Laws of the Wedding (5) Customs and Laws of the Wedding

  • Rav David Brofsky

In memory of Alice Stone, Ada Bat Avram, A"H
beloved mother, grandmother and great grandmother
whose Yarzheit is 2 Tammuz.
Dedicated by, Ellen & Stanley Stone,
Jake & Chaya, Micah, Adeline, Zack & Yael, Allie,
Isaac, Ezra & Talia, Yoni & Cayley, Marc & Eliana, Adina, Gabi & Talia.


In recent shiurim, we focused on the preparations for the wedding, the customs observed the Shabbat before and the day of the wedding, the signing of the ketuba, and the badeken (covering the bride’s face).

This week, we will discuss the various customs of the processional, leading up to the kiddushin.

The Mesader Kiddushin

The rabbi who officiates at the wedding is often known as the “mesader kiddushin.” There are numerous reports from Medieval Jewish communities of communal enactments restricting siddur kiddushin to local rabbinic leadership (see Teshuvot Ha-Rambam 348; see also, Rivash 268 and Mahari Weil 151, etc.).

The Talmud (Kiddushin 6a) teaches that “anyone who does not know the nature of gittin (bills of divorce) and kiddushin (betrothals) should have no dealings in them.” Based upon this passage and the explanations of the Rishonim, the Shulchan Arukh (EA 49:3) rules that one who is not an expert in these matters “should not rule (le-horot) regarding them.”

R. Yaakov Reischer (Bechofen) (1661-1733), in his Shevut Yaakov (3:121), rules that only an expert in these laws should officiate at Jewish weddings. In fact, the Rambam (Teshuvot Ha-Rambam 348) records an ancient enactment by the rabbis of Egypt requiring that only halakhic experts officiate at weddings. Indeed, the mesader kiddushin is responsible for numerous matters, some ritual and some halakhic. For example, the mesader kiddushin must ensure that the chatan and kalla are halakhically permitted to be wed and that the ketuba is filled out and executed properly, he must determine that the ring indeed belongs to the groom (Beit Shmuel 28:49) and that it is worth the value of a peruta (Maharil, Hilkhot Nisu’in), he must supervise the proper performance of the giving of the kesef kiddushin, etc. Some Acharonim (Taz, ibid. 1, and Beit Shmuel, ibid. 4) explain that while one who is not an expert should not offer halakhic rulings in these matters, those who are not experts may officiate at weddings.

The Acharonim discuss whether the chatan or kalla has the right to choose the mesader kiddushin. Some suggest that since it is now customary for the mesader kiddushin to recite the birkat ha-eirusin – which, according to some, is the blessing that the chatan is meant to say before performing the kiddushin –it is the chatan who may choose the mesader kiddushin (see Chelkat Yaakov 2:115). However, if the local custom dictates that the kalla chooses the mesader kiddushin, then the custom should be followed (Nissu’in KeHilkhata 12:6). Needless to say, this issue should not be a point of contention between the chatan and kalla, or between their families.

The Wedding Procession

The Rema (YD 391:3) records that it is customary in Ashkenazic communities for two people to accompany the chatan to the chuppa. Others records to the kalla is also escorted to the chuppa (Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 147:5).  R. Moshe ben Avraham (Meth) of Pryzemyśl, in his Mateh Moshe (published 1591, Krakow), describes how these two people, known as the shoshvinin, walk the chatan to the chuppa, one on his right, the other on his left. He relates this custom to a midrash that teaches that Michael and Gavriel were the shoshvinin of Adam Ha-Rishon. He further cites the Tashbetz (465), who explains that since the chatan is compared to a “king” (see Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 16), just as a king is always accompanied by his soldiers, so too the chatan is surrounded.

In most communities, immediately following the badeken, the chatan and kalla are led to the chuppa, with song and praise. (In some communities, the badeken is performed during the processional, before the bride ascends to the chuppa.) There are different customs regarding the manner in which the chatan and kalla are accompanied to the chuppa.

In some communities, the fathers of the bride and groom escort the chatan and their mothers accompany the kalla. In other communities, the chatan and kalla are walked to the chuppa by their parents. Others may also serve as the shoshvinin. In some circles, especially when the chatan and kalla are older, they walk together to the chuppa.

The Acharonim record that the shoshvinin often hold candles on their way to the chuppa. The Maharil (Hilkhot Nisuin; see also Teshuvot Maharam Mintz 109) writes that the torches represent orah ve-simcha, “light and happiness.” Similarly, the Tashbetz (467) relates this custom to Matan Torah, where the Torah was given with “kolot u-verakim” (sounds and light). In addition, the Mateh Moshe writes that the numerical equivalent (gematria) of (two) nerot (torches) is equal to “peru u-revu” (the commandment to be “fruitful and multiply”) and to the sum total of the limbs of both the chatan and kalla (500; see Bekhorot 45a). Finally, some note that the Hebrew words for man (ish) and woman (isha) are almost identical, except for the letters yod and heh, which spell a name of God. Without the presence of God in their relationship, their relationship will be disharmonious and contentious, like “esh” – fire.

Circling the Chatan

Among many Ashkenazim, it is customary for the kalla to circle the chatan before the ceremony begins. 

Some mention a custom of circling three times, corresponding to the three times the Torah says “ki yikach isha” (Devarim 22:13, 24:1, 24:5; see Tashbetz 467, Mateh Moshe, Hakhnasat Kalla 4). Others suggest that the three circles correspond to the three legal obligations of the husband – “food, clothing and marital relations” – and others relate this custom to the three times God accepted upon himself the obligations of the marital relationship: “I will betroth me to you to me forever, I will betroth you to me with fairness, justice, love and compassion, I will betroth you to Me with faith, and you shall know God” (Hoshea 2:21-22).

The more accepted custom is to walk seven times around the chatan. The commentators offer different interpretations for the number seven, as well as for the custom itself. Some view this practice as reflecting a mystical tradition, according to which circling the husband demonstrates that the marriage is performed for the sake of heaven, and the seven circles correspond to the seven layers of heaven (reki’in).

Early sources (see, for example, the commentary of R. Dosa Ha-Yevani, 15th century) trace this practice to the verse “God has created a new thing on earth; a women will go around a man” (Yirmiyahu 31:21). Some interpret this act as an expression of commitment, subservience, or even in order to build a wall around the chatan, protecting him from inappropriate thoughts and actions (based upon Yevamot 62b). Others offer more “positive” interpretations, viewing the circles as the kalla’s courting of the chatan, or that similar to the seven times Yericho was circled until its walls were breached, the kalla breaks down her soon to be husband’s personal “walls” in order that they may build a house together.

While the kalla is circling the chatan, some have the custom of singing a piyut based upon the midrash (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba 2): “Mi bon siach shoshan chokhim, ahavat kalla, mesos dodim, hu yivarekh et he-chatan ve-et ha-kalla” (He who understands the babble of the rose among thorns, the love of a bride, the joy of her beloved ones, may He bless the groom and bride). In other communities, no song or piyut is said while the kalla walks around the chatan.

The Position of the Chatan and Kalla under the Chuppa

During the wedding ceremony, the kalla stands to the right of the chatan. The Maharil (Hilkhot Nisu’in) relates this to the verse, “a queen shall stand at your right side” (Tehillim 45:10). The last letter of each word, “nitzavaH shegaL liminCha” spell the word “kalla.”

The Chatan’s Kittel

In some communities, the chatan wears a kittel, the tradition white robe used as a burial shroud for Jewish men, which is also often worn on Yom Kippur, for the Pesach seder, and other occasions (Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 147:4). Different reasons are given for this custom, which seem to reflect different views of the nature of the wedding day.

Some (see Mateh Moshe, Hakhnasat Kalla) relates this custom to a broader theme of the wedding day – atonement. The wedding day is viewed as a day upon which one’s sins are forgiven, and white symbolizes spiritual purity – “If your sins are like the scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Yishayahu 1:18). Others claim that the kittel is meant to remind the chatan of the shrouds worn after his death. This may be intended to ensure that the chatan tempers his rejoicing (see Berakhot 31a), in accordance with the verse, “Serve God in awe, rejoice with trembling” (Tehillim 2:11). This may also indicate that marriage is meant, ideally, to last until the day of one’s death (see Teshuvot Maharm Shick, EH 88). Finally, some suggest that white is a color of royalty, and on his wedding day, a chatan is compared to a “king.”

Ashes on the Head of the Chatan

The Talmud (Bava Batra 60b) teaches that we mourn for the Beit Ha-Mikdash even at our most joyous moments:

The source for these [mourning] practices is a verse, as it is stated: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember you not; if I set not Jerusalem above my highest joy” (Tehillim 137:5–6).

What is the meaning of, “Above my highest [rosh] joy”? R. Yitzchak says: This is referring to the burnt ashes that are customarily placed on the head [rosh] of bridegrooms at the time of their wedding celebrations, to remember the destruction of the Temple. R. Pappa said to Abaye: Where are they placed? Abaye replied: On the place where tefillin are placed, as it is stated: “To appoint to them that mourn in Zion, to give to them a garland in place of ashes” (Yeshayahu 61:3).

Rashbam explains that since tefillin are referred to as a garland (see Yechezkel 24:17), it may be inferred from this verse that the ashes were placed in the same place as the tefillin.

While the Shulchan Arukh (EH 65:3 and OH 560:2), and other authorities cites this custom, some (see Chayei Adam 137:2; Bi’ur Halakha 560; see also Kaf HaChaim, OC 560:21) note that this was not customary in all communities. Nowadays, it is the general custom to put ashes on the head of the chatan, while saying the verse, “If I forget you, Jerusalem...”

Minyan for the Wedding Ceremony

The Talmud (see Ketubot 7b) teaches that the sheva berakhot must be said in the presence of a minyan (ten men). The gemara cites two sources:

R. Nachman said: Huna bar Natan said to me that it was taught: From where is it derived that the benediction of the grooms is recited in a quorum of ten men? It is as it is stated: “And he took ten men of the Elders of the city and said, ‘Sit you here,’ and they sat” (Rut 4:2). And R. Abbahu said that the source is from here: “In assemblies [mak’helot], bless God, the Lord, from the source of Israel” (Tehillim 68:27).

The Talmud (Megilla 23b) lists these blessings, the birkat chatanim, among those rituals that must be performed in the presence of a minyan.

The Tur (EH 34) cites a debate regarding the first part of the wedding ceremony, the kiddushin. According to R. Shmuel Ha-Nagid, the birkat ha-eirusin may be performed without a minyan. However, R. Hai Gaon and the Rosh disagree and maintain that just as the sheva berakhot must be recited in the presence of a minyan, so too must the birkat ha-eirusin. The Shulchan Arukh (EH 34:4) rules that it is preferable (lechatkhila) that the birkat ha-eirusin be said with a minyan. Some (see, for example, Rosh 35:4) write that the wedding is meant to be performed publically.

If the kiddushin is performed without a minyan, the sheva berakhot are not recited. The Acharonim discuss whether they may be recited in the presence of a minyan during the first seven days after the wedding (Ritva, Ketubot 7b), or even later (Arukh Ha-Shulchan 62:12).

Next time, we will continue our study of the wedding ceremony, focusing the different halakhic aspects of the kiddushin.