Choosing an officiant for a Jewish wedding can be as rewarding (and complicated) as making a decision about any other aspect of one’s nuptials. This person will oversee, and in many cases, craft your wedding ceremony. If you don’t belong to a synagogue or know a rabbi well from another venue (like a campus Hillel or other Jewish program in which you’ve participated), you may need to do a little legwork to locate the right person.
Rabbis, Cantors and Other Options
Contrary to popular belief, the officiant for a Jewish wedding does not have to be a rabbi. According to most interpretations of Jewish law, a Jewish wedding ceremony requires only a pair of witnesses to observe a ritual exchange: one partner (traditionally, the bride) receives something of value from the other partner (traditionally, the groom).
In addition to rabbis, officiant options include a cantor, a relative, a friend, someone called a “non-denominational officiant” — or, theoretically at least, anyone with the eligibility to sign a civil license.
While it was once difficult for interfaith and/or LGBTQ couples to find Jewish clergy willing to officiate, today numerous Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal rabbis will do so (though many balk at co-officiating with clergy of other faiths). The Conservative movement permits officiation at same-sex weddings but does not allow its rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings, although some members of the movement have urged it to do so.
For those willing to consider options besides clergy, an increasingly popular option is to recruit a friend or relative, who can be ordained by submitting an online application to the Universal Life Church. The ordination is free, but some states may have additional requirements for wedding ministers. While a friend or relative offers intimacy to the gathering, the downside here is that this person may lack experience in the proceedings — especially if they are only now getting the Universal Life ordination.
Anita Diamant, author of The New Jewish Wedding, recommends clergy over family or friends as officiants, because without professional guidance, “you often miss something.”
“There is an expertise as well as a dramaturgy to a wedding,” she says, adding that a rabbi or cantor brings Hebrew literacy to the chuppah, or wedding canopy, and is experienced in guiding people through Jewish rituals.
An added benefit of a cantor: He or she not only brings the experience and gravitas of a clergy member, but may also be able to put you in touch with local musicians to perform during the ceremony or at the reception.
Of course Jewish clergy members aren’t the only experienced wedding officiants. In addition to judges (and of course clergy members of other faiths, whom you may want as co-officiants if yours is an interfaith wedding), nondenominational “ministers,” who are trained and experienced in the art of ceremonies, can be found through organizations such as Journeys of the Heart. Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, a wedding officiant at Journeys and author of The Creative Jewish Wedding Book, says that “as a nondenominational officiant my mission is to help each couple craft their ceremony in a personal way.”
Unless you are asking a friend, or a clergy member or officiant you already know, seek out referrals from friends or check out online listings. InterfaithFamily offers a free referral service for those seeking someone to officiate at an interfaith wedding. The Knot publishes lists of officiants with reviews, and allows users to narrow their search to focus exclusively on those with Jewish affiliation, or to focus on those who perform interfaith marriages.
When possible, it’s ideal to watch the officiant in action, either at his or her synagogue or at a wedding. At the least, make sure you interview the prospective officiant before you make your decision.
“Trust your heart and your gut,” urges Diamant, whose book launched a third edition in June of 2017 entitled The Jewish Wedding Now.
When speaking to a prospective officiant for the first time, test how he or she reacts to a request for help in solving a wedding issue, such as managing divorced parents. “A la Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink,” says Diamant, referring to the popular book about making instinctive decisions, “you’ll probably know right away.”
What Should A Couple Look For?
Fees, personalities and time commitments vary widely, as well as the Jewish component. Some officiants expect to meet with the couple six times, while others meet just once in advance of the event. Some may consider even a phone conversation adequate. Also, while costs invariably run higher in large cities (as high as $2,000), if the fee uncomfortably stretches the couple’s budget, most officiants are open to reducing it, says Diamant.
If you or your betrothed, (or your parents or future in-laws) belong to a congregation, the clergy typically waives fees, but may ask for a donation to the synagogue. Other issues to consider when choosing an officiant: How traditional or customized a ceremony do you want, and how much Hebrew would you like it to include? How do you feel about traditional restrictions that might limit your scheduling options?
Many rabbis, even in the liberal denominations, will not marry couples during the hours of Shabbat, which, depending on the time of year and your location, is not only all-day Saturday, but can begin as early as late afternoon on a Friday (in winter) or end as late as after 10 p.m. on Saturday (in summer).
In addition, some rabbis follow the strictures that forbid weddings during the seven-week period, known as the Omer, between Passover and Shavuot. (Weddings are traditionally permitted on just one day during this period: the minor holiday of Lag Ba’omer.) Weddings are also traditionally forbidden during the three-week period of mourning in the summer, from the 17th of the Hebrew month Tammuz through Tisha b’Av (the 9th of the Hebrew month Av).
When Should You Start The Search?
It pays to begin the hunt for a wedding officiant early in the planning process. “If there’s a clergy member you’re close to, find out right away if he or she is available,” says Kaplan-Mayer. Some officiants get booked up months in advance, especially for wedding dates in the warmer months.
Kaplan-Mayer says that though she’s more flexible than most Jewish clergy about religious customs, she “has weddings booked 18 months from now. If you call a month before, you’re taking a big risk.”
Elicia Brown is a writer living in Manhattan.
Pronounced: KHOOP-uh or khoo-PAH, Origin: Hebrew, canopy under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place.
Pronounced: tah-MOOZ (oo as in boot), Origin: Hebrew, Jewish month that usually coincides with June or July.