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The following are some common customs during a Jewish Wedding:
The ketubah, or marriage contract, may be printed, or it may be written in beautiful calligraphy and illuminated. Much of the Aramaic text is over 2,000 years old, and the present form was fixed in the eighth or ninth century. The ketubah formalizes the groom's commitment to protect and care for the bride. The ketubah has two signatures from close friends or respected teachers as formal witnesses to his commitment.
After the ketubah is prepared, the groom is asked if he is prepared to fulfill his obligations as stated in the ketubah. The traditional method of indicating agreement is for the group to take hold of a handkerchief or some other object given him by the rabbi. This is performed in the presence of witnesses.
After the signing of the ketubah, the fathers of the bride and groom escort the groom to the bride, where guests dance and sing. There, the groom will lift the veil over the bride's face. This is to verify that it is indeed the woman he intends to marry. The groom then replaces her veil, reciting the blessing "Our sister, may you be the mother of thousands of ten thousands" (Genesis 24:60), words first uttered by Rebecca's mother and brother to her as she left her home to marry Isaac. The purpose for this ceremony is often explained by referring to the story of Jacob, whose father-in-law substituted Leah for Rachel when he married.
As for the replacing of the veil: The roots of this custom date back at least 600 years, and is based on talmudic sources. Perhaps the ceremony signifies modesty, or the groom's responsibility--defined in the ketubah--for clothing the bride.
The couple will be blessed by their fathers, as they have been many times before. At this point, the groom and his friends exit singing and dancing, to prepare for the ceremony.
The ceremony itself is a combination of symbolism, traditions, and religiously binding acts.
The central physical symbol is the Chuppah, the marriage canopy. It is a canopy supported by four poles; it originally referred to a chamber reserved for the bride on her wedding day. The custom of using a chuppah originated with the rabbis in the Middle Ages, to separate the wedding ceremony (which was held outdoors) from any surrounding marketplace.
The chuppah represents the home that they will create together, and the Divine Presence under which they will be married. One nice custom is to have honored friends hold the chuppah poles. In some families, the custom is to make a family chuppah, and to pass it down from generation to generation (as opposed to a wedding dress).
The bride and groom are escorted to the chuppah by their parents, who carry candles to light the way. Traditionally, the fathers of the bride and groom escorted the groom, and the mothers of the bride and groom escorted the bride. Today, the groom's parents escorting the groom and the bride's parents escorting the bride. The groom arrives at the chupah first. The bride is escorted to the chupah by shoshvinim (escorts). The groom dons a kittel, a white robe worn on the High Holidays. Neither the bride nor groom wear jewelry under the Chuppah; the ring he gives her under the chuppah should be of unparalleled importance to her.
Traditionally, the ring presented from the groom to the bride must be worth at least a perutah (about a dime), and must be owned free and clear by the groom. It must be a band of metal, with no holes going through it (this eliminates any misunderstandings about the value of the ring). There are traditionally no stones, for if a stone were set in the ring, the wife might overestimate its worth, and this might invalidate her acceptance of it. Note that a different ring may be worn after the ceremony.
When the bride reaches the chupah, tradition is that she circles around the groom either three or seven times. This symbolically making him the center of her life (note that some say that it symbolizes her protective care of her husband). The mothers of the bride and groom follow, showing that the family will be an integral part of that life. The custom comes from the verse in Jer. 31:22: "A woman shall court (go around) a man". Note: Many are bothered by the unevenness of this custom and have either made it egalitarian (each circles the other) or eliminated it altogether.
There are nine blessings recited under the chuppah.
The first two blessings -- one over the wine and the second solemnifying the betrothal (Birchat Erusin) -- represent the first part of the ceremony.
Next, two witnesses are called; they examine the wedding band to be sure that it meets standards of Jewish law (that it of one piece and without embedded stones). The groom then places the ring on the bride's index finger and formally declares her to be his wife. They are, at that point, fully married according to Jewish law.
The ketubah will be read (usually by a prominent rabbi or scholar). The groom will then give it to the bride; the ketubah is, strictly speaking, the bride's.
The seven blessings that are then recited are among the most sentimental and beautiful of the Jewish liturgy, and are unparalleled expressions of joy. In a tradition at least 800 years old, the groom breaks a glass, symbolically remembering the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. The ceremony is over. With singing and dancing, the couple are escorted from the room.
There are some other interesting wedding customs, as described in The Jewish Catalog:
There is a custom that the bride give the groom a tallit on the day of the wedding. This is because the tallit represents the number 32, which is the number of fringes on the shawl. The number 32 is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for heart.
In Europe, a jester was hired for a large wedding. His job was to be an actor, singer, poet, etc. and master of ceremonies.
We are all familiar with the concept of the Jewish matchmater as illustrated on the stage in Fiddler on the Roof. Yes, some communities still use matchmakers and arranged marriages.
In some communities, the bride and groom are wrapped together by a single tallit (in fact, this was done for the FAQ maintainer; the same tallit was later used to wrap the maintainer's daughter when she was named).
It is common to set the wedding date for a Tuesday, because on the third day of creation, the Torah repeats twice: "and G-d saw how good it was".
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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>