Jewish Wedding. A. Trankowsky, late nineteenth century. Oil on canvas. (The Judah L. Magnes Museum, Berkeley, California)

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Among the rituals of the East European Jewish life cycle, the wedding (Heb., ḥatunah; Yid., khasene) is the most elaborate. At its fullest, from the making of the match to the celebrations following the marriage ceremony, the process of getting married could extend over a period of years, gathering in intensity and peaking with the ceremony itself. The events associated with getting married were occasions par excellence for Jewish ceremonial creativity and artistic expression, including the central role of musicians, the badkhn (master of ceremonies and jester), and dance. The public character of the festivities was intended to make the marriage binding, not only in contractual but also in emotional terms, which accounts for the intensity of feeling (weeping before the ceremony and joyous celebration after) orchestrated by the musicians and badkhn.

Bride being led to the ḥupah during a wedding, Soroca, Romania (now in Moldova) ca. 1920. (YIVO)

So elaborate did some wedding celebrations become that Jewish communal authorities imposed sumptuary regulations to rein in lavish excesses (or at least their display). In an effort to reform Jewish life, the state (especially in the nineteenth century) tried to regulate wedding practices—banning the cutting of the bride’s hair, for example. Jewish modernizers objected to everything from matchmaking to escorting the bride to the mikveh to the accompaniment of klezmorim, which made public a matter that modernizers felt should remain private. At the same time, artists were fascinated by the inherently theatrical quality of the wedding, which became the icon of a distinctive East European Jewish world undergoing change; they featured the old-time Jewish wedding in literature, painting, theater, dance, and music, particularly during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Wedding plate. Czechoslovakia, 1839. Pewter. Inscribed around the outside rim: “to D. D.” (Doron Derashah) given to the groom by the “Help Society”; center inscribed with “M. T.” for mazel tov. (Moldovan Family Collection; image courtesy Yeshiva University Museum)

A wedding is at the center of S. An-ski’s play The Dybbuk, which he wrote during and after his ethnographic expedition (1912–1914). His 1914 Yiddish ethnographic questionnaire on the Jewish life cycle, prepared with members of the Jewish Academy of Saint Petersburg and edited by the famous Russian anthropologist Lev Shternberg, devoted 421 of the 2,087 questions to di khasene. The questions were divided to discover information about (1) matches (shidukhim) of young children; (2) matchmakers, matches, lineage (yikhes), dowry (nadn); (3) interrogating and inspecting prospective brides and grooms; (4) writing an engagement contract (tnoyim), validating the contract (kinyen), the ceremony for this agreement (roshe prokim); (5) wedding arrangements (opshtimen), gifts (gav), letters (brivn); (6) the silver and gold weeks (the two weeks preceding the wedding during which the bride and groom are carefully guarded from harm, the groom is called up to read from the Torah [ufruf], the bride and groom visit the graves of relatives, and there are various festive meals); (7) the wedding day, including taking the bride to the ritual bath (mikveh), providing a meal for the poor, musicians, badkhn; (8) escorting the groom, seating the bride (bazetsns), veiling the bride (badekns); (9) the wedding supper, seven days of celebration; and (10) exceptional weddings.

Wedding portrait of Avram Ozerovitsh Dobricin and his wife Pasha, Sebastopol, 1897. Avrom was a jeweler who made a bracelet for the wife of Tsar Alexander II. In exchange, he was permitted to live outside the Pale of Settlement. (YIVO)

The overall structure of the wedding as outlined by this questionnaire, while designed to elicit differences in customary practices, presents the classic model of a rite of passage, with its three phases: separation, transition, and incorporation. Solemn practices associated with death, mourning, Yom Kippur, and purification separate the bride and groom from their former status in preparation for their transformation: the bride and in some places also the groom go to the mikveh before their wedding; on their wedding day, the bride and groom fast and acknowledge their sins before the evening prayers; the groom wears a white kitl (robe); and ashes are placed on his forehead. During the seating and veiling of the bride, her braids are loosened (to ease her passage from single to married), her hair is cut either at this point or on the day after the wedding, and her hair is covered. During these events, the klezmorim play sad tunes, the badkhn laments the end of the bride’s youth, the bride takes leave of her friends, and everyone weeps.

During the second phase, transition, the bride and groom are escorted by their respective families to the wedding canopy, accompanied by melancholy music. The bride, often with her escorts carrying candles, circles the groom several (often seven) times (hakofes) in silence. She then stands beside her betrothed, as their families gather together under the canopy. Her veil is lifted so he can see her face, they drink wine from the same goblet, he places the ring on the index finger of her right hand, as he recites the words creating the matrimonial bond. At this point, the rabbi or person officiating reads the ketubah (Yid., ksube; marriage contract), and blessings are again recited over wine shared by the couple. The groom breaks a glass with his foot at the end of the ceremony, at which point “the whole atmosphere abruptly changes as if a blanket of gloom and fear had been lifted,” as reported by Hayyim Schauss (1950). Mazl tov! rings out and happy music fills the air.

Many reasons are given for the breaking of the glass, which is traditionally the one from which the bride and groom drank wine, a custom noted in the Talmud. Some scholars suggest that this custom began as a ritual of protection from harm (the loud noise would frighten demons away or the shattered glass, a symbol of mourning, would fool them into thinking the event was about mourning, not joy, and avoid provoking their envy). A reason more acceptable to many medieval rabbis was the duty to remember the destruction of Jerusalem even in the moment of greatest joy. Freudians see sexual symbolism, which is supported by the practice of Western Ashkenazim to use glasses of different shapes to distinguish brides who are virgins from those who are not, in the case of widows. Given that the glass is broken right after the knot is tied—similarly, a plate is broken right after the engagement agreement (tnoyim) is signed—another explanation is possible. The only time a glass or plate is broken is after the sealing of a binding contract (and not at any other joyful moment), as if to say this action is irreversible. Some who objected to the practice said that to break the glass might bring about the dissolution of the union—like producing like.

Ketubah (Yid., ksube; marriage contract) for marriage between Malke Leah, daughter of Naftule Herts and Zisl Leyb, son of Shloyme of Białystok, 1908, on a commercially produced form printed in Vilna, 1874. (Moldovan Family Collection)

During the third phase of the rite of passage, the newlyweds, now united, are ceremonially incorporated into a changed set of family relationships. The two families now mingle, the mothers dance together, and the newlyweds are secluded in a room, where they break their fast with clear chicken broth (goldene yoykh). If the wedding were held on a Friday, which was preferred, generally, the celebratory festivities would take place on Saturday night; the second preferred day of the week was Tuesday. At the wedding feast, the badkhn would regale the guests with humorous verses and call out the gifts, the klezmorim would play joyous music for such dances as the broyges tants (the two mothers-in-law pretending to be angry with each other), tkhies hameysim tants (resurrection of the dead dance, which can be said to symbolize the transformation of the couple from their single to married status, coming as it does after the wedding ceremony), and mitsve tants, which fulfills the religious obligation to bring joy to or dance with the bride (separated by a kerchief), a dance that assumed special importance in Hasidic communities. The sheva brokhes (seven blessings) were recited on the seven days following the ceremony.

The bride’s new status was expressed in her dress: a bride during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, if she were well-to-do, took off the kerchief (bindalik) that had covered her hair during the wedding, transferred the ornaments on it to a brusttukh (or bristekh; a fancy strip of cloth on her chest), and donned a kupke (bonnet) and, for special occasions, a bejeweled shterntikhl (headdress), as well as a helzl (ruff or collar). Her wedding dress, before white (and other solid colors) became the fashion in the nineteenth century, might be made of silk brocade if her family could afford it; she would wear it throughout her life, altering it to accommodate her pregnancies and, in some cases, after her death it was used to make a Torah curtain that was donated to the synagogue in her memory.

Weddings took a variety of forms. Drawing thousands of guests from near and far, weddings of the children of Hasidic rebbes were among the largest and most lavish. The wedding of the daughter of the Bobover rebbe Ben-Tsiyon Halberstam in 1931 featured Hasidim on horseback in the uniforms of Polish officers of an earlier era and mock sword fights. An-ski’s questionnaire mentions several types of exceptional weddings. Panic weddings, described by Yekhezkl Kotik in his memoir about growing up in Kamenets, were a response to a rumor in 1835 that minors would not be allowed to marry. Shvartse khasenes (black weddings), reported from Chełm, Opatów, and other places, were intended to end a crisis such as a cholera epidemic by arranging a wedding in the cemetery for two people who were poor, orphaned, or disabled, as this was considered a very good deed.

Bride and guests under the wedding canopy, Raguva, Lithuania, 1926. (YIVO)

With the decline of arranged marriage, a rise in marriage age, and increasing acceptance of love matches, weddings changed as well, in keeping with the aspirations of middle-class families integrating into the wider society. The menu for the wedding of Marja Joffe and Włodzimierz Kirszowicz on 15 November 1903 in Warsaw was in Polish; it started with Rhine lox in mayonnaise with tartar sauce and ended with Mexican bombe.

Between 1945 and 1947, when more than 80 percent of Jews in displaced persons camps were between the ages of 17 and 39, survivors remember as many as 60 weddings a day in Bergen-Belsen, in an effort to reconstruct their lives as quickly as possible. Sole survivors with a common bond, they focused on personal commitment to each other. The simple wedding ceremony began with the recitation of the memorial prayer, El Male Raḥamim, in memory of the couple’s deceased parents, a practice traditional at weddings of orphans. They wore what little they owned or improvised with what they could find: Lily Friedman, in the Celle camp in Germany, made her wedding gown out of a parachute and loaned it to 17 other brides. Since the Holocaust, many East European wedding customs persist, while others have been revived, especially with the discovery of old-time klezmer music and the dances associated with it. In postcommunist Eastern Europe, Jewish weddings are often conducted in restored synagogues.

Suggested Reading

S. An-ski, Dos yidishe etnografishe program: Ershte teyl, Der mentsh (St. Petersburg, 1914); Giza Frankel, “Notes on the Costume of the Jewish Woman in Eastern Europe,” Journal of Jewish Art 7 (1980): 50–57; Yekhezkel Kotik, Journey to a Nineteenth-Century Shtetl: The Memoirs of Yekhezkel Kotik, ed. David Assaf (Detroit, 2002); Jacob Z. Lauterbach, “The Ceremony of Breaking a Glass at Weddings,” in Studies in Jewish Law, Custom, and Folklore, pp. 1–29a (New York, 1970), also in Beauty in Holiness: Studies in Jewish Customs and Ceremonial Art, pp. 340–369 (New York, 1970); Menachem Z. Rosensaft, ed., Life Reborn: Jewish Displaced Persons, 1945–1951 (Washington, D.C., 2001); Hayyim Schauss (Ḥayim Shoys), The Lifetime of a Jew throughout the Ages of Jewish History (Cincinnati, 1950); Leo Srole, “Why the DPs Can’t Wait: Proposing an International Plan of Rescue,” Commentary 3.1 (January 1947): 13–24.