Love, our Sages teach us, is a many splendored thing. It can strike at any time, on a bus, in synagogue, even (though rarely) on a date. Love is more precious than gold; in the words of one contemporary tzaddik: “Money can't buy me love.”
But we are taught that G-d created the world as an act of love. We therefore see that being in love is an imitation of G-d. (Note: While imitating G-d is fine, doing impersonations of Him is unseemly and irreverent.)
So now you're in love. What do you do next? If you're a Torah-oriented Jew, not much. You can tell your parents. And you can tell your rebbe. (You don't have to tell G-d; He already knows.) And you should definitely tell the person you're in love with. The next step is getting engaged.
The engagement period is a critical one for every couple. Among many traditional Jews, it is after the engagement that the bride and groom actually meet and learn each other's first names. Among very modern couples, being engaged means you can now share each other's toothbrush.
This is the time for meeting the parents of your intended. You will want to make a good impression, so remember to dress modestly (if you're a girl), bring a small gift (if you're a boy), and shave beforehand (in either case). Very traditional boys will be too young to shave. Do not forget that you will have to ask her father's permission to marry her!
It is customary for the groom to buy his bride a diamond engagement ring. In traditional circles, this kind of custom is called yehareg ve-al ya'avor, i.e., highly recommended. Our Sages have also established a formula to determine how much one should spend on the ring: 1) take the amount you can afford; 2) multiply by eighteen; 3) that is how much you must spend.
The ring symbolizes many things. First, a ring has the form of a link in a chain. This symbolizes that marriage chains a man and deprives him of his liberty. As our Sages teach: “Who is a free man? One who eludes marriage” (Avot de-Robbie Benson 8:4).
The ring is a circle that has no beginning and no end, which is how marriage feels after a couple of years. This also alludes to Talmud Torah (Torah study), which is also endless, all the more so because a man won't learn much once he marries.
Of course, a ring is not essential, any piece of jewelry that fits the above requirements will be fine.
One final note: after being engaged for a few days, you may develop a deep-seated urge to punch anyone who sings Od Yishama. This is a healthy reaction; don't fight it.
The time has now come to plan the wedding.
PLANNING THE WEDDING
There are many myths about Jewish weddings, and they must be dispelled. Many people think that a Jewish wedding must be lavish, with expensive clothes, endless food and a seven-piece band. This is not a myth; this is TRUE.
The myth is that the wedding is for the bride and groom. In fact, the wedding is for their parents. This is why three-fourths of the guests are people the bride and groom do not know. Many of these are relatives neither the bride nor groom knew existed. In halakhah (Jewish law), these people are called “wedding relatives.” It is forbidden to interact with such relatives except at the wedding of one's children.
There is a deeper significance to this law. The Hebrew word for relatives, KeROVIM, has the numerical value of 358. This is also the numerical value of the word NaCHaSH, meaning serpent. From this we see that some relatives are like the evil serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to sin, thus blowing things for all future generations.
Before the marriage can be consummated, the bride must immerse in a mikveh (ritual pool). This ritual is neither embarrassing nor demeaning to women. Chasidim do it every day.
Immersion in the mikveh symbolizes spiritual rebirth. It represents purity and ritual cleanliness. Nevertheless, the custom is for the mikveh water to be cloudy, gray, and have little things floating in it. This custom goes back to the time when women immersed in outdoor rivers, braving frostbite, pneumonia, and the occasional peeping Tom.
Some point out that the Hebrew word mikveh is related to the word tikvah, meaning hope. This alludes to the fact that women who use the mikveh hope they won't contract anything bacterial from the water.
In a deeper sense, the waters of the mikveh represent the waters of Eden. But to learn more about this, you'll have to buy my book, Waters of Eden, on sale at quality Jewish bookstores everywhere.
PREPARING FOR THE CEREMONY
One of the most important preparations for the wedding ceremony is the veiling of the bride. The origins of this custom are unclear. Some relate it to the biblical story of Jacob, who let his father-in-law veil the bride and wound up with the wrong woman!
Others trace the custom to the little-known talmudic sage, R. Yosi ben Seymour, a man blessed with thirty-six daughters. R. Yosi,according to one tradition, instituted the veiling at the wedding of daughter number thirteen, a girl with the complexion of an overripe turnip. This idea may be alluded to in the Yiddish name for the veiling ceremony, _bedekun_, which means “Cover her up!”
THE WEDDING CEREMONY
After the preliminaries, the groom and bride are led to the chupah (canopy). It is customary that the groom be led first. This is because Judaism regards men as more important than women. As we shall see, this is an important theme of the Jewish wedding ceremony.
The groom is then dressed in a kittel, a long, white garment resembling a bathrobe. The kittel recalls the day of the groom's death, the symbolism of which is pretty obvious, especially if you've been married for a couple of years. This is also alluded to by the word kittel, which is rooted in the Hebrew verb katal, meaning “to slay.” A fuller exposition of the similarities between death and marriage may be found in my article, “Why Moshiach Is a Bachelor.”
In some circles, the groom is followed by a procession of relatives and friends. This is a Gentile custom, however, like drinking gin and playing golf.
Finally, the bride is brought to the side of her groom. She should be finely dressed in a beautiful, but modest, white gown. The bride must also wear contact lenses. This is because the Hebrew term for lenses, adashei maga, has the numerical value of 497, which is only three less than 500, the numerical value of peru u-revu (“Be fruitful and multiply”).
At this point, the bride traditionally walks around her husband seven times. There are a variety of explanations for this custom, all of them demeaning or patronizing to women.
The rest of the ceremony is fairly technical from a halakhic point of view, but a true understanding of its essence reveals how romantic it really is.
Simply put, the man acquires the woman in a financial transaction. He does this by giving her something of value. Although customarily a gold ring is given, any object of minimal value, such as a comb or french fry, will do.
At this point, it is necessary to create an intermission between the erusin and the latter part of the ceremony, the nisuin. Jewish tradition, with its keen sense of irony, reminds the newlyweds that, until Jerusalem is rebuilt and the Likud returned to power, our happiness can never be complete. In order to introduce some unhappiness into the proceedings, the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) is read.
Like all contracts, the ketubah is a dry legal text, somewhat lacking in entertainment value. Worse, the ketubah's text is very ancient and is written in a very ancient language, Aramaic, which has not been spoken for about 1500 years. Historians say that Jesus spoke Aramaic, but unless he's invited to your wedding, the reading of the ketubah will go largely unappreciated.
Today many people spend hundreds of dollars to have an artistically designed, beautifully illuminated Ketubah, most of which are possul (not recommended for use). In halakhah, these people are called hedyotos (airheads).
Instead of reading the ketubah, and sometimes in addition to it, a D'var Torah (sermon) is delivered. To again commemorate the anguish of the destruction of the Temple, the sermon is traditionally long and boring. Preferably, it should be delivered in an incoherent mumble by a scholar who knows neither the bride nor the groom. Instead, he will refer to them generically as the “chusankalloh.” Even better, he should not refer to them at all, but present a lengthy discourse on sin and damnation.
This is followed by the Seven Blessings, yihud (seclusion), a big meal and lots of photographs.. Of course, the wedding is only the beginning. The real headache of marriage does not take hold until long after the centerpieces from the dinner tables are stolen by the “wedding relatives.” Only after the band has gone home will you greet the future of married life with that immortal prayer: “Dear God! What have I done?”