The veiling ceremony is held only for a bride's first marriage. When the two islands of activity for bride and groom are bridged by the procession from the groom's table to the bride's throne, the merging signals the beginning of the wedding celebration. The groom, the rabbi, the fathers and the whole entourage proceed to the bride (who is flanked by both mothers) for the veiling ceremony. The groom places the veil over the bride's face and recites the blessing given to Rebecca by her mother and brother before she left for her marriage to Isaac: Achotenu: at hayi le alfei revavah—"Our sister, be thou the mother of thou-sands of ten thousands" (Genesis 24:60). The rabbi, then the parents, extend their words of hope and prayer. In some families, it is customary at this time for the bride's father to place his hands over her head and offer her the priestly benediction. The groom and his party return to their places and the wedding begins.
Historically, there were variants to the basic ceremony. In some, the bride was veiled in the morning before the evening wedding. In others the groom was not to be present, and the rabbi ceremoniously veiled the bride. In most ceremonies, however, the absence of the groom was not permitted.
The source of the veiling is the Bible. There are two instances of a woman veiling herself in the presence of a man. The first, obviously, does not apply—Tamar veils herself as Judah approaches (Genesis 38:14). The purpose there was not symbolic, but to hide her identity from her father-in-law. The second is most obviously the origin of the bedeken—Rebecca veils herself as she is told that Isaac is approaching. "And she said to the servant, 'What man is this that walketh in the field to meet us?' And the servant said, 'It is my master.' And she took her veil and covered herself" (Gen. 24:64).
According to several rabbinic authorities, the veiling was not a mere social formality, but had the force of law as it was legally considered the chuppah, which is the concluding step of the marriage. Most authorities today hold that it is a beautiful traditional ceremony, but that it does not have the significance of chuppah. Nonetheless, its performance assures that all theories of chuppah are observed, to guarantee the absolute observance of the law of marriage, without exception.
There are a number of interpretations of the veil's symbolism, all of which reflect truths that are worthy of being dramatically enacted before the wedding service.
1. The veil is a symbol of the married woman. It expresses a dignity, which Isaiah (3:18) calls tiferet, and which was reserved for women of station. Ezekiel (16:20) speaks of "covering with silk" the woman he loves. Interestingly, Rebecca does not wear a veil while on the journey in the company of the servant, Eliezer, but instinctively dons it when sighting Isaac. This may account for the insistence of major authorities that the groom himself veil the bride, and that it should never be done without him—it is only his presence that makes her veil significant.
2. The veil is symbolic of her new unapproachability to others, not only sexually, but as hekdesh, a sanctified object in the temple. The sacred objects of the tabernacle were "veiled" before being taken up to be carried by the Levites. The betrothal ceremony is likened, in a legal sense, to those sanctified objects of the temple. This is the significance of the term kiddushin: the groom, in marriage, sets the bride aside as hekdesh. The analogy strikes deeper if we compare it to the face of Moses, which radiated light after he received the commandments. Moses placed masveh (a veil) over his face as though to imply separateness, withdrawal, almost an other-worldliness.
3. The symbol of the veil most often referred to is "modesty." Although the Bible makes no requirement of women wearing veils for modesty, it is inescapable in this context. It is a sign of tze'niut par excellence—the retiring, discreet, quiet presence. The diametric opposite is arrogance, best symbolized by azut panim (barefacedness). It is given a remarkable expression in the law. According to Ibn Yarhi, the veil demonstrates that this was not a "betrothal in the market place," whose grossness, even though it is within the law, was condemned by the Rabbis, and whose perpetrators were flogged by the court of Rav in the days of the Talmud. The symbolic modesty of the veil teaches an important lesson: that "the glory of the princess is the interior" of the person. No matter her beauty and her charm, her inner qualities of soul and character are more important. The veil covers the externals in order to direct the attention of the inner person.
4. The veil also conveys psychological significance. Netziv notes that the instinctive action of veiling at the sight of Isaac symbolized Rebecca's married life with him. There was none of the open husband-wife communication so characteristic of Abraham with Sarah or Jacob with Rachel. Her veil symbolized that she was a private person, vigorously self-confident and not easily compromised. It was G‑d's way of assuring that the patriarchal blessing would go to Jacob, despite Isaac's intent to confer it upon Esau. If she were less individualistic and self-assured, she might have been swayed by her husband. Although anthropologists conjecture that veiling indicates being possessed by someone else, here it implies self-possession. Her veil was the symbol of her capacity to be both a wife, sharing life goals and hopes with her husband, and a private person.