Updating the Traditional Jewish Wedding

The biggest motivator for change in Jewish wedding customs by liberal Jews has been egalitarianism.

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Circling Reinterpreted From Egalitarian Perspective

In traditional Jewish weddings, the bride circles the groom three or seven times before she enters the huppah. Though not a part of the liturgy itself, this custom is observed in many communities. The bride's circle symbolizes her protection of the groom and her shift in commitments: Her top priority is now her husband (while before it was her parents). Until recently, liberal Jews usually chose to omit this ritual from their ceremony since it suggested the bride's subservience to her groom. Like kinyan, many considered circling antiquated and irrelevant to modern times.

For a good number of couples, this perspective has changed, and circling has made a "reappearance" in some liberal Jewish weddings. One Conservative rabbi in greater Philadelphia has said that about half of the couples he marries choose to include circling in their ceremony. Some brides now view their circles as an active moment in which she defines familial space. Others share the ritual: The bride circles the groom three times, and then the groom circles the bride three times. Finally, the bride and groom circle each other (do-si-do style). These variations reflect "updates" on Jewish tradition that correspond to the couple's egalitarian values and priorities.

Two Rings, Not One

Jewish tradition calls for the groom to present the bride with an unpierced metal band as a symbol of his promise of marriage to her. When doing so, he must recite the Jewish marriage formula in Hebrew. She must accept it, but is not legally bound to utter any words or do anything other than place it on her finger.

Today, liberal Jews typically choose a more active role for the bride in the ring ceremony. Most commonly, a double-ring ceremony takes place, in which the bride reciprocates the groom's gesture. She will sometimes repeat the marriage formula as she presents him with a ring, with the gender of the formula adjusted accordingly. Even if the bride does not recite the specific formula, more often than not she makes some active gesture indicating her agreement to marriage.

Many modern couples choose to verbally exchange their vows just before or after the ring ceremony. Although not a part of the traditional Jewish wedding, some couples write their own vows. This practice also is testimony to the large influence of American cultural practice on Jewish wedding rituals.

Breaking the Glass Together

Most of the time, we think of glass breaking as an act the groom does at the end of the wedding ceremony. At that moment all those invited shout "Mazal tov!" [good luck] and get ready for the reception. Now, some couples share this act, with the bride and groom breaking the glass together.

The Wedding Program

Guests who have attended a number of Jewish weddings in the recent past likely have received at least a few "wedding programs," which welcome them and explain some of the rituals. As new as it seems, this practice bears a distinct relationship to the traditional custom of handing out benschers (benshen is the Yiddish word for "praying," and the "benscher" refers to the booklet containing Birkat HaMazon, or Grace after Meals). Today's wedding programs vary greatly from couple to couple, and serve a variety of purposes. Generally, they are meant to orient the guests to the mood of the simcha.

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Valerie S. Thaler

Valerie S. Thaler is a Ph.D. student in the Judaic Studies Program at Yale, where she concentrates on 20th-century American Jewish history. She is beginning dissertation research on American Jewish identity in the 1950s. An alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Valerie received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Jewish Education from Brandeis, and has her B.A. in American Studies from Yale.