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Jewish Marriage

According to the Jews, getting married and procreating is practically a duty, the family represents the spiritual strength of the Jewish people.

Jewish Marriage

Article available in: PT-BR ESP

Last update: 03/05/2023

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - Researcher at the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation - Master in Psychology

Prior to World War II (1939-1945), thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe – Poland, Romania, Austria, Germany and Russia – left their places of origin and fled anti-Semitism and Nazism. The immigrants came to Northeast Brazil, particularly Pernambuco, and there built a school, synagogue and the Jewish cemetery to maintain their customs and traditions, according to the precepts of Mosaic Law. One of these laws refers to marriage.

According to the Jewish faith, to marry and procreate is almost a duty. In Genesis 2:18 and 2:24, it reads:

And the LORD God said: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helpmate for him.’ Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.

The Hebrews also believe that on the day of marriage, God forgives the couple for any transgressions committed in the past so that they can start life together in a state of purity.

The family is the spiritual strength of the Jewish people, and when compared to home, the synagogue itself plays a secondary role. In turn, the foundation of the family is marriage (Kiddushin in Hebrew, which means consecration, sacred occasion). It should be noted that the ultra-Orthodox Jews only accept celibacy when the man decides to dedicate his life to the study the Torah, and even then, celibacy is not encouraged. In the book of Proverbs 18:22 are the following words of King Solomon:

He who has found a wife has found good, and has obtained favour from the Lord.

Therefore, a man who does not have a wife will be deprived of joy. In times past, the presence of a matchmaker (shadchan) with families was common. This person arranged a suitor for the single youth and acted as an intermediary for the marriage bond.

Until the 2nd century CE, Levitical marriage (yibúm) was in effect. According to Deuteronomy 25:5-6, a man should marry the widow of his brother, provided she had not had children in the marriage. This happened so that the future children of the couple could have the deceased’s surname, and this surname would not be lost. Curiously or not, a waiting period of three months was established for a woman to remarry if widowed or divorced. In this way, the paternity of the child that would be born after remarriage would be evident. If the child was born seven, eight or nine months after the marriage ceremony, there could be doubts about paternity. However, by waiting for three months before marriage, the doubts were eliminated.

Before the ceremony and before two witnesses, the couple signed a document written in Aramaic (ketubah) that was read aloud and established the obligations of man from the matrimonial union. Without this kind of contract (which was in the custody of the bride), the couple could not live together under one roof. In addition to signifying the physical and emotional union, the document also represented a moral and legal commitment, whereby the husband had an obligation to provide food, shelter and clothing for his wife, and be considerate towards her emotional needs. The protection of the woman’s rights had such importance that marriage was formalised only after a complete reading of the marriage contract. Only in the event of death, or if there was a religious divorce, could ketubah be dissolved.

In a Jewish wedding, there are several significant rituals symbolising the beauty of the relationship between husband and wife, their mutual obligations as a couple, the obligations they have in relation to the Jewish people, and giving meaning to the deeper purpose of marriage.

At the entrance, skullcaps (kippah in Hebrew; yarmulke in Yiddish) are distributed to the men. According to the Mosaic religion, everyone needs to cover the head with a kippah. It is believed that the custom comes from the time when the Jews lived in Babylon. However, the earliest reference is contained in Exodus 28:4, which states that the object was part of the High Priest’s dress. Covering the head is a pious attitude and respect to God (midat chassidut), to remember that He is above everything and everyone. The bride’s face, on the other hand, is covered by a veil (bedeken di kallah in Yiddish). In general, by covering their head, a person shows reverence before God.

A wedding is always held under a bridal canopy (chuppah), preferably in the open. The canopy symbolises the future home to be built and shared by the couple and the protection of the new home. The chuppah is open on all sides so that the couple can receive friends and relatives with as much hospitality as the biblical tent of Abraham and Sarah; and must be mounted outdoors, under the stars, so that future children can come like the stars in the night sky.

The Groom (chatan) arrives first to the chuppah. He awaits the presence of the bride (kallah), who comes with her parents. This means that she really wants to marry. The bride needs to stand to the right of the groom, which refers to a quotation from Psalm 45:10:

Daughters of kings are among your honoured women; at your right hand is the royal bride in gold of Ophir.

According to Hebrew tradition, the bride is a queen and the groom is a king. In some weddings, the bride may walk seven times around the groom (hakafot). This is explained as follows: as God created the world in seven days, this represents, on a symbolic level, that the future wife – one of God’s creations – is beginning the construction of the new home.

After welcoming the couple, the rabbi (or the person who conducts the religious ceremony) sings Mi Adir – a song of praise to God – and asks Him to protect the spouses through blessings. Then the groom puts the ring (tabba’ath) on the right hand index finger of the bride, while saying:

Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel

Why is the ring is placed on the index finger? This finger is the most prominent of all, being used to point, and there is the belief that there is a vein in it that runs straight to the heart. The ring is later transferred to the bride’s left ring finger.

It is worth highlighting that the ring must be circular (without beginning or end), be made of pure gold, and cannot display any design, detail or ornament. On a symbolic level, the marriage bond is expected to be similar to the ring: simple, beautiful and free from discord. The ring represents the cycle of life and is also related to the creation of the world.

The couple are then served two glasses of wine. For the sanctification of marriage, the seven blessings (Sheva Brachot), symbolising the seven days of creation, are recited over the wine glasses during the ceremony, the transformation of matter to form the human being, like the creation of woman, which ensures the continuity of the species. The wine is a symbol of joy, being associated with sanctification prayer (kiddush), which is recited on the Day of Rest (Shabbat) and other Hebrew festivities.

The bride and groom sip some of the wine, the rabbi drinks the remainder and wraps one of the glasses in a cloth. He then places it on the ground and, according to the ritual, the groom must stamp hard on it with his right foot to break the glass. There are several explanations for this symbolism. Some say that it serves to remember the fact that we are mortal and we should marry and multiply; others state that the breaking of the glass symbolises the sadness suffered by the Jews for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Psalm 137); there are those who explain that the ritual symbolises the breaking of the bride and groom with their past life; and some say that the noise of broken glass serves as a reminder of the difficult loss of Jewish national independence at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE, as well as a reminder that happiness is not eternal and the couple must be prepared to face the challenges that arise in life.

Then a festive atmosphere replaces the solemn atmosphere of the chuppah and everyone comes together with joy and happiness to celebrate the couple’s union. The guests often say mazel tov (bless them) and throw rice at newlyweds. As this grain symbolises fertility, the couple must be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). The bride and groom sit on two chairs in the middle of a circle, and family and friends raise them up and dance to the sound of the popular Jewish song Hava Nagila.

In Hebrew weddings in the Northeast, it is customary to serve several delicious dishes of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine (the traditional cuisine of the Jewish people from Northern France and Central and Eastern Europe), such as herring with vinaigrette on bread; gefilte fish (ground fish cakes cooked in onion sauce); beigaleh (potato and cheese pasties with onion sauce); honik leikeh (honey cake) and many others. Always given out at the end of the party is fluden – the traditional Jewish wedding dessert, a delicacy made with puff pastry filled with walnuts, plums, candied fruits, raisins and sweets in a syrup of various tropical fruits. All these dishes can be enjoyed annually in November during the Festival of Jewish Culture, which is celebrated in the famous Praça do Arsenal in the neighbourhood of Recife Antigo, a few metres from Synagogue Kahal Zur Israel (or Rock of Israel Congregation), the first synagogue of the Americas.

In their new home, the couple has an obligation to fix a mezuzah (a small cylindrical case containing a rolled parchment with the verses Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21) in the right of the home’s main doorway. This ritual object marks the presence of God in a Jewish home. And before entering or leaving the house, the mezuzah must always be kissed.

Marriage between a Jew and a gentile is not accepted in Judaism. This comes from Deuteronomy 7:3:

A Hebrew is not allowed to marry members of heathen nations.

This measure was adopted by the rabbis from the 2nd century CE. This preventive legislation was aimed to prevent the monotheistic character of the Hebrew nation to dilute, with further deterioration of Jewish observance, as this represents an assimilation factor and a threat to maintaining its identity. In cases of intermarriage, conversion to the Mosaic religion is recommended for gentile grooms or brides to be.

It is important to say that divorce (guet) is allowed among the Hebrews. However, the Religious Court (Beit Din) considers marriage an alliance so sacred that it deliberates for a long time before granting it. In this way, the couple’s reconciliation is always encouraged, including having the husband and wife remarry after legal separation. According to the Court, just a minimum of effort, humility and understanding from both parties will make a marriage work. Moreover, if God can put up with people despite all our faults, each of them must be able to forgive and accept their spouse’s faults with much more ease, swallowing their pride a little and recognising their mistakes. According to the wise, when a marriage is dissolved, tears trickle down from the Altar of the Holy Temple, as this altar symbolises the eternal and unbreakable union between God and the people of Israel.

The marriage, therefore, is strengthened each day through the understanding between husband and wife, the limits of each, companionship, friendship, love, affection, respect and compliance with the laws of family purity. These are the main values which enshrine a Jewish marriage.



Recife, 17 December 2008.

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how to quote this text

VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Casamento Judeu. In: Pesquisa Escolar. Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: Acesso em: dia mês ano. (Ex: 6 ago. 2009.)