The Sheva Berakhot
Abundant blessings for the bride and groom.
Despite the wealth of traditions and rituals connected to Jewish weddings, the wedding ceremony itself, without embellishments, is relatively sparse. The opening section, called kiddushin (betrothal), is where all of the legal business takes place, including the formal betrothal blessing and the ring ceremony. Often couples include a reading of their ketubah (marriage contract) as a bridge between this first part of the ceremony and the next part, called nissuin (nuptials). Nissuin includes the chanting of the sheva berakhot (seven blessings), the breaking of a glass, and yihud, in which the bride and groom depart from under the huppah (marriage canopy) to take some time alone before joining guests for wedding festivities.
The sheva berakhot are the real heart of the Jewish wedding ceremony; it is in this liturgical moment of the ceremony that themes of joy and celebration and the ongoing power of love are expressed. Taken from the pages of the Talmud (Ketubot 8a), the blessings, from one to seven, begin with the kiddush over wine and increase in intensity in their imagery and metaphors. It is no accident that there are seven of these blessings, since the number seven brings to mind the seven days of creation. Poetic echoes of creation and paradise abound in the blessings, as does the age-old yearning for return to Jerusalem. Significantly, the final blessing culminates with imagery of the entire community singing and celebrating with the bride and groom, reminding all present that the couple standing under the huppah is a link in the chain of Jewish continuity.
The blessings are:
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, King of the universe, Who has created everything for your glory.
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, King of the universe, Creator of Human Beings.
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, King of the universe, Who has fashioned human beings in your image, according to your likeness and has fashioned from it a lasting mold. Blessed are You Adonai, Creator of Human Beings.
Bring intense joy and exultation to the barren one (Jerusalem) through the ingathering of her children amidst her in gladness. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who gladdens Zion through her children.
Gladden the beloved companions as You gladdened Your creatures in the garden of Eden. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who gladdens groom and bride.
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, King of the universe, Who created joy and gladness, groom and bride, mirth, glad song, pleasure, delight, love, brotherhood, peace, and companionship. Adonai, our God, let there soon be heard in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the grooms' jubilance from their canopies and of the youths from their song-filled feasts. Blessed are You Who causes the groom to rejoice with his bride.
Under the Chuppah
During the ceremony, the blessings are traditionally chanted in Hebrew and may also be read in English. In the Sephardic tradition, a parent will often wrap the bride and groom in a tallit (prayer shawl) before the recitation of the blessings begins, to recognize the intimacy and significance of the moment. Many contemporary couples use the theme of "blessing" to creatively interpret the reading of the sheva berakhot: they may invite seven friends or family members to each recite one of the blessings or have the traditional blessings sung in Hebrew while friends or family members offer seven non-traditional blessings in English. There are many English interpretations of the sheva berakhot available (see The Creative Jewish Wedding Book for examples), some of which use neutral or feminine God language instead of the traditional male imagery. Often couples will include the sheva berakhot in Hebrew and/or English in their wedding programs so that guests can fully participate in this important moment in the ceremony. Traditionally, everyone present joins with the leader in singing parts of the final blessing.
At the Wedding Celebration
It is customary for the sheva berakhot to be recited again during the wedding celebration over a glass of wine, following the birkat hamazon (grace after meals). This second sharing of the blessings gives couples an additional opportunity to honor their loved ones by inviting them to offer one of the blessings. Another beautiful custom for this sharing of the sheva berakhot is for the wine to be divided into two different cups--representing bride and groom--that are then poured together into a third cup. The wine that has been mixed together is poured back into cups for the bride and groom, and also poured into the third cup, shared by the community. This ritual shows how the couple is now connected, and how their life together is intertwined with community.
The Week After the Wedding
While today most newly married couples are eager to sneak away for honeymoon time alone (and often to de-stress from their wedding planning marathons), Jewish tradition held that the bride and groom needed time with the community to help start their marriage out on the right foot. For the seven days following the wedding, the bride and groom were treated like a queen and king, and were invited to dine at the home of a different friend or relative on each night. These festive meals were called "sheva berakhot." Following dinner, the seven blessings would be recited again--as long as a minyan of ten men were present and there was at least one new person (who hadn’t been at the wedding) present. The idea of the dinners was to have real community celebrations for the couple, and parties often went into the night. During generations when marriages were arranged and couples may have met just before marriage the sheva berakhot meals served as a way for the couple to get to know each other, while being supported by the community.
Today the sheva berakhot festive meals are still an important custom, though observed more regularly in traditional circles. Some couples postpone their honeymoon trips so that they can celebrate with their community first and then celebrate their marriage together later. Other Jewish couples are choosing to engage in the custom for some of their first week of marriage or will even celebrate a week of sheva berakhot when they return from their honeymoons.
Traditionally, only Jewish men are counted in a minyan and only Jewish men can recite the sheva berakhot, both under the huppah and during the festive meals following the wedding. In liberal Jewish communities, both men and women are welcomed and encouraged to recite the sheva berakhot. Some Orthodox feminists have challenged the halakha (Jewish law) surrounding this debate, but have largely not made ground in changing this tradition. Other Orthodox and some Conservative women, though, in a desire not to challenge the halakha but to still include women friends and family members in their wedding honors have created a new tradition: the sheva shevahot, or seven praises. These seven praises are recited before, rather than after, the wedding meal, and emphasize the psalms and poems which celebrate the accomplishments of Biblical women. The seventh praise is often the shehecheyanu blessing.
Rabbi Dov Linzer, a modern Orthodox rabbi, has written largely about another halakhic compromise: calling both men and women up to huppah in pairs for a sheva brakhot honor, with the man reciting the blessing in Hebrew and the woman reading an English translation. Rabbi Linzer also notes that in terms of halakha, the reciting of the sheva brakhot after the meal at the wedding celebration is the obligation of the community, rather than the groom himself, and so since women are part of the community, they may participate in sharing those honors in Hebrew.
The Tradition Continues…
As with so many Jewish rituals, the expression of the sheva berakhot has evolved over time, but their place and importance as the central celebratory liturgy in a Jewish wedding ceremony holds fast.
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