tips” are really the same one:  call the rabbi!  Sometimes people delay, especially if they think they are bringing something to the rabbi that he or she won’t like. Don’t worry about that: just call. (Trust me, we’ve heard it all.)  If it isn’t going to work out with that rabbi, then you will have time to find the one you need.

If having a rabbi officiate is important to you, call the rabbi first. With the rabbi at your side, you can begin to prepare for your perfect day, and after that, for the rest of your life.