How To Plan Your Jewish Wedding

Image: Two wedding rings. (Pixabay)

Congratulations! You have found the love of your life, and you are looking forward to a wedding!

What’s the first thing to do?

Share the news with family and friends, of course! And they will immediately begin planning your wedding: where you should have it, when you should have it, who might be the caterer, the florist, the planner, and so forth and so on.

Stop!

That is all fine and good, but for a Jewish wedding, the first thing on your to-do list should be the rabbi or cantor who will officiate.

Why?

  • Because rabbis and cantors have busy schedules and cannot be in two places at once.
  • Because rabbi and cantor calendars get booked up long before “wedding season.”
  • Because there are dates in the Jewish calendar when most rabbis do not perform weddings. (Why would anyone want to get married on Yom Kippur? I don’t know, but I know rabbis who have gotten that request.)
  • Because the rabbi or cantor may have advice or requirements about things like the ketubah and the rings.
  • Because rabbis and cantors can help you plan the wedding service and support you in dealing with family issues.
  • Because many rabbis and cantors can provide premarital counseling, which is different from therapy – an opportunity to learn about your beloved, and for them to learn about you.
  • Because rabbis and cantors are professionals, trained to assist you in making your wedding day a sacred day.

Once you’ve got the rabbi or cantor, then you will have the date. Then you can call the caterer, and the florist, the wedding planner, the venue, the ketubah artist, Aunt Mildred, the dressmaker…

Even if you are planning a very simple wedding, your officiant is the place to start!

Don’t have a rabbi or cantor? Check out the directory at InterfaithFamily.com. They can help you find a qualified officiant.

What is a Kittel?

Image: A kittle, folded up like a shirt.

A kittel is a garment you might see during the High Holy Days or at a wedding. It is a white garment made of lightweight fabric, usually cotton or a polyester blend. It looks a bit like a very light lab coat with a cloth belt, generally in a mid-calf length, and it is worn buttoned-up.

You may also see a kittel on the chatan [bridegroom] at a wedding.

In both cases, the kittel signifies the purity of heart one tries to bring to those situations. The color white is sometimes said to take its inspiration from this verse from the prophets:

Come now, and let us reason together, says the Eternal; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be like wool.

— Isaiah 1:18

A kittel may also be worn by the meyt [body of the deceased] in the coffin for burial. Usually it is paired with long trousers of the same material. The persons who wash the body for burial dress it before putting it in the casket. You are unlikely to see a meyt in a kittel because it is not the custom to view a body after death; Jewish funerals are always closed-casket.

This gives us another reason that some people choose to wear a kittel during High Holy Day observances. There is a focus on the end of life during those days, especially Yom Kippur. Wearing the garment in which one might be buried is a sharp reminder of our mortality.

What is a Ketubah?

Image: Ketubah by Miriam Karp. Two trees join to form a chuppah under which the text of the ketubah is written. Photo by Ruth Adar, all rights reserved.

A ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract. Signing it and witnessing it is an essential part of a Jewish wedding. In its traditional formulation, it is a one-way contract listing the responsibilities of a Jewish husband to his wife. The husband commits to providing food, clothing, and conjugal relations to his wife, and should he at some future time divorce her, he commits to paying her a specified amount of cash. There have to be at least two qualified witnesses.

Originally, the ketubah was an effort to protect both groom and bride. There is no ketubah mentioned in the Torah. In Biblical Judaism, the groom had to pay a mohar, a dowry, for the wife; this money was to be held for her security in case of death or divorce. The rabbis saw that young men delayed marrying, because it took time to raise the mohar funds, so they devised the ketubah, which committed the groom to future payments in the event of divorce but no payment at the time of marriage. That way,  a young man could marry before he got old.

It was even more a protection for the bride. A Jewish divorce must be initiated by the husband, and to carry it out, he has to give his wife a get, a bill of divorce. That activates her claim for support in the ketubah, so he know that if he divorces her, he would owe her support. In ancient times, a woman who had been married and cast aside had no rights to her children and very few options other than starving. With the ketubah, the woman had enforceable rights.

(Problems have arisen in modern times about husbands getting a civil divorce and then refusing to grant a get to the wife, but that’s a separate subject for another time. See agunot.)

For the text of the traditional Aramaic ketubah, and an explanation of its details, see The Ketubah Text at MyJewishLearning.com.

The traditional text does not meet the needs of some modern Jews. Rabbi Rachel Adler, in her book Engendering Judaism, proposed a new text for the ketubah. Instead of the traditional text, which outlines the obligations of the husband only, her new document was modeled on a business partnership between equals. She calls this document a brit ahuvim, a lovers’ covenant. A copy of that text is available on ritualwell.org.

Many couples choose alternate texts, and for some couples, the process of writing their own ketubah, their own marriage agreement, is a helpful prelude to the very serious step of marriage.

Ketubot (the plural form) are often embellished with artwork, and have become a major vehicle for Jewish artistic expression. The ketubah in the picture is that belonging to me and my wife.

Ketubah
Detail from the ketubah pictured above. Artwork and calligraphy by Miriam Karp. The text is based on the brit ahuvim with some changes by the couple.