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What to Expect at a Chassidic Wedding

What to Expect at a Chassidic Wedding

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Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com
Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com

You’ve been invited to a chassidic wedding. Not sure what to expect? Let’s walk through the experience together. (Note that I will be spelling out some Hebrew words using the Ashkenazi pronunciation commonly used among chassidic Jews.)

What to Wear

For guys, besides for a suit and tie, make sure that you have a kippah to cover your head. If you think it may fall off, you can fasten it to your hair with bobby pins or clips.

For ladies, you want to make sure that your dress is consistent with the traditional Jewish values of tznius, modesty. Make sure your sleeves are long enough to cover your elbows, the dress is long enough to cover your knees, and your neckline covers your collarbone.

Lastly, if the wedding is in the winter, make sure to bring a good coat, since some of the ceremony may very well be outdoors. (More on that later.)

What to Bring

This is the same as any wedding: You can bring gifts or cash, or order something from their registry. It may be more practical to send in the gift with your reply card or drop it off at another time.

When to Come

If you are a close family member, you may be asked to come early for pictures. Otherwise, you can come for the kabbolas ponim (more on that later), just to dinner, or even just to dance. (If you’ve been invited to the dinner but plan on skipping it, please let your hosts know, so they do not set a place for you.)

What to Expect

If you’ve never been to a chassidic wedding before, here are some things that may strike you.

a. Men and the women celebrate separately. For almost the entire evening, the women will chat, eat, dance and celebrate with the bride, and the men will do so with the groom. So if you are arriving with a spouse, make sure to have a plan on how to meet up again when it’s time to go.

b. Don’t be fooled by the somber suits—celebrating with the bride and groom is a mitzvah that is fulfilled with gusto. So be prepared to sing, dance and have fun!

c. Yep, there are a lot of kids. Chassidim recognize that the purpose of marriage is to start a family, and families mean children. Kids are not only allowed to come to weddings, they are an integral part of the joy.

Photo: Flash90
Photo: Flash90

Here is a run-through of the basic procedure:

Reception (Kabbolas Ponim)

Two receptions are held simultaneously, often in two rooms, or in one room separated by a partition.

If you are female, make your way to the bride’s side. There you’ll see her perched on an ornate chair, probably surrounded by her family and friends. You can join the group, congratulate her—and just about everyone you meet—with Mazel tov,” and chat with the other ladies.

Over at the guys’ reception, you’ll probably find the groom sitting at the head of a large table. Exactly what happens here really can depend on the community.

In Chabad, some last-minute ritual paperwork is taken care of and read aloud, and then the groom recites a maamar, a chassidic discourse. He will typically cast his eyes downward or even close them as he says themaamar (by heart) in a singsong voice. The maamar is traditionally said in Yiddish, but some people will do so in Hebrew or English. Even if you understand the language of delivery, do not be dismayed if you do not fully grasp the subject being given over. It’s esoteric stuff that presupposes a lot of prior knowledge.

The discourse is preceded by a slow, moving niggun (melody), and followed by a fast-paced, joyous one.

In many communities, there will be some short speeches interspersed with joyous singing.

Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com
Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com

On both sides, there will probably be food out. Feel free to enjoy, but remember that there is a whole wedding feast on the horizon, so save room.

Men’s Side: Breaking of the Plate

Then the mothers of the bride and groom will head over to the men’s side (the other women do not go with them). Together, they will hold a plate and smash it, symbolizing the finality of the bond between their two families. It sometimes takes them a few tries. When the plate finally breaks, people will respond with Mazel tov!”

Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com
Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com

Women’s Side: Covering the Bride (Badekenish)

Then the groom and his entourage will walk over to the ladies’ side. In Chabad this is a somber moment, and the march is accompanied by a deeply pensive melody. In other communities this is a joyous time, and friends of the groom will sing, dance and clap their way over.

Facing his bride—whom he has not seen in at least a week—he will take a veil and place it over her face, showing that he cares more for her inner beauty than her pretty face. This is one of those moments where the hankies come out.

Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com
Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com

Under the Heavens: Chuppah

The actual wedding ceremony is held with just a canopy, called a chuppah, between the couple and the open sky. Often, the entire wedding party will move outdoors. Sometimes halls have special skylights, allowing the bride and groom to be “outdoors” and everyone else to stay inside, dry and warm (or cool in the summer). Just follow the crowd, and you’ll know where to go.

There are normally chairs set up, so feel free to grab a spot. Chances are that men and women will be sitting separately. Here are the basic elements of this ceremony (emceed often in Yiddish, but occasionally in English):

Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com
Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com
  • First the groom is walked to the chuppah. Then the bride is walked to the chuppah. They are accompanied by their parents (and grandparents). The bride, parents and grandparents will then circle the groom seven times. All the while, music is being played and sung.
  • The first part of the ceremony entails the groom placing a ring on the finger of his bride. A blessing is then said over a cup of wine, and both the bride and groom take a sip.
  • Photo: Flash90
    Photo: Flash90
  • Someone will then read the kesubah, the marriage contract. It is an Aramaic text that delineates the legal obligations of a husband to his wife.
  • A succession of men will then be called up to read seven blessings, again over a cup of wine, which the bride and groom will both sip.
  • The groom stomps on a glass, and cries of “Mazel tov” will ring out from the attendees. If you are a close friend or relative, you can rush over to hug and kiss your loved ones (remember, outside of immediate family, men touch only men, and women touch only women).
Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com
Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com

The Wedding Feast

Back in the wedding hall, the guests will find their way to tables (again in their respective areas). As with other Jewish festive meals, the meal begins with bread. Before eating bread, there is a specific way to wash your hands and a blessing to say. You can get detailed instructions on this hand-washing here.

If you’re not sure what to do, I’m sure someone will be happy to show you the ropes (and the sinks).

Now, remember that the bride and groom haven’t seen each other all week? That means that they have not had time to take pictures together, so they and their close family will be out snapping pictures while everyone else is settling down and tucking in.

Dancing

When you hear the music picking up and see people begin making their way to the dance floor, you’ll know what to expect next. Accompanied by a lively dance tune, the bride and groom will rush into their respective sides of the room, as everyone dances about them with lively abandon.

It is common for the groom and some of his male relatives to be hoisted onto the shoulders of some of the dancers, or lifted on a chair or table, while everyone dances around in concentric circles. A similar scene takes place on the ladies’ side (sans the shoulder-hoisting).

Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com
Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com

Sometimes dancers will clasp hands, and other times they may just step in a loose circle with their hands on their neighbors’ shoulders. Some dances have a fancy step or two (especially on the ladies’ side), and others are simple. The thing to remember is that you cannot really mess up, so don’t be self-conscious and go join in the fun.

Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com
Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com

You can expect people to perform silly routines on the dance floor—somersaulting, juggling, and even wearing burning hats or other costumes (called shtick)—all part of the effort to bring joy to the bride and groom.

Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com
Photo: Chaim Perl Photography/Chaimperl.com

Typically there is a first dance, followed by the main course; a second dance, followed by dessert; and then the dancing pretty much continues freestyle.

Often there will be liquor served (perhaps more on the men’s side). You do not need to drink, and no one is expected to drink excessively. If you wish to drink, make sure to toast l’chaim and mazel tov to your hosts.

Sheva Berachos

After dessert has been served, it’s time to bentch, a Yiddish term that refers to the Grace After Meals. Typically there will be bentchers, with the text of the bentching, scattered on the tables (you can take one or two home with you). Sometimes they will have English translations. The person leading the bentching will be holding a cup of wine.

The bentching will take around five minutes. Afterward, the sheva berachos (seven blessings) will be said. Like under the chuppah, six people will be called up, each one to say another blessing while clasping a second cup of wine. At the conclusion the two cups will be mixed, and the bride and groom will drink.

This pretty much concludes the wedding, with dancing continuing as long as the dancers still have steam.

But There May Be More

If you plan on attending a Chabad or a non-chassidic wedding, you can stop reading now. However, in some chassidic communities, there is an interesting custom known as a mitzvah tantz, whereby various family members or other respected individuals are called up to dance “with” the bride: they dance grasping the end of a cord that the bride is holding at the other end. The groom (and possibly the father of the bride) is the only one who dances with the bride herself.

At this point the partition is often moved away, and men and women both watch the proceedings.

Photo: Flash90
Photo: Flash90

Often the mitzvah tantz is emceed by a badchan, a jester, who uses humor and rhymes to introduce the various honorees.

While the various honorees are dancing, the other guys often dance around the periphery.

Note: This is considered an intimate event, and only close family and very dear friends are expected to stay.

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
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Anonymous July 29, 2015

I do not agree with covering the face. sefardi women don't do it. to me it means that the woman doesn't see the most important part of the wedding the man she is married to. like she doesn't know what she is doing. and of course many women still do but that is the message that comes out. and she is modern her face is uncovered there are pictures of her dancing just the man who marries her puts the ring on her in front of the witnesses she doesn't see and know herself. women should know what they are doing in every aspect. Reply

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