Marriage is a holy institution in Judaism. Its very name in Hebrew, "kiddushin," means "sanctification." Most of the laws and customs relating to the wedding ceremony (Chatunah), its preparations and Seudat Mitzvah (festive reception meal) date back to our Patriarchs and the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
Jewish law enjoins the entire community to bring joy and happiness to both the Kallah (bride) and Chatan (groom). During each day of their marriage the bride and groom will strive to grow and adjust to each other in order to establish the foundation for a Bayis Ne'eman B'Yisrael - a faithful Jewish home.
Meanwhile, on the same Shabbat, the Kallah's family and friends arrange a party (forshpiel) for her, expressing their same wishes for her. From a few days prior, until a week after the wedding, the couple are considered royalty and are, therefore, not to be seen in public without a personal escort.
They fast until the ceremony; add Yom Kippur confessions to their afternoon prayers; recite the Book of Psalms, asking for forgiveness for the wrongdoings of their youth, committed knowingly or unknowingly, before starting their new life together.
Prior to the marriage ceremony, standard "Tena'im" (conditions) are stipulated in a written document by the groom and bride and their respective parents. This represents a commitment of the Chatan to fulfill the promise to marry his Kallah.
With the signing and finalization of this obligation, through reviewing the text aloud, a plate is broken, signifying that just as the breaking of the plate is irreversible, so too should the engagement be irreversible.
The veiling impresses upon the Kallah her duty to live up to Jewish ideals of modesty and reminds others that in her status as a married woman she will be absolutely unapproachable by other men. The Jewish woman, being the strength and pillar of the home, is also reflected in these signs of modesty and dignity which will be the pillars and the foundation of their new home.
The consecration of a woman to man, the Torah advises us, is through "the giving of a valuable - money or ring - (to the woman), the presentation of a document, or through intimate living together." Nowadays, our sages tell us, we perform all three acts as a means of consecrating a woman.
For this reason, the Chupah ceremony entails all three aspects:
It takes two witnesses (to the exclusion of others) to attest that all three aspects of marriage have taken place in accordance with the laws of "Moses and Israel." Two witnesses are called upon to stand under the Chupah and witness these procedures.
The first blessing over the wine signifies that just as we pronounce the holiness of the Sabbath and festivals over the wine, we sanctify the personal relationship of marriage over wine. The bride and groom each take a sip of the wine.
The second is recited over the ceremony itself, thanking G-d for giving us the opportunity to perform this Mitzvah, after which the Chatan and Kallah once again take a sip of the wine, after the seven blessings. The blessing ends: "Blessed are You L-rd, Who sanctifies His people Israel through Chupah and Kiddushin."
The essence of the ceremony which follows is the act of Kiddushin. In the presence of two witnesses, the groom places a simple gold ring (without engravings or adornment) on the bride's right forefinger. As the groom places the ring on her finger he says: "Harei At Mekudeshet Li B'taba'at Zo Kedat Moshe V'Yisrael - Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel."
The signing of the Ketubah shows that the bride and groom do not see marriage as only a physical and emotional union, but also as a legal and moral commitment which delineates the human and financial obligations of the husband to his wife according to Jewish law and customs.
Its basic aim is to strengthen and affirm the wife's dignified status, as well as to confer a number of special privileges on her. The Ketubah also contains stipulations of financial settlement in case of, G-d forbid, divorce. Following the reading of this contract, the Ketubah is handed over to the Kallah. Should this document be lost, the couple may not live together until a new contract is drawn up.
They acknowledge G-d as the Creator of mankind, joy, bride and groom. They also praise G-d for having created man in His image, and for giving him the ability to reproduce that image.
The first blessing is recited over the second cup of wine as a sign of rejoicing.
The second thanks G-d for creating the world and at the same time it honors those assembled at the wedding.
The third and fourth acknowledge G-d's physical and spiritual creation of mankind. These blessings are recited at weddings, since it is only then that the couple begins life as complete human beings.
In the fifth, we pray for the restoration of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, the edifice which so expressed G-d's special relationship to the Jewish people that the memory of its destruction rises above even our highest joys.
The sixth expresses the hope that the bride and groom grow in their love for each other, focusing their love as exclusively as Adam and Eve, when there was no one else in the world.
In the seventh blessing, we pray for the time when Moshiach will come to redeem us from exile so that peace and tranquility will reign over the world.
Traditionally, this custom was also incorporated into the ceremony to remind everyone that even at the height of one's personal joy, we must, nevertheless, remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The few minutes the couple share together allude to their new intimate relationship and emphasizes that their absolute privacy be respected. Refreshments are served, and the Chatan and Kallah break their fast.
Men and women dance separated by a "Mechitzah" (divider) for reasons of "Tzniut" (modesty). This is one of the strong virtues binding a husband and wife, enhancing each other's uniqueness. At the end of the Seudat Mitzvah (festive meal), "Birkat HaMazon" (Grace After Meals) is recited, and the Sheva Berachot (seven blessings) recited under the Chupah are once again repeated.
The act of feasting recalls the "seven-day celebration" after the marriage of Jacob to Leah, while spending their days in prayer, learning Torah and performing mitzvos in order to give the "new house in Israel" a solid foundation in G-d's ways of holiness.