The following article presents a traditional view, and many customs and interpretations it presents would be understood in more egalitarian ways by many contemporary liberal Jews. Reprinted with permission from Love, Marriage, and Family in Jewish Law and Tradition, published by Jason Aronson Publishers .
Following the veiling ceremony, the couple are led to the huppah for the marriage ceremony.
The groom arrives at the huppah before the bride. Since the huppah is considered [according to traditional understanding] the symbolic home of the groom, he must be there first to welcome his bride to his home. The tradition is said by some to go back to the very first wedding, when, the Torah says, God took Eve “and brought her to Adam.” Eve, since she was created after Adam, is considered in Jewish thought to represent a higher form of life than is Adam, since she was able to carry a fetus in her body. As the first one created, Adam is said to have been waiting under the huppah in the Garden of Eden when Eve was brought to him.
The Wedding Processional
In some circles, it is customary for two people to lead the groom to the huppah to the accompaniment of appropriate music. In other circles, however, the groom is accompanied by a larger retinue, since the groom is likened to a king.
There are varying customs regarding who accompanies the principals to the huppah. Sometimes the groom is accompanied by his parents and the bride by hers. Indeed, this custom is cited by the Zohar, which says, “The father and mother of the bride bring her to the domain of the groom.” However, there is no Jewish tradition of a father “giving away the bride.”
Among other groups, it is customary for the groom to be accompanied by the two fathers and the bride to be accompanied by the two mothers. Where the custom is for the principals to be accompanied by their parents, and the parents are divorced, great care should be taken that this should not become a source of aggravation in which one of the parents, out of pettiness or seeking to strike out at a former mate, refuses to accompany his or her child to the huppah if the other parent does so. No feelings of hurt or spite designed to hurt the child’s other parent can excuse marring the supreme happiness of a son or daughter on a wedding day, and the marrying couple will probably always remember it as an act of supreme selfishness on the part of an immature parent.
Carrying Candles–An Old Custom
It is an old custom for those escorting the bride and groom to the huppah to carry candles in order symbolically to light the way of the bride and groom as they begin their future life together. On a number of occasions the Talmud refers to candles or lamps in association with weddings.
Light is associated with joy in Jewish tradition. The Jews are described in the Book of Esther as having “light, joy, happiness, and honor.” The joyous Sabbath and Jewish festivals are ushered in with lighted candles. At Israel’s most joyous occasion, its “wedding” with God at the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the mountain was surrounded by fire and flashes of lightning. So, too, are Jewish brides and grooms accompanied by light and fire at their weddings. Braided havdalah candles [usually used to mark the separation between Sabbath or festivals and weekdays] are used, because their torch-like flickering lights are thought to most resemble the lightning at Sinai.
The Talmud says that the Hebrew words for man, ish, and woman, ishah, are identical, except for the letter yod in ish, and the letter hay in ishah. The two letters, yod and hay, together make up a name of God. This indicates, says the Talmud, that when there is love and harmony between a man and his wife, God is between them. But when there is dissonance and discord, God’s name is removed, and what is left after the removal of the yod and hay is aish, fire. The lighted torches at the wedding are a reminder to the bride and groom, the sages teach, that if God’s name is removed from them as a result of disharmony, their relationship will be as painful as fire. They should make every effort always to maintain a loving and harmonious relationship.
The gematria (numerical value) of the word ner (candle) is 250, and since two candles are carried, the sum of the two is 500. The biblical blessing to have children, p’ru u-r’vu, “Be fruitful and multiply,” also has a gematria of 500. The candles, therefore, symbolize the hope that the couple will have a fruitful marriage.
Bride Encircling the Groom
Among many Jews, it is customary for the bride to be escorted around the groom under the huppah three times or seven times. Many consider the customs to relate to an eschatological passage in Jeremiah in which the prophet speaks of a time in the future when relationships between men and women will be reversed and “the woman will court the man.” The Hebrew term employed in the passage for “will court” is t’sovev, literally, “will encircle.”
Others see in the custom of the bride circling her groom a symbol of the wife creating a metaphoric wall around her husband to guard against him from outside desires and influences. This is in keeping with a passage in the Song of Songs referring to a woman as a wall, and a talmudic teaching that “whoever lives without a wife lives without a [protective] wall.” The sages comment that a man’s wife is like a wall, protecting him from external temptations. After her circling, the bride, by stepping into the symbolic circle she has created, marks the couple’s new status in society as a married couple; she has created a community of two, around which there is an intimate wall of privacy, independent and shielded from the rest of society.
Some see in the bride’s three encirclements of the groom a symbolic reminder to him of the three primal obligations the Torah requires of him as her husband–to provide her with sustenance, clothing, and conjugal relations. Others find in it an allusion to the threefold expression of God’s betrothal to the Jewish people in Hosea, “And I will betroth you to me forever; and I will betroth you to me with righteousness and justice, and in loving-kindness and compassion.”
The prevailing custom of seven circuits probably has kabbalistic [Jewish mystical] origins and may relate to the seven revolutions of the earth during the biblical seven days of creation. Since every marriage is a reenactment of the process of creation, the bride’s encirclement of the groom is an allusion that the seven cycles of creation are now being repeated.
The bride stands to the right of the groom under the huppah, an allusion to the verse in Psalms, “a queen shall stand at your right side.” They stand facing the guests during the marriage ceremony, while the officiating rabbi stands facing the bride and groom and looking in an easterly direction, with his back to the guests.
All those under the huppah stand, and in many circles it is traditional for the assembled guests to stand as well, in deference to the bride and groom who are standing. It is customary for the parents of the couple to be present under the huppah. Others may also be present.
A minyan, or quorum, of at least 10 Jewish males over the age of 13 is required to be present during the ceremony for the legal validation of the marriage in accordance with Jewish law. [In liberal communities, a minyan consists of 10 adults of either gender, not just men.]
Pronounced: guh-MAH-tree-yuh, Origin: Greek, a numerological system by which Hebrew letters correspond to numbers, used in Jewish mysticism as a way of interpreting Jewish texts.
Pronounced: MIN-yun, meen-YAHN, Origin: Hebrew, quorum of 10 adult Jews (traditionally Jewish men) necessary for reciting many prayers.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.