By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
We recently talked to a friend who had attended one of the newest international trends in pre-wedding ceremonies: a proposal party. How does it work? Planned by the prospective groom with the help of family and friends, but putatively without any involvement by the bride-to-be, they select a time and location and invite those close to the couple to gather to witness the formal proposal. The prospective bride is provided with an excuse to appear at the selected location at a time after everyone else. When she arrives, she is greeted by the one hoping to be her spouse, who “pops the question” and presents her with a ring. When she accepts, the gathered group cheers and then all celebrate – most often with toasts, a festive meal, music and dancing. (Of course, proposal parties may also be for same-gender couples, so you can just change the nouns and pronouns accordingly.)
Although proposal parties are thought to be a new form of pre-wedding celebration, they actually are similar to one of the oldest forms of ceremonies. Jewish rituals have for centuries incorporated pre-wedding ceremonies at which the prospective bride agrees to marry a man, traditionally a man selected for her by her family, and the ritual includes similar celebratory components. Since the 12th century among Jews in Europe, the ceremony has been called Tena’im in Hebrew, which translates to Conditions. The couple, who often meet for the first time at the ceremony, formally agree to marry in the future. They sign an engagement contract stating the conditions for the forthcoming marriage, usually including a wedding date, that had been worked out by their families. Then the couple exchange articles of value – most often jewelry. The ceremony is finalized by the breaking of a ceramic plate dropped on a hard surface by both mothers of the couple.
The origins of the breaking of the plate are obscure. Some say the broken plate symbolizes that the engagement breaks the possibility of the couple marrying anyone else. Others say the breaking is a metaphor for making a bond between the couple which breaks the bond they had with their mothers. Yet another explanation is that the breaking of the plate foreshadows the breaking of a glass that will happen at the forthcoming wedding ceremony. Independent of the explanation, at the conclusion of the ceremony the couple has a legal status of being committed to each other – but definitely not yet married. Nowadays, among orthodox Jews this ceremony is scheduled to take place immediately before the marriage ceremony, thus truncating the “not yet married” period. Among Jews who follow more modern practices, Tena’im has given way to engagement parties or, as already described, proposal parties.
Traditional Jewish weddings, whether in Mexico, north of the border, or Europe, follow more or less the same format. Brides and their families often spend much time deciding on specific details of music, dress, decorations, and reception food and drink so that their occasion will be special. But thinking back over the dozens of ceremonies and celebrations we’ve attended, including our own almost 59 years ago, they follow a pattern established centuries ago.
In the weeks before the wedding, the bride and the groom, even in cases where they have been living together, separate and don’t see each other as they prepare for the event. They remain apart even during the day of the wedding until the groom, accompanied by the men and musicians, enters a room where the bride is seated and is waiting surrounded by women friends and family. The groom lifts the bridal veil off the face of his intended, and once sure that a substitution has not been made, as in the biblical substitution of Leah for Rachel, he lowers the veil and the men, accompanied by music, leave. In modern years, some couples have decided to forego this ceremony and choose to wait until they meet under the huppah, a small four-cornered tent that symbolizes the home they will build together.
Virtually all Jewish weddings take place under a huppah. In fact, the word huppah has come to mean the core of the marriage ceremony and is used in wedding invitations, for example, “Gathering at 5pm and huppah at 6pm.” For several decades, brides went wild demanding that their huppah be constructed from wild roses or other rare and expensive materials. Fortunately, most brides now have recovered their senses and select a traditional huppah consisting of a lovely cloth held aloft with four corner poles. To honor people in their lives, the families of the couple invite four people to hold the poles during the ceremony, giving them the best view of the proceedings.
Core to a Jewish marriage is the ketubah, a legal contract in which the rights of the bride are spelled out in great detail, including provisions to be made for her during the marriage and monies or properties she will receive if her husband predeceases her or if the marriage ends in divorce. This ancient form of a “pre-nup” protects the bride and is retained in her possession. Before the main ceremony, both the bride and groom sign the document, it is witnessed and signed by two friends of the families, and also signed by the officiating rabbi or other officiant authorized to perform marriages. In the past few decades, following an ancient practice, once the terms of the ketubah have been agreed on by both families, an artist is hired to literally draw up the ketubah, and after the marriage the framed ketubah is displayed like a piece of artwork on a wall of the couple’s home.
The procession at a Jewish wedding is indicative of the way Jewish practice has been shaped by the surrounding culture. By long-standing tradition, the parents of the groom first accompany him to the huppah and then the parents of the bride accompany her to the huppah. But this tradition has been modified to allow the grandparents, siblings, other family members and friends to participate in the wedding processional. And, as in many non-Jewish weddings, a Jewish bride commonly is walked down an aisle to the huppah accompanied by her father to the strains of “Here Comes the Bride.” However, unlike non-Jewish weddings, the father is not asked to “give her away.” Instead, traditionally the bride is led seven times in a circle around the waiting groom.
Under the huppah, two ceremonies take place – the sanctification, in which the ketubah is read, and blessings are recited over a cup of wine from which the couple both drink, and the rabbi blesses them as sanctified and dedicated solely to each other. Then the actual moment of the wedding, when the groom slips the ring on the middle finger of the left hand of his bride and recites in Hebrew, “Behold by this ring you are consecrated to me as my wife according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” In some modern ceremonies, the bride may also give the groom a ring, usually with an appropriate verse in Hebrew from the Bible, such as “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” Next, seven blessings are recited. In a recent interpretation, the blessings are for love, a loving home, playful humor, wisdom, health, creativity, and community. The ceremony is concluded by the groom stomping on and shattering a glass, and all assembled shouting “Mazel Tov.”
Following the ceremony, it is traditional for the bride and groom to be given 20 minutes or so to be absolutely alone, with two honored guests posted at the door of the room in which they are sequestered to ensure that no one disturbs them. After they emerge, they are commonly seated at a table just for the two of them and everyone is obliged to entertain them with singing and dancing. One of the dances that almost always takes place is the “hora,” an Israeli circle dance. And when the bride or groom is the youngest child and all their older siblings are married, the mother is lifted in a chair in the middle of the circle dance so all can congratulate her on accomplishing all mothers’ traditional dream – seeing all her children happily married.
We have watched over the decades as traditional Jewish engagement and wedding practices come and go or morph into new forms. With assimilation of Jews an ongoing trend and rates of intermarriage high, we have celebrated family Buddist/Jewish (BuJu) weddings, Hindu/Jewish (HinJu) weddings, weddings jointly officiated by Christian and Jewish clergy, and one wedding of a Jewish nephew and his Christian bride on a beach in Lanai where an enormous Hawaiian Kahuna priest tied the knot. Two of the most traditional Jewish weddings we celebrated were marriages of same-gender couples.
Our marriage had all the elements of a Jewish wedding: huppah, ketubah, sanctification, rings, seven blessings, and breaking of the glass, as did the wedding of our son and daughter-in-law and many family members here in Mexico and the US. However, we would be delighted but have no expectation of our grandchildren necessarily following the same traditions. Many couples of their generation have even eschewed marriage altogether, much less traditional weddings. But on the other hand, reportedly several couples of their ages have said they don’t want an engagement party made by their parents but rather a Jewish Tena’im proposal party. We will just have to wait and see whether we get to experience the continuation of these ancient traditions.